Pennsylvania ChildLine investigators may attempt to construe your failure or refusal to vaccinate your children as another factor in substantiating abuse and neglect charges. Your name could end up in the state's ChildLine abuse and neglect registry, affecting your parental, employment, and other rights. Know where the state may draw the line over your parental and religious rights. And retain the premier Criminal Defense Team at the Lento Law Firm the moment you learn of a ChildLine investigation against you. Call 888.535.3686 or chat with us.
Child vaccinations have long been an important question that parents have faced, from the moment of their child's birth forward through emancipation. But if you hesitate to vaccinate your child, know that you may be going against the strong recommendations of both federal and state health authorities. And ChildLine investigators considering whether to pursue child abuse and neglect charges against you may be taking those federal and state recommendations into account. In other words, prepare for a stiff fight in any such ChildLine investigation.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control recommends nearly a dozen different vaccines in a child's first year and a half. Those vaccines include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rotavirus, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, haemophilus influenzae, pneumococcal conjugate, poliovirus, COVID-19, influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella. Nearly half of those federally recommended vaccines come within the newborn infant's first two months with the rest of the next year plus.
Pennsylvania's Department of Health takes the same stance of strongly recommending the vaccination of all children, declaring as its public policy:
All children should be immunized at regular health care visits, beginning at birth. Immunizations are very important in keeping children healthy. The recommended childhood and adolescent schedule urges vaccinations starting at birth through 24 months of age, with boosters and catch-up vaccines continuing through the teenage years and into adulthood. By immunizing, children are protected against the potentially devastating effects of vaccine-preventable diseases. Immunization is the most cost-effective preventive health measure.
Pennsylvania School Attendance Vaccination Mandates
The decision whether to vaccinate your child isn't entirely your decision. Pennsylvania, like other states, makes it clear that parents don't always get to choose whether to have their child or children vaccinated, at least if they want their child to attend school. Pennsylvania, like other states, mandates vaccinations before children can attend any public, private, or parochial school.
Relying on Pennsylvania Code Sections 23.81 et seq., Pennsylvania's Department of Health declares, "Vaccinations are required for children to attend school in Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania Code Section 23.83 requires the school principal or other person in charge of any public or private school to ensure that the parent or guardian of any child attending the school has produced a certificate proving the child's vaccination against these diseases:
- diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, including four or more properly spaced doses with the final dose administered at or after age four;
- poliomyelitis, including four properly spaced doses, with the final dose administered at or after age four;
- measles, mumps, and rubella with either two properly spaced doses of live attenuated vaccine;
- hepatitis B, with three properly spaced doses; and
- varicella (chickenpox).
School-based childcare, prekindergarten, and early childhood special education have their own vaccination requirements in Pennsylvania Code Section 27.77. Pennsylvania Code Section 23.83 sets forth additional vaccination requirements for students entering seventh grade for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, and other requirements for twelfth graders. The Pennsylvania legislature added reporting and enforcement measures to these statutes, proving how seriously the state takes protecting children against these diseases. Again, if you resist state-mandated vaccines, even on the best of grounds and intentions, you'll be working against the weight of this public authority.
The pandemic certainly brought the question of vaccines to the fore. But vaccines go way back. And state officials investigating a ChildLine complaint relating to your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child may be thinking not of your child's special needs but instead of that long vaccination history. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia publishes a history of vaccines crediting a doctor with the first successful vaccine in the late 1700s. Louis Pasteur's germ theory advanced vaccination investigations. The spectacular success of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine and, more recently, Stanley Plotkins' rubella vaccine advanced vaccination use. Vaccinations have proliferated since then, as the above federal recommendations and state school attendance mandates indicate.
ChildLine officials investigating your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child will be relying on the science of vaccination to bolster their suspicions of your child's abuse or neglect. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia publishes a summary of the science of vaccination. That summary briefly describes how vaccines trigger a complex of reactions within the child's body, preparing antibodies to fight the feared disease. The summary also describes how drug manufacturers undertake to make vaccines safely. ChildLine investigators may not take kindly to a parent's claim of concern over the trustworthiness and reliability of vaccine science.
