What Happens When Divorced Parents Disagree Over Vaccination?
The debate surrounding the health and safety risks of vaccines is about as polarizing as they come. Many parents, lawmakers, and medical professionals feel strongly about the importance of vaccinating our children to protect them and others from debilitating and potentially deadly diseases. A small but vocal minority believe the vaccines we give our children are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent.
We generally accept a parent’s right to make decisions for their child, even if we do not always agree with their choices. But what happens when divorced parents cannot agree on very important medical and upbringing decisions, like immunization? The answer depends on the circumstances.
Immunization Laws in Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia requires all students be up-to-date on immunizations before starting school, including public and private schools, daycares, and universities. Homeschooled children are also required to be vaccinated, although documentation of immunization is rarely requested.
Virginia does allow for medical and religious exemptions from vaccine requirements, with a doctor’s note or signed affidavit of religious beliefs, respectfully. With the notable exception of the HPV vaccine, personal exemptions are not allowed.
Legal Custody in Virginia
If you are awarded sole custody, you will retain all legal and physical rights and responsibilities for your child. While the child’s other parent will probably be granted some visitation rights, all legal and medical decisions are to be made by the sole custodial parent. If you have sole custody of your child, it is ultimately your decision to withhold immunizations from the child based on a religious exemption. Keep in mind your ex-spouse may seek a modification to your custody order based on your unwillingness to vaccinate the child.
If you and your former spouse share joint custody of your child, both of you have the right to make medical and other important decisions on the child’s behalf. If you and your ex cannot come to an agreement on immunization, the court may decide whether it is in the best interest of the Child to be vaccinated or it may award final decision making ability to one parent for medical purposes. The issue of vacination alone will not likely lead to a change in legal cusotdy status unless the court finds the parties are unable to co-parent in general. Although family courts in Virginia generally agree that vaccination is in the best interest of the child, it does not guarantee the wishes of the pro-vaccination will prevail.
In Grzyb v. Grzyb (2009), sole medical decision-making rights were granted to the mother, despite her claimed religious opposition to vaccination. The Court found that the mother took greater interest and care in attending to the child’s health care and was “in a superior position to assess and meet her child’s medical needs.”
If your child’s custodial parent is refusing to vaccinate your child, especially without a medical or religious exemption, you can ask the courts for help. However, the judge must weigh all significant considerations before making a decision in your case.
Reach Out to Us Today for Help
If you need assistance litigating a co-parenting dispute, or modifying a child custody order, Whitbeck Cisneros McElroy PC can help. Our attorneys are experienced, passionate, and dedicated to family law issues. Serving all of Loudoun County, Sterling, Ashburn, and surrounding areas, our office in Leesburg is waiting to hear from you. Call us today at 703-997-4982.