COVID and child custody are back in the news as news of the availability of vaccinations hitting the market becomes a reality. COVID first made family law news in Miami early in the pandemic, when an E.R. doctor was stripped of custody of her 4-year old daughter. What impact will COVID vaccines have on custody?
Getting to the Point
In a recent Broward case, Melanie Joseph wanted to see her son, but a judge wouldn’t let her — for no reason except that she won’t wear a mask. Joseph’s 14-year-old son has asthma, a condition that could put him at risk of contracting COVID-19 during this pandemic, court filings show.
Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen called the mother an “anti-mask person” who had the “audacity” to brag about it on Facebook. Many take issue with the decision, but it illustrated how judges in family court consider the health risks of COVID-19.
Other cases followed across the country, most involving at least one parent working on the front lines of the crisis. Judges have been patient in considering both sides of coronavirus cases, but that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to step in when they think the child’s health might be at risk.
Florida Vaccinations and Child Custody
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.
I wrote an article on the relationship between vaccinations and child custody in Florida before. 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.
A Dose of Reality
Melanie Joseph, who moved to North Carolina from Coral Springs at the outset of the pandemic response, drew Broward Circuit Judge Cohen’s ire by posting a picture of herself on social media that went viral: it showed her not wearing a mask while in the waiting room of her oral surgeon’s office in June.
Joseph’s selfie ran with the caption “no mask for this girl” on social media, drawing the ire of the Broward judge handling her custody case. She defended her selfie by saying she was alone in a doctor’s waiting room in North Carolina, where there was no mask requirement at the time.
“She’s one of those anti-mask people and she’s got the audacity to post that on social media,” the judge said. “She’s going to wear a mask. If she doesn’t, time-sharing is not going to happen.”
Cohen’s pointed criticism came in an online hearing Sept. 8 and prompted Joseph’s attorney to ask him to remove himself from the case, which has dragged on for 13 years (the child at the heart of it is 14). Cohen declined.
The judge said in-person visits would have to be supervised because he doesn’t trust Joseph, 43, to wear a mask. And he would not consider a long-distance parenting plan — which outlines each parent’s rights when they don’t live in the same state — between Joseph and her son until the COVID crisis has passed.
“When this pandemic is over and there’s no cases and there’s a vaccine … the mother is going to need to get a vaccine as well. When I have proof that everybody’s safe and the child’s not at risk or danger, then we can talk about a long-distance parenting plan.”
Ultimately, the issue of masks never made it into Cohen’s written ruling, issued late last week, and he softened the vaccine mandate. The order states:
“After a safe and reliable vaccination against COVID-19 is available, the mother may be vaccinated and the child may be vaccinated, thus eliminating that particular danger.”
Joseph acknowledged in an interview that she posted a selfie taken at her oral surgeon’s office in June. “No mask for this girl,” she wrote in the caption. At the time, Joseph said, there was no mask mandate in North Carolina and she was alone in her doctor’s waiting room.
She accused the judge of letting his personal political views cloud his judgment in the case. “My case has been in the court system for a number of years and I have experience with court proceedings,” she said. “What occurred is unconstitutional and should never happen to a parent.”
The child’s father thinks Cohen made the right decision. “My client has a legal obligation to protect his son,” said Donna Goldman, the father’s attorney. “This case has been going on a long time, and the judge weighed more than just COVID. He made the right decision to protect the child’s health.”
The Sun Sentinel article is here.