Sometimes divorced parents disagree on aspects of their child’s medical needs and care, including childhood immunizations. This past year, the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic turned this into an urgent topic for many. In May 2021, after completion of clinical trials, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for kids age 12 and up and Moderna’s vaccine was approved not long after. Now, kids as young as 5 may receive the vaccine.
If divorced parents disagree on whether their child should get “the shot”, how can they come to terms with the issue? Reviewing custody agreement details, having one-on-one conversations, seeking factual information, and using mediation can all be part of the process.
What Does Your Custody Agreement Say?
First, consider whether one parent has sole legal custody in Missouri, with a written plan that specifies the right to make medical decisions for the child. As we discussed in an earlier blog, “legal custody refers to decision-making affecting the child, regardless of the amount of parenting time the child spends with either parent.” Legal custody involves “major decisions” such as education, health and welfare. If this is the case, only the parent with legal custody has the right to decide whether or not to have minor children vaccinated.
In cases of joint custody, however, decision-making is shared. Neither parent has the authority to act alone, and both parents are expected to make their best efforts to reach an agreement. Courts expect parents to act in the best interest of the child. A parent’s religious beliefs may be taken into consideration, but ultimately, the child’s best interest will take precedence.
Modifying Custody Agreements
Missouri law allows custody agreements to be modified if there is a “substantial change in circumstances” that make the current custody terms unreasonable, and if the change would serve the best interests of the child. One of those circumstances, as we have discussed previously, includes a change in health needs of the child or custodial parent.
Might COVID-19 represent a substantial change in circumstances that would warrant a custody agreement modification about healthcare decisions? This point could be argued, given the ongoing disruptions of school closures, virtual learning and/or homeschooling, parents working from home, and the ongoing risk of transmission from this airborne virus, the case could be made. Medical experts increasingly believe this virus will be a fact of life for many years.
Talking to Your Child’s Co-Parent About COVID-19 and Vaccines
Long before seeking a legal solution, co-parents should discuss the issue. Good communication can go a long way towards resolving questions and concerns.
Some questions to consider:
- How much do you both know about COVID-19 vaccines now?
- What are your information sources?
- Does your child have a pre-existing health condition, such as Type 1 diabetes, respiratory illness, heart condition, neurological disorder or cancer, that puts them at higher risk if they were to contract COVID-19?
- Does the custodial parent have a pre-existing medical condition that puts them at higher risk?
- What about the health status of the non-custodial parent, grandparents, and other family members who are an important part of the child’s life?
- Has the child and/or either parent contracted COVID-19 already, and if so, have there been any long-term health effects?
- How might being vaccinated affect the child’s ability to return to in-person school, participate in team sports and other extracurricular activities, travel, socialize and play with other children?
- What does your child’s doctor advise?
Factual Sources on Vaccines
In your discussions of COVID-19 vaccines, be sure to consult your child’s pediatrician and reliable sources of medical information regarding benefits and risks. JAMA Network Pediatrics, the online Journal of American Medicine, urges parents to consult credible sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which calls vaccines “one of the greatest success stories in public health”. The World Health Organization (WHO) is another important source of the latest research on COVID-19.
Parents also should be aware that the pandemic has resulted in a new and serious dip in childhood vaccine rates in general, as a 2020 article, Opting Out of Vaccines for Your Child by the JAMA Network points out. Reasons include fears of contracting the virus in doctor’s offices, overwhelmed healthcare systems, and parents changing or losing jobs and health insurance. The weakening of herd immunity, doctors say, puts children and others in the community at a higher risk for a number of once-common diseases, including measles, mumps and whooping cough. This article in Parents magazine lists The Most Important Vaccines for Children: an A-Z List for Parents.
Finally, if one-on-one discussions with your former spouse prove difficult, consider post-divorce mediation as a constructive way to work through the issue. An experienced professional mediator may be able to help willing, motivated co-parents reach a constructive resolution.
With a combined 30 years in family law, the attorneys at Jones Family Law Group, LLC, will provide the legal guidance you need. For questions or to schedule a confidential consultation, call 314-449-8830.