Over two years have passed since the emergence of Covid-19, but co-parenting disputes over vaccinations remain. In June of 2022, the FDA authorized the Pfizer vaccine for children between 6 months and 4 years old, and the Moderna vaccine for children 6 months to 5 years old. Following this announcement, the CDC recommended everyone 6 months and older be vaccinated against Covid-19. This expanded access to vaccination raises new questions for parents deciding when, if, or how to vaccinate young children. The decision to vaccinate may be more complicated for parents who are separated or divorced and cannot agree on whether to vaccinate their child against Covid-19.
The first question in a vaccination dispute is whether one or both parents have the right to make medical decisions for the child. If one parent has sole legal custody of the minor child, that parent’s decision about vaccination controls, even if the other parent disagrees. However, it is more common that parents have joint legal custody of their child. If that is the case and they cannot agree on vaccination, they may need a judge to make the decision. Typically, this happens by one parent filing a motion and requesting an Order to allow the vaccination over the other parent’s objection.
Until recently, the Family Court’s position in New Jersey was unclear on this issue. A recent decision, Richmond v. Natanson, has shed some light on how the courts will approach this dispute. In the Richmond case, the parents had joint legal custody of their 8 year old daughter. The mother requested sole medical custody for the purpose of having the child vaccinated against Covid-19. After a plenary hearing that lasted 5 days and involved expert medical witnesses on both sides, the judge granted the mother limited medical custody for the sole purpose of vaccinating the child.
As with all New Jersey custody cases, the judge needed to determine the “best interest of the child.” In doing so, the judge relied on the statutory factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4 and relevant case law. In granting the mother’s request, some of the dispositive factors included the potential disruption to the child’s education if she were not vaccinated, the fact that the mother was the parent of primary residence and better suited to evaluate day-to-day issues arising from the vaccination status, and the fact that the child had received other vaccines (which the father did not object to), without any prior adverse reactions. Significantly, the court made it clear that its decision was not laying out a general rule for all vaccine disputes. Instead, each dispute would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In this particular situation, the court found that based on all of the testimony and evidence presented, the risks associated with vaccination were outweighed by the benefits, as related to this particular child.
In sum, there is no easy answer to whether a child should be vaccinated against COVID-19. There are many factors to be considered under New Jersey statutes and case law. Expert testimony will likely be necessary to apply all of the medical research to your particular situation. It is imperative that you have counsel highly experienced with New Jersey law as it relates to the “best interest of the child.” Contact our firm to discuss your options if you are facing a dispute over vaccinations or any other issue involving the health and well-being of your child.
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