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Hospital seeks guardianship over Amish girl with cancer

Under Washington law, guardianship is a legal power that allows one person to make decisions for another who can't make those decisions for themselves. For example, parents are typically considered legal guardians of their minor children by virtue of being their parents. However, when an adult is unable to make important decisions due to disability or infirmity, a family member or other concerned party can take legal action because of incapacity to be made legal guardian. This arrangement is common in cases adult children becoming guardians of their elderly parents.

An unusual case in a different state illustrates just how powerful and controversial a guardianship can be. The case involves a 10-year-old girl who has leukemia. Doctors say the form of cancer she has can be treated with chemotherapy and began to treat her, but she and her parents stopped the treatment after two rounds of chemotherapy made her feel extremely sick. Her parents belong to an Amish religious sect that avoids much modern technology but, they say, allows them to use modern medicine when needed. Her parents have said they will return her to the hospital if nothing else works, but they don't agree with putting her through chemotherapy.

The hospital that was treating the girl challenged the family's decision in court, but a judge ruled that the parents, as legal guardians, are empowered to make medical decisions for their daughter. The hospital appealed that decision and an appeals court ruled that the lower court failed to consider whether appointing a guardian to make medical decisions for the girl would be in her best interest. The lower court judge had ruled that he could only transfer guardianship to someone else if the parents were found unfit. The hospital is seeking to have the court appoint limited guardianship over the girl to an attorney who is also a registered nurse. The appeals court's ruling means the lower court must review the case again.

Guardianship disputes raise fundamental questions of fairness and autonomy. Many of these cases dip into some very disturbing areas of law and even religion or philosophy. But guardianships can also be very necessary and beneficial when they are handled appropriately and with sensitivity. Washington residents who have questions about setting up or challenging a guardianship should get help researching this very complicated area of the law.

Source: WSET.com, "Court sides with Ohio hospital on Amish girl care," John Seewer, Aug. 29, 2013

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