Whether an unvaccinated parent can lose their child custody rights is a painful topic these days given the talk of vaccine mandates around the world. The United States is not alone in countries where people have pointed positions on vaccine mandates. A court in Canada was recently left to make a painful decision about custody rights and an unvaccinated parent.
A Shot of the Constitution
In the United States, making the COVID vaccine mandatory has become more of a constitutional issue than a public health one. The issue has become especially sharp in child custody cases. Parents have a fundamental right to raise their children, but there can be exceptions. Courts have had a difficult time threading the needle when parents disagree about vaccinations.
These issues are not just in the United States either. The Ontario Court of Justice recently had to decide whether a father’s decision to remain unvaccinated against COVID should deprive him of his parenting time.
In L.S. v. M.A.F., the mother sought an order that the father’s parenting time be supervised. Why? The mother claimed that due to the father’s significant anger management issues, she feared for the child’s safety if left alone with him.
The mother also said she trusted the paternal grandmother and the father’s sister to supervise the father’s parenting time. The father opposed and sought liberal and unsupervised parenting time with his child.
During cross examination, the father revealed that he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He also had no intention to get vaccinated, claiming that it was contrary to his Rastafarian beliefs, for which the court notes he did not provide evidence.
He was nevertheless willing to take safety precautions during his parenting times, for example, wearing a mask. He also attested that the paternal grandmother is fully vaccinated and that he is comfortable with taking the child to her home.
Citing Justice Robert Spence in his decision in A.G. v. M.A., 2021 ONCJ 531, the court said that there were competing interests at stake: on the one hand, parenting time increased the child’s risk of infection for COVID-19, and on the other, the child is entitled to have a meaningful relationship with her father.
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 Chicago case, however, involves a parent’s refusal to vaccinate herself.
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.
Getting to the Point
The court agreed with the mother that it is in the best interest of the child to have a meaningful relationship with her father.
But, after evaluating the evidence, the court concluded that it was necessary for the father’s parental time to be supervised by the paternal grandmother or his sister, both of whom are vaccinated and willing to supervise the father’s parenting time.
The father had very little parenting experience and knowledge of the child’s needs, which can be compensated by the experience of the paternal grandmother or his sister, said the court. The court also considered the father’s little control over his temper and becomes verbally abusive and threatening when angered, and the presence of a third party can ensure that the child is removed from any situation should the father lose control of his temper.
To reduce the risk of the child contracting COVID-19, the court-imposed restrictions upon the father’s parenting time, including that it shall be exercised either outdoors or in the paternal grandmother’s home and that both father and child shall always wear masks.
The court also ruled that should the father become fully vaccinated, the restrictions shall no longer apply, but if these restrictions are violated, the mother may suspend his in-person parenting time.
Canada’s Law Times article is here.