Coparenting during the current pandemic presented a unique challenge for parents who may, or may not, be on the same page when it comes to decisions about their child’s health care. As vaccines to protect against the Coronavirus (COVID-19) continue to become available to the public, and teenage children in particular, coparents are left to determine who makes the choice about whether their child gets vaccinated. That is not always easy when parents feel differently about the safety, efficacy, and necessity of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Although decisions about COVID-19 vaccinations are at the forefront of many parents’ minds right now, they relate to a larger conversation about a divorced parent’s right to make important medical decisions for their child.
Safety Concerns of Some Parents
As of May 2021, children ages 12 and up were eligible to receive at least one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently encourages children and adults to be vaccinated as soon as they are able. Clinical trials must be completed to determine if the current vaccines are safe for younger children.
But despite the promises of safety, many people have reservations about getting vaccinated with relatively new vaccines that entered the market much faster than previous vaccines to treat other conditions. They elect to hold off and take other precautions such as hand washing and face masks to avoid getting the virus. When parents cannot agree on whether their child should be vaccinated, who gets to make the final call?
Research Shows Vaccine Hesitancy is Growing
All of the current vaccines currently available were produced, tested, and approved more quickly than previous vaccines, giving some parents pause to question the long-term health effects. But makers assure the public no steps were skipped in the process, and the rush to get them to market was necessary because of the rapid global spread of the virus.
Still, research shows not everyone is convinced the COVID-19 vaccines are safe. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 32 percent of parents of children under 18 were undecided about having minor children vaccinated, and 19 percent said definitely they will not have their children get the vaccine.
Another poll from Outbreaks Near Me, an outbreak mapping effort from experts at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, found 29 percent of parents against the COVID-19 vaccine for their children, and another 27 percent were still unsure about what to do.
The Custody Agreement as Guide
When a dispute about the COVID-19 vaccine or any other health care decision that impacts the child should arise, the first step is to go back and review the child custody agreement.
In New Jersey, legal custody is a parent’s right to make major decisions for their child. They have a say in where the child attends school, if they have religious training, and what type of medical care they receive. So, any parent with legal custody can decide if their child gets the COVID-19 vaccine. That is fairly straightforward.
Shared Legal Custody and Vaccine Disagreements
But what about parents with joint legal custody? They make these decisions together. What if they do not agree?
If both parents are relatively agreeable and open minded, it can be a good idea to meet with the child’s pediatrician. Both parents can make an appointment to learn more about the virus, the vaccine, ask questions, and share their concerns. A simple conversation with a knowledgeable doctor can change a parent’s perspective.
Before refusing to see a co-parent’s perspective, one should ask the following questions:
- How much do I know about the different COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available?
- Am I getting information about the vaccines from reliable sources?
- Does my child have a preexisting condition that makes them vulnerable to the virus and/or the vaccine?
- How will getting, or not getting, the vaccine impact my child’s ability to attend school, sports, and social events?
- What does my child’s doctor recommend?
Answering these questions honestly can help clarify why one feels strongly either way and may help parents see eye-to-eye.
Mediation to Resolve Parenting Disputes About Vaccination
If that is not enough, and one parent is adamant about vaccination one way or the other, the next step would be mediation. During mediation, a neutral, third-party professional mediator coordinates the discussion in a way that is productive and positive. The hope is each parent will see the other’s perspective and find common ground.
Taking Parenting Disagreements to Family Court
If parents who share legal custody still cannot seem to come to an agreement about the COVID-19 vaccine or other major issues impacting the child, family court is the next step. One parent may petition the court to modify legal custody, giving them the authority to make medical decisions for the child.
In court, a judge considers a variety of factors to determine if a COVID-19 vaccine is best for the child. In New Jersey, the child’s best interests always take precedence in any legal matters affecting the family.
The judge may ask the following:
- About the child’s current overall health
- Previous history of reactions to vaccines
- If they or a close family member have risk factors for COVID-19
- If the child’s school requires vaccine to attend
- The opinions of trusted medical experts
Ideally, both parties have the opportunity to express why they do or do not believe the child should be vaccinated. Although the judge may not expressly state the child should be vaccinated, they may revise the custody agreement giving one parent sole legal custody regarding the child’s vaccinations. Custody revisions of this sort are fairly rare but warranted when it comes to serious decisions about a child’s health and wellness.
With the guidance of a trusted divorce lawyers, parents need to weigh the pros and cons of taking this issue all the way to family court. But in the case of a child and their medical decisions, a determined parent is likely to stop at nothing to protect their child’s health.
Factual Sources for Information on Vaccines
Before making any decisions about a child’s health, parents should always check reputable sources to learn more about the benefits, risks, and alternatives of COVID-19 vaccines. Here are some trusted resources with timely information:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- National Institutes of Health
- JAMA Network Coronavirus Resource Center
- World Health Organization
- American Academy of Pediatrics
Do Children Have a Say?
When parents cannot agree on what is best for the child, does the child have a say in the matter? Actually, they might. Most states empower judges with the right to appoint a lawyer to act on behalf of the child.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, the judge may take the child’s perspective into consideration, especially if they are a teen or young adult. This is true for children who may need proof of vaccination to go back to school in the fall, to play a favorite sport, or to participate in other activities. If one parent is denying the vaccine and the child is banned from these activities, that can have a serious impact on their mental and emotional well-being.
Physical Custody and New Jersey Divorces
As shared physical custody has been discussed, it makes sense to discuss the concept of physical custody and how it impacts New Jersey divorce matters.
Physical custody refers to where the child lives on a regular basis. If the child lives full time with one parent, that parent has sole physical custody. Like legal custody, physical custody can be shared as well. This arrangement is called joint physical custody.
Many family court judges prefer this arrangement because it has been shown that regular contact with both parents is the healthiest scenario for a child. That is provided both parents are mentally, emotionally, and physically fit to parent. In most cases, parents with joint physical custody also have joint legal custody, giving both equal input in the decisions for their child.
Morristown Divorce Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Help Clients Resolve Challenging Parenting Disputes During Divorce
A difference of opinion about the COVID-19 vaccine is just one example of some of the many disagreements that can make coparenting a nightmare. The Morristown divorce lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. are here to help parents resolve clashes with an ex-spouse while empowering them to be their child’s best advocate. If you have questions about your right to make decisions for your child or want to request a custody revision, schedule an appointment with one of our compassionate and experienced divorce lawyers today. Call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.