Joint Legal Custody and Vaccinations

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If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that vaccines can be a hot-button issue. In reality, controversy and vaccines haven’t been strangers for several decades.

When adults get vaccinated, it’s their decision to do so, and there is no controversy involved. When it comes to children, however, parents make vaccination decisions on their behalf. Parents who are no longer together and who don’t agree on the issue of their children’s vaccinations can face serious battles ahead.

If you’re facing a joint legal custody concern that involves vaccinations, you need a seasoned Austin child custody attorney with expansive experience successfully handling these challenging cases.

Joint Legal Custody

Texas resolves child custody cases in relation to both legal and physical custody. While physical custody addresses parenting time schedules – or when children are scheduled to be with one parent or the other – legal custody determines decision-making authority. This authority extends to primary parenting decisions like the following:

  • Decisions about the medical care and treatment the children receive, including vaccinations

  • Decisions about the children’s schooling and daycare

  • Decisions about the children’s participation in extracurricular activities and travel

  • Decisions about the children’s religious upbringing

When both parents share joint legal custody and neither parent has tie-breaking authority, they must negotiate mutually acceptable decisions in each of these important arenas. This decision can be especially difficult when the issue at hand is a vaccination – especially a relatively new vaccination that sprang from a global pandemic.

COVID Vaccines and Boosters

While parents balking at vaccines is nothing new, the advent of COVID-19 and subsequent vaccinations and boosters thrust the topic into the limelight. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) shares the following results of their 2022 COVID vaccination study:

  • The percentage of children under the age of 18 who received at least one COVID vaccination hovered just above 50 percent.

  • Slightly more than 50 percent of children aged 5 to 17 received a COVID booster shot.

  • The children of vaccinated parents were more likely – by a factor of 5 – to have some level of vaccination themselves and were more likely – by a factor of 9 – to have completed the entire vaccination series than the children of parents who weren’t vaccinated.

Overall, 71 percent of parents were reluctant to vaccinate their children or were uncertain about vaccinating their children who were under the age of 5. This percentage decreased to about 47 percent for parents of children aged 5 to 11. For children aged 12 to 17, only about 28 percent of parents shared the same uncertainty or reluctance.

The primary reasons parents give for foregoing COVID vaccines for their children include the following justifications:

  • About 53 percent are concerned about possible side effects.

  • Nearly 49 percent lack trust in the vaccines.

  • About 39 percent don’t believe children need the vaccine.

  • More than 32 percent don’t think their children are at high risk of contracting COVID in the first place.

With these varying statistics in mind, it’s not difficult to understand how serious conflict between parents who share legal custody and differing opinions about vaccinations can arise. If you’re in the center of one of these conflicts, reach out for the help of a compassionate Austin child custody attorney.

Invasive Medical Procedures

Legal custody addresses primary decision-making authority – rather than the everyday decisions that parents are called upon to make. For example, if your child has an ear infection when they’re with you, you don’t need their other parent’s permission to get the medical care they need.

When it comes to legal custody and medical care, the decision-making authority pertains to invasive medical procedures, and it is not completely clear that vaccines fall into this category.

The Texas Family Code doesn’t include a definition of invasive medical procedures, and Texas family courts have not been forthcoming with a working definition. The Texas Health & Safety Code, however, defines invasive procedures as forms of surgical entry into the body or as the medical repair of major traumatic injuries.

While vaccinations don’t specifically fall into either category, they have been addressed as invasive procedures in some courts throughout the state. In the end, the issue of whether or not vaccines qualify as invasive medical procedures for the purposes of child custody cases in Texas hasn’t been succinctly resolved.

Can I Stop My Ex from Vaccinating Our Child?

Because vaccines aren’t specifically classified as invasive medical procedures, the parent who wants to vaccinate the children has a legal leg up. However, this inclination does not mean that you have no say in the matter if you share joint legal custody. It’s important to note that the State of Texas has a solid interest in protecting the general public from disease, which generally includes supporting vaccinations.

Another component of shared custody is that each parent is required to notify the other of any significant information regarding their shared children’s health. Vaccinations fall squarely within this realm.

As such, if you are planning on vaccinating your child in the face of your ex’s objections or are concerned that your children’s other parent may vaccinate them without your consent, you have parental rights that are worth protecting. Consult with a dedicated Austin child custody attorney with impressive relevant experience in this challenging area of the law.

Generally, cases regarding vaccinations are resolved through negotiations between the parents and their respective child custody attorneys outside of court. Failing this, however, there is also the option of attending mediation, which can be highly effective, before you take the matter to court.

Many parents have powerful and compelling reasons for choosing to vaccinate – or choosing not to do so – and if you fall into either category, a savvy child custody attorney can help.

