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Court of Appeals Holds That Parents Accused of Child Neglect for Failure to Seek Medical Treatment May Assert Statutory Religious Defense

Posted on Thursday, June 7, 2018

In In re Piland Minors (Docket No. 340754), the mother gave birth to the couple’s third child on February 6, 2017.  The couple opted for a home birth, with the assistance of a midwife.  The day after the baby was born, the midwife told the parents that the baby was suffering from jaundice.  The parents did not take the baby to the doctor, electing to pray for the baby’s good health instead.  Three days after she was born, the baby died.  The doctor who performed the autopsy confirmed that jaundice is a very treatable condition, and the baby likely would have survived had she received medical treatment.

The parents believe that any medical condition which cannot be treated by simple first aid should be “left in the hands of God.”  The Department of Health and Human Services filed a petition for the termination of the parents’ rights to their two older children, fearing that the parents would fail to seek medical attention when necessary for these children as well.  The parents also stated that their religion required them to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline and that they would not comply with the Trial Court’s order requiring them to refrain from using physical discipline on their children.

The case was schedule to proceed to an adjudication trial, where the jury would determine if there were grounds under MCL 712A.2(b)(1) for the Trial Court to assume jurisdiction over the parents’ two remaining children based on the parents’ failure to provide medical care to the baby.  Prior to the trial, the parents’ trial counsel requested that the Trial Court instruct the jury on MCL 722.634, which states that parents who are legitimately practicing their religious beliefs shall not be considered negligent parents if they fail to provide medical treatment for their children.  The Trial Court, however, found that the statute’s use of the word “negligent” meant that MCL 722.634 only applies in tort cases, and not child neglect cases.  Thus, the Trial Court refused to include MCL 722.634 as part of the jury instructions.  

The parents’ trial counsel filed an interlocutory appeal, arguing that the Trial Court erred in finding that MCL 722.634 did not apply to child protection proceedings.  The Court of Appeals ultimately agreed with the parents.  It reasoned that MCL 722.634 is a provision of Michigan’s Child Protection Law, the purpose of which is to protect children from abuse and neglect.  The Legislature’s choice to include MCL 722.634 as part of Child Protection Law clearly signaled that it intended parents accused of neglecting their children to have the benefit of asserting the religious defense established in MCL 722.634.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals ordered that the Trial Court must instruct the jury on the language of MCL 722.634 during the adjudication trial.

Judge O’Brien concurred with the majority’s holding that MCL 722.634 applies in the context of Child Protection Law.  However, she disagreed with the majority’s decision to order the trial court to instruct the jury on MCL 722.634 in this case.  She reasoned that MCL 712A.2(b)(1) allows a court to take jurisdiction over a child if the parent either neglects or refuses to provide necessary medical care for the child.  Because the plain language of MCL 722.634 uses the phrase “negligent parent,” Judge O’Brien believes that the Legislature only intended MCL 722.634 to provide a defense in situations where the parents neglected to seek medical treatment—not situations where the parents refused to seek medical treatment.  Therefore, she believed that the Trial Court should have had the discretion to decide whether MCL 722.634 applies to the facts of this case, rather than unequivocally ordering the Trial Court to instruct the jury on MCL 722.634.

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