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When Co-Parents Disagree on COVID-19 Vaccination, Family Courts May Intervene

COVID-19 vaccinations have come as a relief for many in New Jersey, though some remain wary. But what happens when co-parents disagree on whether their child should be vaccinated?

If you and your ex always agreed on everything, you likely wouldn’t have split in the first place. New Jersey family law Courts are tasked with settling disputes when co-parents disagree on key issues, though our New Jersey family lawyers advise parents to try reaching an agreement without Court intervention if possible.

As far as COVID-19 vaccinations, there are three that have received emergency use authorization for adults and teens 12 and older. Clinical trials are underway now in children as young as 6 months. The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging both children and adults to obtain the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them, particularly as there has been a rise of variant strains that appear to be more contagious.

Kids from middle school on up can be fully immunized for the next school year, but whether younger children can receive it before then depends on how soon the clinical trials are finished. It’s not clear whether children will be required to have it for entry, as is the case with some other vaccines, though it is generally on a case-by-case or even district-by-district basis. In New Jersey, the Department of Health has numerous vaccinations children must have before they can enter school. These include vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, chicken pox, measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B. As of yet, there is no COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

But if two parents of the same child aren’t on the same page about vaccinations, it could be a significant source of conflict.

As Hackensack divorce lawyers, we know this isn’t the first time parents have battled each other over vaccinations in Court. In fact, there has been some precedent set in other cases involving other vaccines. For example, an appellate Court in Pennsylvania in 2015 awarded sole legal custody to a father who favored vaccines - and not the mother who opposed them. The Court called the mother’s anti-vaccination stance “unreasonable and dangerous.”

In New Jersey, there was the matter of New Jersey Div. of Child Prot. & Permanency v. J.B., wherein the appellate Courts addressed whether the state could compel parents to vaccinate their children over parental objection. The agency got involved after allegations of neglect and risk of abuse, and it was learned the children hadn’t been vaccinated. The parents cited religious beliefs. At trial, noting the state of the home and fitness of the parents, the Court granted custody of the children to the state and permitted the state to get the children vaccinated. The parents appealed, citing religious exemption. The appeals Court affirmed the lower Court, finding a parent’s wish to refuse medical treatment for a child could be overridden when it was necessary to prevent harm to the child. The religious exemption the parents cited pertained only to school attendance, not state intervention.

Last year, lawmakers in New Jersey introduced a bill that would have amounted to one of the broadest bans on religious exemptions for vaccines in the country. Public health experts who supported the bill said it was necessary to prevent an outbreak of communicable diseases, such as a measles outbreak that occurred in New Jersey a couple years ago. The bill later failed, but lawmakers have vowed to reintroduce it.

These are matters to be watched closely because if school districts require students to obtain vaccination to attend, the parent favoring vaccines could argue the one who does not is interfering in the child’s educational interests.

When it comes to disagreements between parents about this, the first thing the Court will look at will be whether the parents have joint legal custody. That’s the norm in New Jersey, and regardless of how much time each parent spends with the child, decisions ideally are made by both parents - unless one parent has sole custody or full authority on medical decisions. If the parents disagree, they may consider going together to the pediatrician and then having a frank talk with each other. If they still can’t reach a consensus, it may be necessary to get a mediator involved.

Vaccines may continue to be a hot-button issue, and the question is often how much do both parties trust in the science. If parents cannot reach an agreement, Courts may be asked to step in and decide what’s in the child’s best interests and which parent - if either of them - should have the final say on health matters. Depending on the age of the child, the Court may also take into serious consideration the wishes of the child.

Getting a decision on matters like this could take months, many motions, hearings and litigation. It can go on even longer if there are appeals. This is why we advise parents to at least try mediation first, see if they can reach an accord together. If they cannot, we can help.

Contact our Hackensack divorce lawyers today at (732) 810-0034 to schedule an appointment.

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