Parents who resist vaccinating their children may not have any problem trusting the science as much as trusting the ones who claim to represent the science. Unfortunately, medical experimentation on the unsuspecting has been a regrettable part not just of world history but also of U.S. history. And it's not just the notorious Tuskegee Institute syphilis study on unsuspecting minority servicemen, for which the U.S. government eventually apologized and paid out millions in damages. U.S. General Accounting Office testimony reveals a range of other Cold War-era government medical and scientific testing on unsuspecting citizens, some of whom died or suffered injuries. But again, ChildLine investigators won't be equating those illegal and unethical actions with current government vaccine recommendations and mandates.
Pandemic Child Vaccine Mandates
The vaccination question, of course, became acute during the pandemic, and not just for adults facing the loss of employment, loss of access to medical care, and loss of travel and other freedoms for declining COVID-19 vaccination. Children, too, faced COVID-19 mandates. Indeed, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, Washington, D.C., continues to hold in place a mandate that children age five and older have the COVID-19 vaccine to attend school. Mandating child COVID-19 vaccination, though, remains controversial. The same National Academy for State Health Policy report indicates that no fewer than twenty-one states ban child COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Pennsylvania's legislature hasn't taken sides in that dispute. According to the National Academy, Pennsylvania is among the other twenty-nine states that neither require children to have the COVID-19 vaccination to attend school nor prohibit schools from requiring children to have the COVID-19 vaccination. Pennsylvania's legislature could, for instance, have simply added COVID-19 to Pennsylvania Code Section 23.83's list of other diseases for which students attending a Pennsylvania school must accept vaccination. Pennsylvania legislators advocated on both sides of the COVID-19 vaccination issue, but the legislature took no action. Instead, Pennsylvania's Department of Health offers schools guidance on COVID-19 policies. You thus shouldn't face ChildLine investigation solely for declining to vaccinate your child against COVID-19, although that is not to say what any individual investigator may or may not do.
Parental Rights Against Child Vaccination
You do have parental rights to advocate on your child's behalf, not just against recommended vaccinations but even against vaccinations mandated for school attendance. In a summary of vaccination ethical issues, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia admits that "in an effort to protect the greatest number of people, public health vaccine regulations may infringe upon individual autonomy and liberty." That infringement isn't simply about hurting someone's feelings. Vaccination may save many but kill or injure some. Allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine or other vaccines can rarely include life-threatening anaphylaxis, particularly for individuals prone to such reactions. Thus, the College of Physicians summary admits that all fifty states "allow vaccination exemptions for medical contraindications," when, in other words, a vaccine might be more unsafe than safe for the individual.
Pennsylvania's medical contraindication exemption is in Pennsylvania Code Section 23.84(a). The exemption states simply, "Children need not be immunized if a physician or the physician's designee provides a written statement that immunization may be detrimental to the health of the child." You cannot, in other words, claim the exemption on your own. You must find a physician who agrees with your assessment that the vaccination may be detrimental to your child's health. The same code section continues, "When the physician determines that immunization is no longer detrimental to the health of the child, the child shall be immunized according to this subchapter." Pennsylvania's code thus grants you certain parental rights relating to your child's vaccination, but those rights depend on your ability to find a supporting physician.
Religious Rights Against Child Vaccination
You also have religious rights to advocate on your child's behalf against recommended or even mandated vaccinations. In its summary on vaccination ethical issues, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia acknowledges that forty-eight of the fifty states "allow religious exemptions" to vaccine mandates. A medical article in the National Library of Medicine attempts to summarize religious objections to vaccination. The strongest objections may have to do with the destruction of embryonic human life in developing or producing the vaccine. But while religion may, in other instances, strongly support modern medicine, including vaccines, some religious adherents raise other vaccine objections.
