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In Minnesota, as in most states, courts prefer divorced parents to share joint legal custody of their children, which means making major decisions for the child as a team. Those major decisions include things like education and health care decisions, such as a child vaccination. These days, the issue of vaccinations is at the forefront of many parents’ minds. Unfortunately, if they disagree with their co-parent about whether to vaccinate their children, a serious conflict could arise.
Unlike many parenting decisions which allow for compromise, whether to vaccinate a child against COVID-19 is a binary one: the child either gets vaccinated or they don’t. And unlike decisions about which one parent may feel strongly and the other is indifferent, both parents probably feel strongly about child COVID vaccines, and vaccination against COVID in general.
How are parents to resolve this issue? Who can make healthcare decisions for a child when parents can’t cooperate to reach a resolution? It can seem like a hopeless issue, but there are ways to move forward.
Divorced parents may have disagreed about child vaccination in the past; skepticism or outright opposition to vaccines isn’t a new phenomenon. But in the past, stakes have either been lower—relatively few children die of the flu—or vaccinations for certain illnesses have been required by schools, taking the decision out of parents’ hands.
Now we have a perfect storm for parental disagreement about child vaccination: a new, potentially deadly disease, new vaccine technology, and no mandates, leaving the decision whether to vaccinate up to parents. Because both parents are likely to be entrenched in their respective positions, they may struggle to reach a resolution on their own. One parent may be terrified that their child will die of COVID; the other parent, equally terrified that a new, unfamiliar vaccine will permanently harm their child in some way. The fear, which may be deep and genuine on both sides, makes it difficult to discuss the issue rationally. Here are some options for resolving the stalemate.
If you and your co-parent both like and trust your child’s pediatrician, you might agree to take their advice as to whether your child should get the COVID-19 vaccine. After all, if you have trusted the pediatrician with your child’s health to date, why would you stop now? If you have questions about the risks of the vaccine, you may be able to schedule a virtual appointment with the doctor to discuss them, or submit them through the doctor’s online portal for a written response.
Facilitative family mediation is designed to help parties reach agreement on challenging issues like vaccine disagreements. The mediator will help the parties to focus not on their respective positions, but on their needs and interests. In almost all cases where parents are at odds over child vaccination, there is common ground: a desire for the child to be safe and healthy. An experienced family mediator can help co-parents identify their common ground, and perhaps enlarge it enough to make a decision they (and their child) can live with—literally.
If you and your co-parent already work with a parenting consultant in your case, you may consider submitting your disagreement about vaccination to them if this type of dispute falls within the terms of your contract with them. If you don’t already have a parenting consultant, you and your co-parent might agree to engage one to decide this issue. However, if you do not already have a history with a particular consultant, there is a danger that you and your spouse will not be able to agree on whom to retain.
As of this writing, only children aged 12 and up are eligible for the vaccine. Tweens and teenagers are generally not permitted to make their own medical decisions until they turn 18, but they are old enough to have opinions. They deserve to have input into decisions about their medical care. If your child very much wants to be vaccinated, or is hesitant, you should listen to them. Be careful not to put pressure on your child to be a “tiebreaker;” chances are that they don’t want to upset or alienate either of their parents. Ask open-ended questions. What have they heard about the COVID vaccine? Do they have concerns about the vaccine, or about getting COVID? What would help them to feel safe?
Going back to court should be a last resort, but it may be necessary if you can’t reach an agreement. Remember that courts will focus on the best interests of the child in any decision that affects a child. As the COVID crisis continues to deepen and affect more children (and affect them more seriously), a court may err on the side of caution and order that the child be allowed to be vaccinated.