Divorce attorneys brace for exes battling over kids getting COVID-19 vaccine

Antonio G Ginting

With COVID-19 vaccines recently approved for children 12 and older, more divorce attorneys around the country are starting to see divorced parents disagree on vaccinating their children.

“This is something we’ve been seeing increasingly over the last few months,” said Stephanie Tang, an attorney with Chicago law firm Kogut & Wilson and vice chair of the Illinois State Bar Association’s Family Law section council.

Tang, who has represented parents on both sides of the issue, said even before the pandemic, divorced parents argued over vaccinations. Now, with school starting and restrictions being tightened at many public places like restaurants and entertainment venues, it’s putting more pressure on parents to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.

Adding to the pressure was last week’s decision by the Food and Drug Administration to give final approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for people 16 and over, replacing its “emergency use” status and putting it on par with other marketed vaccines.

CPS and several other school districts already require employees to be vaccinated.

As for a vaccine mandate for students, the Illinois Department of Public Health “is looking at all options to help protect students, teachers and staff as they return to in-person learning,” spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.

Brad Novak, a divorced father from Lansing, said there are too many unknowns for him to be comfortable getting his 13-year-old daughter vaccinated.

“I’m on the side of caution. I’m like, ‘No thank you’ for the COVID vaccine, not knowing how it’s going to affect my child,” Novak said.

Brad Novak got the COVID-19 vaccine but says there are too many unanswered questions for him to allow his teen daughter to get vaccinated.

Brad Novak got the COVID-19 vaccine but says there are too many unanswered questions for him to allow his teen daughter to get vaccinated.

“I don’t know how it’s going to affect her body or her potential for having kids or what it could mean to her children, how their DNA could be affected as well,” Novak said.

He got the vaccine, he said, because he has no plans for more children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 12 and older be vaccinated against COVID-19, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend it for all people without contraindications who are 12 and older.

Novak, who also has 11-year-old twin boys, said despite his objections, his ex-wife vaccinated their daughter a couple weeks ago, though she did tell him beforehand. Novak said he couldn’t afford to fight it in court, and he didn’t want to create tension between him and his daughter.

“It’s not that I’m opposed to standing up for what I believe in, but it didn’t cross my mind because of the financial costs.”

Sarah Stark, a divorced mother of 10-year-old Shayna, cannot wait to get her daughter vaccinated despite the objections of her own ex.

Novak’s objections don’t pass muster with her.

“I definitely understand the importance of questioning. I believe strongly that people should question things. But I have a problem with people getting their information from YouTube or TikTok videos, and people search for things that fit their beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias,” Stark said.

Sarah Stark, a divorced mother to 10-year-old Shayna, cannot wait to get her daughter vaccinated despite the objections of her ex.

Sarah Stark, a divorced mother to 10-year-old Shayna, cannot wait to get her daughter vaccinated despite the objections of her ex.

Stark said her daughter, who is doing remote learning again this year because she has epilepsy, which Stark said puts her at a higher risk if she contracts the coronavirus, is frustrated with people who refuse to get themselves or their kids vaccinated.

“There’s a piece of me where my compassion is becoming very thin because I think people sometimes just don’t want to see things differently,” Stark said.

Stark doesn’t believe she can change her ex’s opinion of the vaccine, but she doesn’t have to: She has sole responsibility for medical decisions concerning her daughter.

Other parents share responsibility for medical decisions. Tang said most parenting agreements have a provision requiring parents to try mediation first. Still, if mediation doesn’t work, the issue will end up in court — and Tang expects that to happen more often.

Once in court, a judge often will appoint an independent party, known as a guardian ad litem, to act as the eyes and ears of the child, said Staci Balbirer, a family law partner with Aronberg Goldgehn in River North.

“That person will look at the facts. Is the child immunocompromised, is this child attending in-person school, do they have siblings, are they in extracurricular activities? The court is going to look at that when determining if the vaccine is the best decision for the child, and it’s going to be a hard decision for the courts to make,” Balbirer said.

Chantelle Porter, a family law attorney at A. Traub & Associates in Lombard, has been a guardian ad litem in both DuPage and Cook counties. She said the coronavirus vaccination issue is coming up more and more, and judges are looking to science for guidance.

“The trend of the court seems to be that they are looking to see which parent has the responsibility for medical decisions. If they have joint decision-making responsibilities, they seem to be leaning toward science, for lack of a better word. Each case is specific, but they are looking at best practices, science and whatever the recognized authorities like the American Academy of Pediatrics states,” Porter said.

In cases where a specific medical issue is cited by a parent for not vaccinating their child, she checks them out. “I would get a release to speak to the child’s pediatrician or get their medical records so that I can verify things.”

Porter added although the courts may see an influx of cases asking for decisions on child COVID-19 vaccinations, she expects the majority of cases will be whittled down to disputes with special circumstances.

“I think as we get further along, the courts are going to be relying more on science. The cases you’re going to see will be more of those outlier cases, where the family might have some unique circumstances that need to be looked into.”

Regardless of where someone falls in the debate, Stark said it’s important that people listen to each other to get somewhere without relying on the judicial system.

“I have personal friends who have very different views than I, and I’ve stayed friends, but it’s gotten harder and harder over the last few years. But at the end of the day, if I close the door, it just becomes two separate camps. To get anywhere, we have to be willing to make enough space inside of ourselves to hear one another.”

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