Pennsylvania is among those forty-eight states recognizing a parent's religious right to resist vaccination of the parent's child or children. Pennsylvania Code Section 23.84(b) states simply, "Children need not be immunized if the parent, guardian, or emancipated child objects in writing to the immunization on religious grounds…." State officials considering a parent's written objection to the child's vaccination will likely assess whether the parent sincerely holds the claimed religious belief. As the above medical article indicates, some evidence exists that some parents may abuse a religious rights claim when simply looking for an excuse not to go to the trouble or expense of child vaccination. Thus, if you hold religious objections to your child's vaccination, prepare to articulate and document those objections to the ChildLine investigator's satisfaction.
Other Moral or Ethical Objections to Vaccination
You not only have parental rights and religious rights to refuse your child's vaccination. You also may do so out of other moral or ethical objections. In its summary on vaccination ethical issues, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia further acknowledges that twenty states "allow exemptions for philosophical reasons." Pennsylvania is among those twenty states. Pennsylvania Code Section 23.84(b) states simply, "Children need not be immunized if the parent, guardian, or emancipated child objects in writing to the immunization" "on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief." Your objection doesn't have to be religious if it represents a religious-like moral or ethical conviction.
Just as with religious claims, though, you had better be prepared to articulate your moral or ethical objections to any ChildLine investigator holding against you your refusal to vaccinate your child. Like similar religious claims, moral or ethical convictions against vaccination may take the shape of objections to the destruction of embryonic human life to develop or produce the vaccine. Killing one to potentially save another may not be moral or ethical. Indeed, the National Library of Medicine's medical article cited above acknowledges that Buddhists may object to vaccines developed by the taking of any life, even non-human animal life. Whether religious or philosophical, though, prepare to articulate your objections in the course of any ChildLine investigation.
ChildLine's Abuse Definition and Vaccination
You thus see above the lay of the land on child vaccinations and parental and religious rights. How, though, does that landscape relate specifically to Pennsylvania's ChildLine registry system? Can your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child constitute child abuse and neglect under ChildLine's laws, rules, and regulations? The answer depends on interpreting and applying the statutory definition of child abuse.
Pennsylvania's ChildLine statute Section 6303 defines child abuse according to the suspect's mental state, the form of abuse, and exclusions. For you to have committed child abuse, the ChildLine investigator must find that you (1) had the required mental state relating to your actions or omissions and (2) caused the child one or more of the listed abuse harms, and (3) that your actions or omissions don't fall within an exclusion. Consider each of these three required elements separately for a child abuse finding, as they could relate to your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child.
ChildLine's Required Mental State Relating to Vaccination
Section 6303(b.1) begins with the suspect's required mental state. Under Section 6303(b.1), you must have "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" done at least one of the long list of abusive actions. The ChildLine statute references different definitions for each of those three alternative states of mind, as follows:
- Another Pennsylvania statute Section 302 defines intentionally as the suspect's "conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result" or being aware "of the existence of such circumstances" or "believ[ing] or hop[ing] that they exist." You would thus have had to have desired your child's harm, been aware of that harm, or believed or hoped that it would come about. No right-minded parent would refuse to vaccinate a child in the hope the child catches and suffers from the disease. Vaccine objections just don't work that way. It is thus highly unlikely that your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child would meet this definition of intending your child's harm;
- The same Pennsylvania statute Section 302 defines knowingly as being "aware that his conduct is of that nature or that such circumstances exist" or being "aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result." You would thus have had to have known that your child was suffering harm or have been practically certain of that harm. Again, no right-minded parent refused a child's vaccine while practically certain that the child would contract the disease and suffer its harm. It is thus once again highly unlikely that your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child would meet this definition of knowing of your child's harm; or
- The same Pennsylvania statute Section 302 defines recklessly as "consciously disregarding] a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that the child will suffer the abuse. Section 302 adds that "the risk must be of such a nature and degree that … its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation." Unlike intentional or knowing harm, your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child could, in some circumstances, arguably fall within this reckless form of harm, very much depending on those circumstances. And that's because the statutory definition of reckless refers to what other reasonable people would do in your situation.
