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Police raid of Arizona home over child with high fever shows limits of parental rights

Parents who refuse to seek medical care when their child is experiencing a potentially life-threatening condition have relatively little legal protection.

The decision by armed Arizona police officers to force their way into the home of two parents who had refused to take their feverish young son to a hospital has raised troubling questions about parental responsibility and potential medical neglect, and what some might see as excessive law enforcement tactics.

But amid the debate, health and legal experts who spoke to NBC News emphasized that parents who decline to seek medical care when their child is experiencing a potentially life-threatening condition have relatively little legal protection, and in some extreme cases the state can override their ability to make health care decisions.

Given that the child in this case had a temperature of more than 105, Arizona authorities were at "the threshold at which the state is reasonable in intervening because it has an independent duty to protect the child if the parents are unwilling or unable to do so," said Douglas Diekema, the director of education at the center for pediatric bioethics at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"That's why we have child neglect and abuse laws, after all," said Diekema, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Sarah Beck, the mother in this case, brought her 2-year-old son to Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine on Feb. 25 and was told the boy had a temperature of more than 105, according to reports by the Chandler Police Department.

The doctor believed the child could be suffering from meningitis, a potentially life-threatening illness, and it could not be tested for at the clinic, so she told Beck to take the toddler to the hospital, according to a police report. Beck was reluctant because her son wasn't vaccinated, and she feared "possible repercussions," the report said.

When the doctor learned later that day the child had never made it to the hospital, she called the state Department of Child Safety, which in turn contacted the police department in Chandler, Arizona, because "there was a present danger to health/wellbeing and that he required immediate medical attention." The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News this week.

Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the New York University School of Medicine, agreed that a 105-degree temperature is indeed life-threatening, and added that the case came down to protecting the life of the child.

"The ethical principle is that if your child is in imminent risk of dying, and if it's likely that medical attention could reverse that, then as a parent you don't have the right to allow your child to die," said Caplan, who has contributed commentary to NBC News in the past.

In most states, certain public officials and health care professionals are generally required to report to state authorities if they believe the life of a child is endangered because of their parents' decisions, said Kathleen Hoke, professor of public health policy at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

But the circumstances of the Arizona raid — officers had pistols and ballistic shields drawn, and the body camera footage at times resembles video from a drug seizure — stirred debate about law enforcement tactics.

“They treated us like criminals, busting in our door,” the boy's father, Brooks Bryce, told a local television station. “I mean, I don’t know what kind of trauma that did to my kids.”

Chandler police have recommended to prosecutors that they file child abuse charges against Bryce and Beck, who were not arrested.

Beck's reluctance to take her son to a hospital because he was purportedly not vaccinated may have been unfounded, according to James Hodge, a professor of public health law and ethics at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. He pointed out that Arizona allows parents to opt out of vaccinations for philosophical, religious or medical reasons.

It was not immediately clear if the parents in the Arizona case were based their medical decisions on personal or religious beliefs. What's more, the parents have suggested they chose not to take their young son to the hospital because his high temperature had purportedly gone down.

But details in the police report were potentially troubling: It said that when officers entered the house, two other children were found "in their bedroom, which was covered in stains of unknown origin." It also said, "The children advised us they had vomited several times in their beds, and had stains around their mouths."

Ultimately, according to Hodge, authorities were right to intervene in what could have been a potentially deadly situation.

"If you've got legitimate reasons to believe a child's health is in peril because of the parents' resistance to treatment, that's legit," Hodge said. "It's abuse."