Can a Florida judge force you to have your child vaccinated? What happens when parents disagree?
At the time of this writing in December 2020, we are at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans await the approval of vaccines that could protect us, but when they become available, what happens if a Florida parent opposes inoculation of their child?
We should note that when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves a vaccine, federal, Florida state or local authorities could enact laws or regulations that impact the answer to this question. For now, we can look for a framework at current state laws and similar situations.
Divorced or unmarried parents
We previously posted here about vaccination disputes between divorced or unmarried parents. The parent who makes vaccination decisions for the child is the one with parental responsibility for medical decisions – or even specifically for vaccination decisions – as ordered by a Florida court. The parents can also have joint responsibility, meaning they must decide together, which may not happen in a highly charged vaccination dispute.
The parties may have negotiated matters of parental responsibility in a settlement agreement, but a judge must have approved the terms as being in the child’s best interest before incorporating them into a divorce decree or other court order assigning parental responsibility. If the parents could not agree on who should decide, the court would have decided for them.
Modification of parental responsibility
Florida courts may modify parental responsibility assignment for major child decisions if there is a substantial change in circumstances and it would be in the child’s best interests. If a parent disagrees with the other’s intention to vaccinate or not vaccinate the child for COVID-19, they could go to court and argue that COVID-19 is a substantial change in circumstances and that because inoculating (or not inoculating) would be in the child’s best interest, the judge should switch responsibility for medical care or vaccinations to the petitioning parent.
At a hearing for such a modification, the court will want to hear expert medical testimony about the COVID-19 vaccine and the pros and cons of the particular child receiving a dose. The judge then will decide based on the evidence whether to reassign parental responsibility.
Historically for other kinds of vaccinations, Florida courts have gone both ways – sometimes siding with the parent who embraces traditional vaccination practices and sometimes with those who oppose vaccination such as for religious or homeopathic reasons.
Court orders for vaccinations
Outside of the situation of divorced or unmarried parents who disagree, there are times when state or local authorities could order a medical procedure like an inoculation such as if they found medical neglect of the child. Or, the court could terminate parental rights and appoint a guardian or order the child into foster care.
As we approach the time when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes a reality, parents should seriously consider the public health information about it and communicate with one another about the decision for their child. It is understandable for a parent to have concern about parental responsibility for medical care being held by the other parent in this context. A lawyer can provide information in these kinds of situations.