ChildLine's Required Form of Abuse Injury Relating to Vaccination
You can see some risk of an abuse finding having to do with your allegedly reckless failure or refusal to vaccinate your child. But your mental state is only the first part of ChildLine's abuse definition. Your mental state, reckless or not, won't matter if your child did not suffer a qualifying risk, harm, or injury. To constitute abuse, your child must have suffered one of the ChildLine statute's list of qualifying injuries. While that list is long, Section 6303(b.1) names only the following items arguably relating to your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child:
- Causing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act. If, for instance, your child suffered the disease against which you failed or refused to vaccinate, and your child suffered bodily injury from that disease, then the ChildLine investigator could potentially use that circumstance against you. The risk here, though, is that your child catches the actual disease, not just faces exposure to it due to your decision not to vaccinate;
- Creating a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act. If, for instance, your child either caught the disease against which you refused to vaccinate and thus faced a reasonable likelihood that the disease would injure your child, or your child faced exposure great enough to create a reasonable likelihood of catching the disease and suffering injury, then the ChildLine investigator could potentially use that circumstance against you. This risk may be your greatest risk when defending a ChildLine investigation related to your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child; or
- Causing the death of the child through any act or failure to act. If, for instance, your child caught the disease against which you failed or refused to vaccinate and died from that disease, then the ChildLine investigator could potentially use that circumstance against you. Of course, in that instance, your loss of your child would be far greater loss than any concern you would have over a resulting ChildLine investigation, although such an investigation could put your custody of your other children at risk.
ChildLine's Potential Exclusions Relating to Vaccination
You can see from the above that your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child could potentially carry some risk of a ChildLine investigator substantiating abuse allegations against you. But the ChildLine investigator should also evaluate whether your conduct falls within a statutory exclusion. If your conduct falls within a statutory exclusion, you have not abused your child, even if the circumstances meet the above definitions. While Section 6304 lists several ChildLine abuse exclusions, only these two exclusions could potentially protect you against a charge that your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child was child abuse:
- Section 6304(a) 's first exclusion is if your child's injuries "result solely from environmental factors, such as inadequate housing, furnishings, income, clothing and medical care," that "are beyond the control of the parent or person responsible for the child's welfare with whom the child resides." If, for instance, you had no access to vaccination services, then you should not face an abuse finding;
- Section 6304(b) 's next exclusion is if you failed to provide your child with the recommended or mandatory vaccination "because of sincerely held religious beliefs" as long as those beliefs "are consistent with those of a bona fide religion." You must also reside with the child to qualify for religious belief exclusion and be the child's parent or related within the third degree of consanguinity. ChildLine thus expressly incorporates the religious rights provision found in the mandated school vaccinations statute. Section 6304(b) requires the county to closely monitor your child's health and "seek court-ordered medical intervention when the lack of medical or surgical care threatens the child's life or long-term health." The county might seek such an order if disease exposure and risk threatened your child.
Pennsylvania's ChildLine Procedures and Vaccination
If you fail or refuse to vaccinate your child you could face more scrutiny, especially if your child contracts the disease against which you declined vaccination and suffers injury. That risk may or may not be substantial, depending on your state of mind and your child's exposure and other circumstances. But you can also see that you may have parental rights or a religious exemption to defend against a ChildLine investigation. Yet the question remains just how a ChildLine investigator may discover your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child.
Family Member and Acquaintance Complaints Relating to Vaccination
Anyone may make a complaint to ChildLine's toll-free hotline, resulting in an investigation against you. If, for instance, you have a dispute over vaccination with your child's other parent in a separation or divorce, that other parent could lodge such a complaint. So, too, might other family members, such as your disaffected parents or parents-in-law, nosy neighbors, or childcare or school parents, who learn of your child's unvaccinated status. The risks of such complaints increase in the event of other circumstances, like your child's poor physical or mental condition, poor dress or demeanor, poor housing, or lack of food, clothing, medical care, or transportation, suggesting abuse risks.
