An average doctor visit shouldn’t turn into a battle to keep your child.

But, over the years, we’ve shared the stories with you:

  • Justina Pelletier, taken from her parents at the emergency room (ER) and locked in the psych ward for months;
  • the New York parents who were placed on the abuse registry because of a vitamin disagreement;
  • the innocent doctor accused of abusing his adoptive daughter by his own hospital colleagues;
  • and the West Coast mom who had CPS called on her after she made the (ultimately correct) decision not to take her child to the ER. 

Issues like these are usually resolved quickly, but enough of them have happened over the years that parents are understandably concerned about how to handle their visits to the doctor’s office. No one wants their situation to turn into one of these stories. 

The fact is, most visits to the doctor go smoothly, and we want you to have the best resources available to keep them all that way.

So, we spoke with lawyer Rolf Hazlehurst of the Children’s Health Defense and with pediatrician Lainna Callentine, MEd, MD, about how to keep those situations from happening in the first place. Each state has its own laws about parents’ and children’s rights, so this guide is general, but it should give you a foundation to be able to move forward with some peace of mind.

First, a caveat: Nothing in this article is legal counsel. Should you already be involved in a situation with social services or think you will be soon, please get legal help. If you don’t know where to start, consider the list at www.parentalrightsfoundation.org/legal.         

Preventative Action: Finding a Good Doctor

Perhaps the best possible thing you can do is find a family doctor you trust and build a relationship with them.

Why is this so important?

Finding a doctor with shared priorities ensures you will mostly be on the same page when treating your child. They will likely value the same policies you do, and they will prioritize maintaining a good relationship with you when working through any conflict or disagreements.

This is especially true in the area of vaccines, where parents and doctors seem to disagree the most. Find a physician who is on the same page as you when you’re making that decision for your child, and you’ll remove a lot of potential for disagreement. 

A good relationship with your doctor can also offer you protection if you run into a situation with social services through the ER. If you end up in a bad situation with an ER doctor, your own family doctor will be able to back you up. (We’ll talk more about that later.)

Finding a physician who values the same things as you is a valued practice, even for physicians themselves.

Dr. Callentine explained to me her own search for a doctor: “I looked for a doctor who would understand the mentality that I had. I was looking for a doctor who could relate to my situation and understand me, and then we could communicate. I was looking for that good relationship: the doctor who works well for you, not just physically, but also understands your unique perspective and will work with your perspective.”

If you feel like your physician doesn’t listen to you, seek out one who does.

A good way to do that, Dr. Callentine suggests, is to “talk to the doctor and understand the doctor’s policies… before going to the office [for a consultation].” This might mean doing some research online, or even paying for an extra visit to talk with the physician, but it’s worth it in the long run to have a doctor who understands you.

Your Approach Matters

Finding a good doctor is a big part of the battle to keep you and your child safe from an unnecessary child welfare investigation. But it only takes you halfway there.

The other crucial piece is in how you treat your doctor.

You, as the parent, are well within your rights to ask the physician questions and have your concerns addressed. But having a positive attitude, even when you’re disagreeing with your doctor, will go a long way toward keeping the visit cordial.

“Don’t enter the situation with animosity…. Enter the encounter positively. We come into a situation with pre-bias, pre-judgements,” Dr. Callentine explains. “A lot happens in the first couple minutes. If you enter with judgment [or] bias, expecting an encounter to be bad, it will be bad. So, understand your bias and work to have a good encounter.”

Of course, that positive attitude can and should be balanced with your understanding that you, as the parent, have the right and responsibility to make the final call.

As Mr. Hazlehurst summarized, “Be polite and courteous, be confident, but know there’s nothing wrong with asking questions.”

You and Your Child             

Another important piece of the puzzle is having open communication with your child.

Many parents are concerned by policies that deny them access to their child’s medical information (without the child’s approval) once the child reaches 12 years old. We understand these concerns, but there are great ways families can navigate this challenge together.

First, it might be helpful to explain to your child that the purpose of this policy is to create an opportunity for medical staff to help children who, unlike your child, are in an unsafe home.

Dr. Callentine suggests having “a conversation with your children about why there is protection for children when they go into a medical setting.”

Explain to them that the system is set up this way so that other children are protected and that your children don’t need to feel any pressure or be worried over it.

Second, Dr. Callentine suggests, “If you know that you don’t want your kid to go into the doctor’s office by themselves, have a conversation with your kid. The kid has a right to say they want their parent there.”  

As a patient, your child has every right to give you (their parent) access to their medical history or to have you with them in the doctor’s office. The doctor is there to serve your child, so if the child says they want you in the room with them, then the doctor is obligated (minus rare cases with significant cause) to comply with that.

Most 12-year-olds aren’t too eager to face a doctor alone. (I know I wasn’t!) So explaining this policy to your child will demystify the reasons behind it and let them know that it’s perfectly fine for them to continue having that parental presence that most children want.

COVID Concerns

Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, some doctors and dentists have started doing more visits with just the child, not the child and the parent. Those rules reflect your doctor’s best efforts to keep everyone safer and healthier. If you’re worried by this separation, however, we have a few suggestions:

  1. Have an open conversation with your child. Explain what is going on, why they’re going into the office alone, and what to do if they feel uncomfortable. It might not be ideal, but if both of you are prepared for the discomfort of a modified visit, you should be able to get through it with no complications.
  1. Pursue an online visit. One good thing that came out of COVID was the readily available online doctor’s visit. As Dr. Callentine points out, “There’s far more contact with your doctor than there was before.” If you have any anxiety or concerns over letting your child go into the office alone, an online visit is a great way to address that.

Handling the Emergency Room

The ER can be a very different experience from your normal office visit. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that this is where most of those parenting horror stories take place.

Dr. Callentine, herself a trauma-clinic physician, explains why this difference exists: “ER doctors are not trying to establish a long-term relationship with you and your child. They are trying to establish if the situation is something that needs to be immediately intervened with, and they are trying to figure out if this situation is going to kill your child. Your primary care [doctor] is really concerned with the growth and well-being of your child. Those two relationships will be different.”

The situation might be tense, but that’s because the ER is a tense place.

Being prepared for that difference allows you to get the best from the ER. And having a good relationship with your primary care doctor means you will have someone to back you up in case something goes wrong.

In Closing

Overall, as Mr. Hazlehurst said, “The main point to remember is you are the parent…. As the parent, you have the final say.”

And we’d like to echo that.

When you have something so precious in your care, the doctor’s office can seem a stressful or scary place. Cut through the anxiety by remembering these three take-aways:

  1. You and your child together have control over your child’s records and privacy. If you’re both on the same page, your medical team has to honor that.
  2. Most doctors are there to care for your child the best way they know how, and they have reasons behind the advice they give you.
  3. You, as the parent, have the right and the responsibility to make the final call about the care your child receives.

I hope this information provides you and your family with peace of mind.

Sincerely,

Shellby Thomas
Communications & Development Coordinator