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Vaccination Disputes and Child Custody

Vaccinating one’s child has become a controversial practice for some parents in recent years, and this issue can become the central focus of a child custody dispute. Keeping children safe from illness and the possibility of dire consequences is one of the main goals of vaccinations, which is accomplished by inoculating the population so they cannot carry or catch dangerous illnesses, such as measles, polio, and chickenpox. Children are supposed to receive these vaccines before they enter school to protect the population from an outbreak. Some parents have strong opinions against the use of vaccines, worrying they can produce serious reactions or the illness the vaccine is designed to prevent in their children.

Medical decisions are an inherent part of parenting, but when parents share custody, how do they resolve disagreements over this issue? Courts throughout the country are starting to grapple with custody disputes over vaccinations, and in Indiana, a mother was held in contempt after refusing to vaccinate her child, despite a paternity order that stated she must do so if the child is enrolled in a school that requires inoculations. Many objections to vaccinations are based on religious grounds, which can complicate how courts view disagreements between parents. A discussion of how these types of decisions fit within child custody orders, and the type of evidence courts will expect to see if this issue is litigated, will follow below.

Legal Custody

Child custody is divided into two areas of responsibility in Indiana – legal and physical, known as parenting time. As any parent knows, the day-to-day care-taking duties, while important, do not encompass every aspect of a parent’s responsibilities. The other big piece of parenting is making the important decisions that direct a child’s life. This decision-making responsibility is referred to as legal custody when this responsibility is mandated by court order. It generally includes decisions related to the child’s education, religion, and medical care. While unusual, courts can split the specific areas over which a parent has authority. It will all depend on what is in the best interests of the child. Assuming the parents are capable of working together, awarding joint legal custody is somewhat customary. However, when disputes arise that the parents cannot resolve privately, a court may be asked to settle the disputed question or modify legal custody entirely if a substantial change in circumstances occurred and mutual cooperation is not likely going forward.

Evidence to Vaccinate or Not

If vaccination does come before a family law court, the personal opinions of each parent about the safety of these inoculations will not carry much weight. Testimony from medical experts will be needed to explore how science supports or advises against vaccination. However, in Indiana, parents can claim a religious exception to this requirement, and courts will be tasked with determining if the belief is genuine, or just a convenient expedient to avoid vaccinating the child. Courts do not like to regulate religious issues, so these cases can present additional complications. Much of the court’s decision will rest on the terms of the parenting plan, especially if vaccinations are specifically mentioned. This fact should urge parents to include a provision for this procedure if there are strong opinions on either side. Otherwise, the court will have to weigh how to balance the parent’s religious beliefs against what is best for the child, and the outcome will depend on the facts of each case.

Call for Help

Child custody disputes are not something you should handle alone. You and your child should get the full rights and protections allowed under the law, and Christopher L. Arrington, P.C. knows how to negotiate or litigate the best possible result. Contact the Danville family law firm today at (317) 745-4494 to schedule an appointment.

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