FAQ about Joint Custody

If you share joint custody of your children with your ex and are facing a dispute in relation to vaccinations, the answers to the following frequently asked questions may help. You can also ask questions specific to your case to a compassionate Austin child custody attorney.

What Is Joint Legal Custody?

Legal custody determines which parent has decision-making authority for primary matters like medical care, schooling, extracurriculars, and religious upbringing. Many divorced parents share legal custody, but there are options involved.

For example, one of you may be awarded the authority to break a tie. Or you may divide these important parenting decisions between yourselves according to category, which means one of you may make all the decisions about medical care and religious upbringing while the other addresses extracurriculars and education – or any other combination.

If you share legal custody with your ex and if neither of you has tie-breaking authority, you’ll need to negotiate a mutually acceptable decision on the matter of vaccinations.

Does My Ex Have the Right to Vaccinate My Children against My Will?

If you and your ex share legal custody and neither of you were awarded tie-breaking authority, you’re required to make primary decisions about your children’s medical care together. However, these primary decisions relate to invasive medical procedures, and vaccines may not be considered invasive. In other words, there is some wiggle room on the matter.

You and your ex are required to share medical information about your children with one another, and this includes information about any vaccines you may have scheduled. If you and your ex are not on the same page about vaccinating your children, taking the matter up with a knowledgeable Austin child custody attorney is advised.

What Happens in a Medical Emergency?

In a medical emergency, the parent who is available to make decisions is called upon to do so. It is unlikely, however, that a vaccine would qualify as a medical emergency.

What If My Ex Vaccinates My Child without My Knowledge?

If you and your ex share legal custody and they vaccinate your children against your will, they could potentially be held in contempt of court. Even if the court determines that the vaccinations don’t rise to the level of an invasive medical procedure, your ex’s failure to notify you ahead of time could lead to a contempt of court charge.

Texas courts consider such matters on a case-by-case basis, which means you may have legal standing.

Can Parents Refuse Vaccinations for Their Children in Texas?

Parents can choose to exempt their children from required school vaccines in the State of Texas for valid reasons that fall into any of the following categories:

  • Religious reasons

  • Medical reasons

  • Philosophical reasons

While most states have allowances for religious and medical reasons, far fewer support philosophical objections, which refer to objections based on personal beliefs. As such, Texas affords parents greater rights of refusal when it comes to vaccinations than many other states do. However, things aren’t as simple when divorced parents disagree regarding the vaccination in question.

How Can My Ex and I Move Past Our Battle over Vaccinations?

An important point to keep in mind in relation to vaccinations is that you and your ex both want what is best for your shared children. Many parents in situations like yours turn to their children’s trusted doctors to help them make vaccination decisions.

You trust your children’s doctor to guide their health care, which makes turning to them for advice regarding vaccinations only natural. Your pediatrician or family healthcare provider knows the health history of each of your children and can help you make well-informed decisions on their behalf.

How Will the Court Resolve Our Vaccination Debate?

If your case does go to trial, the court will take all the unique circumstances involved into careful consideration. Texas courts base all child custody determinations on the best interests of the children involved, which means the court will rule in accordance with what’s best for your children.

If you and your ex share legal custody and have equal authority in relation to medical decisions – and if the court classifies the vaccine in question as medically invasive – it may be interested in indicators that demonstrate one of you has been primarily responsible for making medical decisions on behalf of the children to date.

For example, if you’ve guided the health care your children have received while their other parent deferred to your judgment on such matters, it may support your authority on the vaccination issue at hand.

Another issue the judge may consider is your children’s history of vaccinations. If they’ve been vaccinated in accordance with school regulations thus far but one of you is putting up a roadblock in specific relation to the COVID vaccination, the court may be more inclined to side with the parent who is in favor of vaccinating.

Ultimately, it is nearly impossible to predict how a court will rule on a case regarding vaccinations. However, time is likely of the essence, which makes reaching out for skilled legal guidance sooner rather than later in your best interest.

Why Do Parents Choose Not to Vaccinate Their Children?

Parents have many different reasons for choosing not to vaccinate their children:

  • Religious reasons that often focus on the ingredients contained in the vaccination or on a more general avoidance of contemporary medical interventions

  • Personal beliefs that tend to focus on bolstering immunity by allowing children to experience childhood illnesses naturally

  • Safety concerns, which have gained more traction among parents over the last two or three decades

While the benefits of vaccinations overall are impossible to deny, this doesn’t mean every vaccination is right for every child in every situation. Every parent is called upon to make well-informed healthcare decisions for their children, which can be challenging when divorced parents are at odds on the matter.

Turn to an Experienced Austin Child Custody Attorney for the Help You Need

Brett Pritchard is a compassionate Austin child custody attorney at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard who recognizes the significance of your vaccination case. Your ability to do what’s right for your children is paramount, so please don’t put off reaching out to contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 to schedule your FREE consultation today.

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