Floridians sometimes have differences of opinion about whether vaccinations are safe for children. When a divorcing, divorced or unmarried parent’s belief about whether vaccinations are in the best interests of his or her children conflict with that of the other parent, it is a good idea to talk to an attorney about legal issues and potential legal remedies, depending on the circumstances.
First, there may be government or school regulations or policies requiring certain vaccinations as well as opt-out procedures in some cases. An attorney can advise you about this in your particular jurisdiction.
Negotiate a solution?
Parents may be able to negotiate a settlement agreement that determines who has legal responsibility and rights to make medical decisions for the child like whether to vaccinate. An agreement concerning custody matters such as parental responsibility for major life decisions like those concerning health care is called a parenting plan.
Courts must approve parenting plans
Florida law requires that the court approve a proposed parenting plan and that the plan designate who will be responsible for health care decisions like inoculations. The parents could share responsibility for health care decision making or one parent could have that right and responsibility solely.
The plan could be specific about vaccination decisions if that is an important issue for the family. For example, will one parent decide and the other have the right to consent or not? Must they discuss each time and come to a joint decision? Will one have the right to decide without input or consent of the other?
The court and the child’s best interest
The court could become involved to decide what is in a child’s best interest in different scenarios:
- To review and decide whether a submitted parenting plan is in a child’s best interest
- To create a parenting plan in the child’s best interest that includes the assignment of health care decision making power to one or both parents when the court rejects a submitted parenting plan, or when the parents cannot agree, and the issue is contested
- To consider a change in custody or parental decision-making responsibility when family circumstances have changed materially such as when a parent objects to vaccination decisions
What Florida courts say
In Winters v. Brown, the Florida District Court of Appeal in the Fourth District with headquarters in West Palm Beach in 2011 affirmed a trial court’s assignment of decision-making responsibility for vaccinations to the father. The mother had objected to vaccinations on religious grounds and the father wanted the child to receive traditional immunizations.
The court explained that a Florida appeals court upholds a trial court’s assignment of authority over vaccination decisions if it was based on “competent, substantial evidence.” The Winters trial court held three hearings where experts with varying opinions on vaccinations testified. The appeals court found that the decision to assign vaccination decision-making responsibility to the father was based on sufficient evidence.
The court also discussed the tension between allowing a child exposure to a parent’s religious beliefs and restricting the child’s involvement in religious practices that could severely harm him or her. The judge must decide what is in the child’s best interest in this situation.
Obviously, these issues are complex and can be contentious between parents. An experienced family lawyer can provide information, guidance and representation to a parent grappling with this situation.