Mandatory Reporter Complaints Relating to Vaccination
Pennsylvania law also mandates that certain persons report suspected child abuse. Section 6311 includes childcare workers, healthcare professionals including doctors and nurses, law enforcement officers, psychologists, religious leaders, teachers, and other school employees, and social workers among mandatory reporters. Typically, mandatory reporters would make a written ChildLine complaint through the state's Child Welfare Portal when observing cuts, bruises, or other injuries on your child's body or seeing you take some action such as striking the child in the face or using more than reasonable precautionary restraint or disciplinary force. But mandated reporters, especially physicians, may also know about your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child. It is not outside the realm of possibility that your child's pediatrician or other other medical care provider might make such a complaint.
ChildLine Investigations Relating to Vaccination Issues
ChildLine investigations involve a county-level ChildLine caseworker visiting the child's home. The caseworker may attempt to interview you, including asking you questions about your child's vaccination. The caseworker may also interview school, medical, and law enforcement personnel and obtain medical and school records. The caseworker will generally be able to confirm or contradict through other sources, including pediatrician records and school immunization certificates, whatever information you share with the caseworker about your child's vaccination.
ChildLine Determinations Relating to Vaccination Issues
Caseworkers typically conclude investigations within thirty days with a written conclusion that the abuse allegations are founded, indicated, or unfounded. If, for instance, the caseworker determined that your child contracted and suffered injury from a disease the vaccination against which you refused, where you knew your child had a reasonable likelihood of contracting the disease and suffering injury, then your name could end up in the ChildLine Registry as an abuser. Founded conclusions go into the state's ChildLine Registry, where law enforcement, court officials, and others interested in child welfare may learn of the status. Indicated conclusions may also enter the Registry, similarly affecting your rights and interests.
Defending a Vaccination Abuse Investigation
Retain the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team the moment you learn of a ChildLine investigation against you relating to your failure or refusal to vaccinate your child. Just because you face a ChildLine investigation does not mean that you have done anything wrong. For your best outcome in a ChildLine proceeding, you must instead trust that your concerted action and the diligent representation of the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team can make a difference in your outcome. You may well have a valid defense to a ChildLine abuse allegation, even if you did not vaccinate your child. But you may not be able to assert and prove those defenses during the investigation without a skilled and experienced Lento Law Firm defense. Don't wait for an adverse finding to retain counsel.
Failure to Vaccinate Was Not the Cause of Disease or Injury
For instance, you may be able to show that your child did not suffer the disease at all so that your failure to vaccinate did not injure your child or even place your child at risk of injury. You may alternatively be able to show that your child did not suffer bodily injury from the disease. You may also be able to show that your child would have suffered the disease even if you had vaccinated your child, as, for instance, many taking the COVID-19 vaccine suffered and even died from the disease despite vaccination. You may alternatively be able to show that you didn't know that your child lacked a recommended or mandatory vaccination and that your lack of knowledge wasn't reckless.
Parental Rights as a Defense to Vaccination Abuse Charges
You may also be able to show that you properly chose not to have your child vaccinated, within your parental rights and responsibilities, because of your child's individual health circumstances. Recall that Pennsylvania Code Section 23.84(a) may provide you with an exemption for vaccinating your child, stating, "Children need not be immunized if a physician or the physician's designee provides a written statement that immunization may be detrimental to the health of the child." You may thus be able to obtain and provide that physician's statement in the course of the ChildLine Investigation. Your child's pediatrician is not the sole arbiter of your child's health decisions. The statute does not restrict you to your child's pediatrician. Physicians can take widely varying views on vaccinations, depending on the vaccine and the child.
Religious Rights as a Defense to Vaccination Abuse Charges
Recall, too, that Pennsylvania Code Section 23.84(b) grants you an exemption from vaccinating your child due to religious or strong moral or ethical objections. You may be able to articulate to the ChildLine investigator's satisfaction that you held sincere religious beliefs or strong moral and ethical objections when deciding not to vaccinate your child. Articulating those grounds can be difficult. Be sure to retain and rely on the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team.
