State may not second-guess parents' medical judgment

Favorable ruling in family rights case

Washington, DC — Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued a 62 page ruling finding that city and state officials in Boise, Idaho violated the constitutional rights of Eric and Corissa Mueller when they assumed custody of their 5 week-old daughter in 2002 in order to forcibly administer a spinal tap.

Winmill’s ruling was in response to various motions for summary judgment filed by the parties prior to trial. Winmill ruled that the Muellers already had prevailed on several of their claims as a matter of law. Rulings on other claims will depend upon the jury’s determination of fact after a trial.

Winmill ruled that the state may not compel medical treatment except in clear cases where the risks of foregoing treatment are substantially greater than the risks of undergoing treatment. According to Winmill, “A difficult choice — a choice that poses risks either way — should never trigger intervention by the state. With no safe alternative, the State…loses all claim to make decisions for the child.”

A “choice that poses risks either way” was exactly what confronted Boise parents Eric and Corissa Mueller in 2002 when they took five week-old Taige to the St. Luke’s Emergency Room because she had a slightly elevated temperature. Although an ER physician wanted to immediately perform a spinal tap on the infant, Mrs. Mueller knew that the risk of having meningitis was low and that the spinal tap posed its own risks of infection, severe headaches and paralysis. So she decided to wait to have the spinal tap performed until other, less invasive tests were performed. Those tests did not indicate the presence of a serious disease.

Winmill ruled that the state cannot simply take custody of the child whenever a physician insists on treatment no matter how slight the risk. Instead, police officers must “independently assess” the risks of treatment compared with non-treatment. In this case, he noted that the police made little or no effort to consider the risks of a spinal tap or compare them with the risk that Taige had a serious bacterial infection, such as meningitis.

Winmill also ruled that, time permitting, police must seek authorization from a judge, a requirement they did not observe in this case and which, Winmill noted Boise officials routinely ignore.

Winmill’s ruling also re-affirmed the rights of fathers to be kept informed of all aspects of state custody proceedings. He said the state must provide both parents with notice both before and after it assumes custody of a minor child. In this case, he said, police unreasonably failed to contact Eric Mueller, who was available at all times by phone.

Winmill reserved several key questions for trial. Among them, he said was the question whether the Boise police and state child protection officials reasonably believed Taige was in “imminent danger” based on the physician’s statements that night. Winmill left for the jury the question of whether the attending physician may have exaggerated the risks to the Mueller’s daughter in order to trigger state intervention.

CIR President Terence Pell commented, “Judge Winmill’s ruling is an important step forward. It makes clear that the state may compel medical treatment only if parents are behaving unreasonably and not merely because officials disagree about their judgment.”

He added, “this decision leaves no doubt that Idaho and Boise procedures are seriously flawed and will have to be corrected. Judge Winmill’s decision reaffirms the right of all parents — including fathers — to be given prompt notice whenever the state considers depriving them of custody of their children.”

Pell concluded, “We look forward to trial where a jury can finally decide whether the slight risk of meningitis in a case such as this warranted a physician, child protection officials and three police officers to physically restrain a mother in order to perform a painful procedure on her 5 week-old infant which she knew to be risky and probably not necessary.”