COVID-19 Vaccine for Children: An Issue of Legal Custody

We have all been hit hard by the global pandemic, and COVID-19 vaccines have managed to divide families, communities, places of work, and beyond. In fact, it is difficult to pinpoint a more divisive issue. As such, it’s not surprising that the matter of COVID-19 vaccines for children has worked its way into legal custody concerns. If you and your ex cannot come to an agreement on the critical matter of whether or not your children should be vaccinated, seek the professional legal counsel of an experienced California family law attorney today.

Decision-Making Power

When parents share joint legal custody, it means that they are required to make important decisions regarding their children’s health and overall well-being together, and this includes decisions in all the following areas:

  • Schooling
  • Religious upbringing
  • Extracurricular activities, including travel and vacations
  • Residence
  • Health care

Health care is the category in which decisions related to COVID-19 vaccinations fall, and the issue has recently become quite heated in California family courts (as the Los Angeles Times reports), as many parents cannot agree to a decision.

The CDC’s Recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that everyone who is at least five years old receives the COVID-19 vaccine. While the matter of vaccines was divisive before they were available for children, it has become that much more so now that children are in the mix. Some parents who are pro-vaccine regarding themselves are less sure when it comes to their children, and some parents who don’t want the vaccine for themselves feel the same regarding their children. Still, other parents have been eagerly awaiting approval for children’s vaccines.

The bottom line is that parents want what is best for their children’s health and overall well-being, but the pandemic has stirred up so much doubt, division, and even philosophical animosity that reaching a meeting of the minds between parents has become that much more challenging.

When Parents Disagree

When parents are married, and they disagree about whether or not their children should be vaccinated, each has the legal right to proceed with having the children vaccinated – even if the other parent disagrees entirely. When parents are divorced and share legal custody, however, proceeding in this manner – without obtaining the other parent’s approval – can land the parent who adopts the unilateral decision-making strategy in legal hot water that could lead to a modification in terms of custody.

Parents who share legal custody, in other words, must either resolve the vaccination issue between themselves or must seek the court’s intervention regarding which parent can decide. The court can create a narrow exception to joint custody and give one parent the authority to make the vaccination decision without the consent of the other parent.

It is interesting to note that, while a few states allow children to receive COVID-19 vaccinations without parental consent, children must be at least 18 in the State of California before they can be vaccinated without the consent of a parent.

The Pediatrician’s Role

The best place to start when it comes to hammering out a mutually acceptable determination regarding COVID-19 vaccinations is with the children’s pediatrician (or doctor). Choosing a pediatrician is a decision that divorced parents make together, and it stands to reason that both parents trust their chosen pediatrician’s medical recommendations. Pediatricians know their young patients’ unique health concerns and can make vaccine recommendations that are specific to the child in question. When a doctor’s advice fails to move the needle regarding vaccination, the court’s input is likely required.

When the Court Weighs In

When unmarried parents who share joint legal custody are unable to resolve the issue of COVID-19 vaccinations for their children, the court (with the legal guidance of their respective family law attorneys) becomes their last recourse to determine which parent can make this decision. For its part, the court bases all decisions that involve children on the best interests of those children, including custody modifications.

The court will, however, consider all relevant evidence and each parent’s stance in relation to COVID-19 vaccinations, such as evidence related to religious justifications for not being vaccinated and/or any health contraindications. These factors might weigh in favor of one parent making the decision or the other. Finally, family court dockets are exceptionally full, which the pandemic has only served to amplify, and securing a hearing before a judge regarding custody and vaccinations can involve a lengthy wait.  

If you and your children’s other parent cannot come to an agreement regarding whether or not to have your children vaccinated against COVID-19, a dedicated California family law attorney can help you resolve the issue.