Appealing a Vaccination Abuse Finding
You may already have suffered a ChildLine abuse finding, with your name in the ChildLine Registry, before you retained defense representation or without having retained the Lento Law Firm's premier Criminal Defense Team. If you act timely, you have the right to appeal a ChildLine abuse finding. Two statutes authorize ChildLine appeals. Section 3490.106a gives you forty-five days from the notice letter's date within which to take an administrative appeal of the decision against you. Section 6341 gives you ninety days from the notice letter's date to take an appeal. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Bureau of Hearings and Appeals reviews appeals to ensure their timeliness. If you take a timely appeal, the Bureau will grant you a full evidentiary hearing in which to challenge the finding against you.
Appeal Hearings Involving Vaccination Charges
An effective appeal hearing generally requires more than your willingness to stand before the administrative law judge to tell your side of the story. Your appeal will generally benefit from your ability to produce other witnesses together with supporting documentation while making a coherent appeal presentation and argument. That presentation would be especially necessary when you must admit that you did not vaccinate your child as federal and state health officials recommended. You may have to show one of the above defenses, including articulating your parental rights, religious beliefs, or strong moral or ethical objections.
Direct and cross-examination of witnesses is generally helpful or even necessary for an effective appeal hearing. If, for instance, the investigator attempts to testify to the risks of certain diseases in the presence or absence of certain vaccines, that medical testimony may be well beyond the investigator's expertise as a social worker. If, for another example, a physician testifies that your decision not to vaccinate your child presented unreasonable risks to your child's health, as Section 23.84(a) exempts children from the school attendance immunization mandates, then you may need to call another physician to establish that your child had a condition that made vaccination an unreasonable risk.
If, on the other hand, you assert a religious conviction to exempt your child from abuse findings, as Section 6304(b) of the ChildLine statute expressly provides, then you may benefit from calling a religious leader to bolster your testimony regarding the nature and application of recognized religious doctrine, and your sincere belief in that doctrine exhibited by religious devotion and attendance. No matter your defense at the appeal hearing, you are likely to need to present testimonial and documentary evidence to overcome the state's own evidence based on the acknowledged failure to vaccinate. Appeals are not for the faint of heart. But appeals provide a substantial opportunity to make your defense before an independent decision maker.
Premier ChildLine Defense Team Available
You can do no better than to retain the Lento Law Firm's premier Criminal Defense Team to assist you with your ChildLine defense from the investigation forward. Don't delay. Call 888.535.3686 or chat with us the moment you learn that you are under investigation. Our attorneys can guide you step by step through the ChildLine investigation process, helping you to identify, gather, and present the best evidence available to you to reduce the likelihood of a ChildLine abuse finding and Registry entry.
Don't despair, though, if you have already suffered a ChildLine abuse finding and Registry entry. Pennsylvania's ChildLine laws and procedures grant you an appeal for that very reason, that every finding as serious as a finding of child abuse deserves a review by an independent decision maker. ChildLine caseworkers can be too close to the evidence and too invested in their own preliminary suppositions, conjectures, and conclusions to make a discerning decision. They may not have weighed the evidence properly, or they may not have reviewed the evidence that you had available to you. Retain us for your ChildLine appeal the moment you receive the notification letter indicating that your name is in the ChildLine Registry as a child abuser.
Don't ignore the potentially devastating consequences of a ChildLine abuse finding and registration. You could lose custody of the child whom you allegedly abused and your other children. If you are married or in a relationship, you could lose that marriage or relationship. You could also lose your job and career if your work brings you into contact with children. You could lose your job and career even if your work doesn't bring you into contact with children because of your employer's other concerns and interests in your reputation. You could also lose your educational opportunities. Consider, too, the many social consequences you could face when people learn that the state considers you a child abuser. Don't underestimate your stakes in a ChildLine matter. Call 888.535.3686 or chat with us now. You can have the Lento Law Firm's Criminal Defense Team in your corner.