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In re Piland

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 15, 2018

In re PILAND, Minors.

          Ingham Circuit Court Family Division LC No. 17-000591-NA

          Before: Shapiro, P.J., and M. J. Kelly and O'Brien, JJ.

          SHAPIRO, P.J.

         In this interlocutory appeal[1]respondents assert that the trial court erred by denying their motion for a proposed jury instruction based on MCL 722.634 in the adjudicative phase of a child protection proceeding. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the trial court's decision excluding the jury instruction and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. FACTS

         On February 6, 2017, respondent mother gave birth to the couple's third child, AP. AP was born at home with the assistance of a midwife, Sandra McCurdy. The day after AP's birth, McCurdy visited respondent's home and expressed concern to respondent mother that AP was suffering from jaundice, a condition common to newborns which, while potentially life-threatening, readily responds to treatment. McCurdy suggested that respondents take AP to the doctor but they did not do so. With respondents' permission, McCurdy contacted a doctor regarding AP's jaundice, but respondents did not reply when the doctor's office tried to reach them. Respondents claim to be members of a Christian sect that believes that no medical treatment may be permitted other than first aid. According to the petition, AP's health continued to degenerate and she died on February 9, 2017.

         On that morning, respondents found AP in an unresponsive state. They did not contact emergency medical services, but instead prayed for the child's resurrection. Respondent father later reported that he attempted a "rescue breath" on AP, but did not know how to perform CPR on a baby, and the only thing he knew to do was to "pray and ask for help from God." Respondents also called members of their church, who came to the home and prayed with them. The police were notified about AP's death eight hours later. An autopsy revealed that AP's cause of death was "unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia with kernicterus."[2] The doctor who performed the autopsy explained that "[j]aundice is a very treatable condition, " and that AP would have likely survived if respondents had sought medical attention.

         Following AP's death, a Family Team Meeting[3] was held on March 7, 2017. According to petitioner, at that meeting, respondents stated that despite AP's symptoms, they chose to "believe in the word of God over the symptoms, " and believed that any medical condition that could not be controlled with basic first aid should be left in the hands of God. Concerned that respondents would decline to seek medical treatment for their remaining two children, MP and JP, petitioner filed a termination petition, [4] which was authorized by the court. MP and JP were then removed from respondents' custody and placed with their maternal grandparents.

         Approximately two months later, the trial court issued an ex-parte order returning the children to respondents on condition that they comply with a safety plan, and refrain from using physical discipline. Six days later, respondents requested that the trial court amend the ex-parte order to provide that respondents "may only use physical discipline of any kind upon the children as permitted under Michigan law, " on the basis that they sincerely held a religious belief that physical discipline should be used. The children were again removed from respondents' custody for failure to comply with the court's order after it was alleged that respondents said that they would not obey the court order, and that respondent father said that "the children are being trained with physical discipline in obeying my words."

         The matter was then scheduled for an adjudication trial before a jury. Prior to trial, respondents requested a jury instruction based on MCL 722.634, which provides:

A parent or guardian legitimately practicing his religious belief who thereby does not provide medical treatment for a child, for that reason alone shall not be considered a negligent parent or guardian. This section shall not preclude a court from ordering the provision of medical services or nonmedical remedial services recognized by state law to a child where the child's health requires it nor does it abrogate the responsibility of a person required to report child abuse or neglect.

         Respondents argued that since their defense was based on this statute, the court should provide an instruction reflecting its content. Respondents also argued that their rights under the First Amendment mandated an instruction based on religious liberty. In response, petitioner argued that the instructed should be not be given because the use of the term "negligence, " in the statute is a tort concept, and so MCL 722.634 does not apply in the context of child neglect cases. The trial court agreed with petitioner stating:

The statute in question is [MCL] 722.634. It says a parent or guardian legitimately practicing his religious beliefs who thereby does not provide specified medical treatment for a child, for that reason alone shall not be considered a negligent parent or guardian.
[N]egligence law has nothing to do with the law in child protection matters. Therefore, that portion of the statute is not relevant to these proceedings.
The section goes on to say, the section shall not preclude a court from ordering the provision of medical services or non-medical remedial services recognized by state law to a child where the child's health requires it, nor does it abrogate the responsibility of a person required to report child abuse or neglect. So the second part of that ...

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