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What happens when divorced parents disagree on vaccinating their child?


The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine for children marked the end of an anxious 18 months for some families. But for some parents who are divorced or separated, it's brought a new kind of stress. If they share custody, they have to agree on the vaccine before their child can get it. And as Sarah Gibson of New Hampshire Public Radio reports, finding compromise can be difficult.




GIBSON: Heather Vitale lives with her mom and daughter above her family's alteration and costume shop. When I meet her, they're in the midst of a painting project.

VITALE: Let me go wash my hand and take care of my paints.

GIBSON: Oh, wow.

ARIA: Yeah, she got paint on them.

GIBSON: Five-year-old Aria (ph) is here a lot. Vitale worries about her catching or passing COVID to their customers, many of whom are older.

VITALE: And I want to keep them safe. And part of keeping them safe is keeping me and my family safe.

GIBSON: The obvious solution for Vitale is to get Aria vaccinated against COVID. But Vitale's ex-husband, Aria's Dad, shares custody. And he thinks the vaccine is dangerous.

VITALE: At this point, he is so scared of the vaccine and what it could do because he just reads too much into alternative news sources (laughter) that it would definitely end up in court if I was to do it, like, tomorrow.

GIBSON: Family court is a real possibility for separated and divorced parents who can't agree on the vaccine. When they separate, parents draw up what's called a parenting plan. And this usually requires them to share decision-making about medical care - everything from braces to long-term medications to vaccines.

Amy Connolly practices and teaches family law. She worries that with such heated disagreements over the COVID vaccine, some parents will ignore that parenting plan.

AMY CONNOLLY: What I'm bracing for is one parent just taking the child and getting vaccinated and not telling the other parent or telling them after it's done.

GIBSON: A parent who does this could be brought to court and lose their right to make future medical decisions for their child. Connolly says a parent whose former partner won't budge on the vaccine could fight for sole decision-making over vaccines. But that gets expensive.

CONNOLLY: If you go to court and you hire attorneys on the issue of vaccinations, it could be easily over $10,000 a side.

GIBSON: These kinds of cases usually take over a year to resolve, and that can feel like an eternity. A faster and more amicable way for parents to figure this out could be mediation, says Connolly. Parents work with a court-appointed or private mediator and try to reach a compromise.

CONNOLLY: You have to go with at least an open mind and try to see if there's some areas of agreement. And one of them may be, all right, we agree to go meet the child's pediatrician together and reconvene in four weeks.

GIBSON: Seeking advice from a pediatrician is pretty common when former partners don't see eye to eye on their child's health care. When Dr. Danielle Dunetz finds herself in this position, she talks to parents individually or together.

DANIELLE DUNETZ: I've had both parents in the same room at the same time. It's awkward, but (laughter) - but it's giving them, at this point, what is the standard of care, what's recommended for your child at this time. And they need to work it out?

GIBSON: Dunetz says, in some family feuds, it's not just parents disagreeing on the COVID vaccine. Their kids have opinions, too.

DUNETZ: Most of the kids are like, I want my COVID vaccine. I want to get back to normal. I don't want to have to worry about getting sick at school. And it's the parents that are more reluctant.

GIBSON: Dunetz recently wrote a letter for one parent to bring to family court recommending the vaccine. She says once she's done that, there is nothing else she can do. It's in the parents' hands or in the hands of a judge.

For NPR news, I'm Sarah Gibson.


Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on New Hampshire's southern tier.