May 4, 2009

Social Worker gets Involved after Emergency Room Visit

When the Smith family (name changed to protect privacy) took their youngest to the emergency room for some small cuts the child received when playing with a tape measure, the mom expected to be asked about a tetanus shot and was ready to give her consent for treatment. However, when a doctor also recommended another shot called Immuglobin, the parents declined. The family had children who had adverse reactions to previous vaccinations and decided that it would be better to simply have the tetanus shot and not risk possible side effects from an Immuglobin shot in their young child.

When the emergency room staff understood that the family had not had their children vaccinated according to the standard schedule and that they homeschooled, it appears they decided this was enough to call the child protection hotline to report the parents as neglecting their children.

Mrs. Smith received a call from a social worker inquiring about the fact that the family has declined to follow the “standard” immunization schedule. Mrs. Smith explained the situation to the social worker and then contacted Home School Legal Defense Association for advice.

HSLDA Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly explained to Mrs. Smith that Wisconsin law requires that children who are enrolled in school be vaccinated. Parents whose children are enrolled in school are subject to a $25 per day fine for not having their children vaccinated unless they have a vaccination waiver on file. Wisconsin parents are permitted to waive vaccinations for health, religion or personal conviction.

Donnelly telephoned the social worker to explain the law, and to inform her that because the family homeschooled there was no need for a waiver to be on file. The family was further concerned when they learned that the social worker had called their family clinic, asked for and received information about the family’s immunization practices.

Medical records are protected by federal guidelines under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Most medical offices will require that you sign a notice of your “protections” under HIPAA law. These notices however, often carve out large exceptions to the doctor-patient privilege, including the disclosure of medical information in compliance with “the law”. While Wisconsin law might not require the disclosure of such information to social workers, many doctors’ offices are likely to be more compliant when they receive a phone call from a social worker. This varies from state to state, but in this instance the social worker asked for and received the requested information. Families do well to carefully read and understand how their doctor’s office understands their obligation to protect their medical information. Simply reading and signing the privacy notice may not be sufficient. Ask your doctor his or her understanding of when they are permitted to disclose information about your family and to whom.

A few days after the call from Donnelly, the social worker called the Smiths to notify them that she was closing the case.

HSLDA Social Services Contact Policy

We desire to advise our members in every contact with a social worker and/or police officer in investigations resulting from allegations of abuse or neglect. If homeschooling is an issue, we will represent our member families until the issue is resolved. On Fourth Amendment unreasonable search and seizure issues, HSLDA will advise our members whenever the privacy of their home is violated by forced or coerced entry for the purpose of an unsubstantiated investigation. HSLDA membership benefits do not extend to court actions resulting from non-homeschooling matters. However, in circumstances where there is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, HSLDA may, as we have done in the past, choose to take the case in an effort to establish legal precedent.