COVID VACCINATIONS FOR CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

There is significant disagreement in our world today about the value and safety of the COVID vaccine. It did not take long for unmarried and divorced parents to engage the court to decide vaccination disputes as it pertains to their minor children.

On June 20, 2021, the New Jersey Appellate Court released their decision in M.A. v. A.A., A-1493-20 (N.J. Super. Jun. 30, 2021), a case regarding whether a child of divorced parents should be vaccinated. The child at the center of this case was born in 2013 so she is now eight (8) years old. In this case the parties had previously agreed not to give their child any vaccines and had asked the child’s pre-school school for a religious exemption, which they were granted. As time went on, the father began giving the child vaccinations. For example, the child stepped on rusty nail and was taken to the hospital. At that time, the child was given the DTap vaccination. In 2019, after the mother had taken the child to Bulgaria while she was not vaccinated, father went to the doctor and gave the child a second tetanus shot and the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. Father did not obtain mother’s consent to do so.

Mother’s argument at the trial court level was that her First Amendment rights to exercise her religion were being violated by vaccinating the child. The trial court decided to apply the federal sincerity test and then moved to a best-interests-of-the-child-analysis under N.J.S.A. 9:2-4, citing that the parties, in their Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA), agreed to keep the best interests of the child at the forefront. Since the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) contained language regarding the best interests of the child, the trial court quoted Agreement language in its decision:

5.1. It is the parties’ intention to share joint physical and legal custody of their daughter, [Adele], without the designation of a parent of primary residence. The parties considered their ability to communicate and share all the needs of [Adele], and further agree that their daughter’s best interest is paramount…[T]he parties shall immediately notify the other in the event of an emergency situation involving [Adele] and agree to provide the other with emergency telephone numbers. See M.A. v. A.A. at paragraph I.A.

At the Appellate level, the trial court’s decision to grant the father sole legal custody for vaccination purposes only, was affirmed. The Appellate Court stated, “Our careful review of the record shows there was substantial credible evidence for the court’s findings. Defendant lacked credibility. She lacked sincerity and consistency in her assertion of her religious exemption. The experts agreed that overall vaccines are safe and effective and there was a small chance Adele’s ITP [immune thrombocytopenic purpura] would reoccur. Therefore, we affirm the order appointing plaintiff as limited medical guardian for immunization purposes.” M.A. v. A.A. at paragraph II, [immune thrombocytopenic purpura] added.

What can we glean from this case? While the Court does not speak to the COVID vaccine specifically, it clearly looks to the best interests of the children analysis for guidance. In this case, the parents agreed to consider the best interests of the child when making decisions. In other words, in the eyes of the Court, the parties agreed to using the best interest analysis due to the language in their MSA. Words matter, so it’s important to read your agreement carefully before signing.

During the hearing, both parents presented experts, doctors, to speak to the issue of vaccines for their child along with her medical condition. The Appellate Court noted that both experts testified about the importance of vaccines in preventing serious illnesses. So, unless your child has a very specific medical reason for not getting the vaccine and you have documentation or testimony stating such, most likely the Courts will defer to the experts and allow your child to be vaccinated.

You should not interpret this case as a mandate that children will be required to be vaccinated. It requires a careful analysis of the circumstances in your family. If this is an issue for you, New Jersey Divorce Solutions can assist you in addressing any vaccination issues for your child. For more information regarding the best interests of the child and vaccinations, contact New Jersey Divorce Solutions or schedule a Client Vision Meeting here.