In a child custody case in Kentucky, a family court orders the COVID vaccination of two small children. Last week a Kentucky appellate court decided the important issue of whether the family court judge was legally entitled to require the COVID vaccinations for the children over one parent’s objection.
The COVID Vaccine Derby
Recently Canada resolved the issue over whether an unvaccinated parent can actually lose their child custody rights for refusing to vaccinate their child. This week’s issue is slightly different, can the court require a vaccination over another parent’s strongly held religious views and objection.
In the Kentucky case, the parties had divorced in 2018. They shared joint custody and equal timesharing of their two children, aged eight and six. Throughout their marriage, and divorce, the parents always declined the required immunizations for their children on religious grounds.
In fact, there was proof that they had signed affidavits in New York and Georgia declining vaccinations for their children on religious grounds and when they divorced, they signed Kentucky’s form for declining immunizations on religious grounds.
However, two years later, the father had a change of heart. On June 30, 2020, he filed a motion for an order to allow him to vaccinate the children. The Mother objected, and a hearing was held in Family Court to resolve the question.
The Father testified that he originally agreed not to vaccinate the children because he was leaving for deployment with the military and was unable to meet with the pediatrician. He thought there was an understanding the parties would just delay the vaccines.
But, after he finished his military service, he began discussions with Mother regarding vaccinations for the children. Father stated that when he signed the vaccination declination affidavit he had doubts about the development of certain vaccines by use of aborted fetal cells.
Now he believes the use of aborted fetal cells is so far removed from the process of developing vaccines that his concerns no longer exist. He believes it is appropriate to vaccinate the children. He wants to follow the advice of the children’s pediatrician to vaccinate.
The Mother vehemently objected saying that doing so violates her firmly held religious convictions opposing the use of aborted fetal cells in the manufacture and design of the vaccines. Rather, she prefers using medication and antibiotics to treat her children. She argues there was an understanding between her and Father that the children should not be vaccinated and produced multiple documents the parties signed to that effect.
Florida Child Vaccinations
I’ve written about the injection of vaccines into Florida child custody cases before. In Florida, the prevailing standard for determining “custody” is a concept call shared parental responsibility, or sole parental responsibility. Generally, shared parental responsibility is a relationship ordered by a court in which both parents retain their full parental rights and responsibilities.
Under shared parental responsibility, parents are required to confer with each other and jointly make major decisions affecting the welfare of their child. In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents when a marriage or a relationship ends. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.
Issues relating to a child’s physical health and medical treatment, including the decision to vaccinate, are major decisions affecting the welfare of a child. When parents cannot agree, the dispute is resolved in court.
At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child. Determining the best interests of a child is no longer entirely subjective. Instead, the decision is based on an evaluation of certain factors affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.
In Florida, a court can carve out an exception to shared parental responsibility, giving one parent “ultimate authority” to make decisions, such as the responsibility for deciding on vaccinations.
The decision to vaccinate raises interesting family law issues. It is important to know what your rights and responsibilities are in Florida and other states.
Kentucky Fried Covid
The family court trial judge ruled it was in the children’s best interest to be vaccinated. The judge reasoned that, on balance, the children’s health and welfare outweighed the religious beliefs of one parent.
The court ordered that the parties consult with the pediatrician to craft a “catch-up” schedule bringing the children current on vaccinations and other immunizations, or, if the parties were able, to agree to alternative vaccines that could potentially be utilized that do not use aborted fetal cells in their development and design.
In affirming the trial judge’s ruling on appeal, the appellate court noted the overriding principle that the best interest of each child must be served by the family court’s decision.
The mother’s argument did not articulate any detriment or risk of harm to her children by not vaccinating them. The father simply argued her religious views should not take precedence over his.
The court ruled that when there is an impasse between a Mother and Father a family court properly can ‘break the tie’. Equal decision-making power is not required for joint custody, and parties or trial courts are free to vest greater authority in one parent even under a joint custody arrangement.
The family court heard from both the Mother and Father, and found that it would be in the children’s best interest to be vaccinated in accordance with their pediatrician’s recommendations and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
The Kentucky appellate opinion is here.