More divorced parents in Pennsylvania take COVID vaccine disputes to court

Cases of vaccine possession are on the rise

Heather and Norm are among hundreds of divorced parents in Pennsylvania who are taking similar cases to court. Hillary Moonay, a family law attorney with Obermeyer Law in Bucks County, which represents families in custody cases, said her firm has seen an increase in custody cases dealing with all manner of COVID disputes.

At the start of the pandemic, it was about whether parents were taking proper masking precautions or who a child should stay with if a parent was exposed, she said. But once vaccines were approved for minors, things really took off.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and in that time I’ve probably seen two to three cases related to disputes over children getting vaccinated,” Moonay said.

Now, she estimates that her family law firm, which has about 20 attorneys and offices in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, sees at least one case like this a week.

The scope of judges’ rulings in these cases can vary widely, Moonay said. A narrow decision would give a parent decision-making power only on the issue of COVID vaccines. But if a judge felt that a parent’s position fell so far short of the child’s best interests, the judge could determine that the parent should have no decision-making power in the future. Moonay said she’s seen both outcomes, but one thing is certain: These disputes seem bigger and more intense than other cases.

“Parents have much stronger feelings about this than they do about a lot of other custody issues,” she said.

In her experience, Moonay said, judges tend to rely heavily on medical advice from pediatricians and look at children’s vaccination histories to make their decisions. If none of this contradicts the idea that the child should be vaccinated, the judge is likely to recommend it. And, she said, judges are on the lookout for signs that a parent’s position may be politically motivated.

“In some cases we have evidence to show this because parents have posted things on social media or spoken out at school board meetings to show that their position may be more than what it looks like. in court,” she said.

In Heather’s case, the children’s pediatrician did not provide a letter recommending that the children be vaccinated. The Kimberton Clinic, which describes himself as a practitioner of holistic medicine, commented that none of the children had any health reasons not to receive the COVID vaccine, but would not recommend it outright. Instead, the clinic simply said it was following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend that healthy children be vaccinated.

This made Heather’s case a little more difficult. His lawyer argued that the children had received their other vaccines and were missing school and other social activities because they were not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Norm represented himself in court. He said he couldn’t afford a lawyer. He attempted to admit a range of evidence to support his case, but the judge refused some of it.

“It’s something that definitely didn’t go the way I thought it would,” Norm said.

He had brought articles written by doctors who were skeptical of vaccines, such as Marty Makaire, arguing that COVID vaccines for children have more risks than benefits. Ultimately, the judge admitted data Norm brought from the VAERS database maintained by the CDC, to which anyone can anonymously submit adverse side effects from vaccines. He was also able to submit several Johns Hopkins studies examining the effect of vaccines on the menstrual cycles of women and girls.

Norm also noted that being pro-vaccine was a new stance for Heather. In the past, she was the one who worried about vaccines and put children on a delayed vaccination schedule when they were little because she worried about the potential long-term consequences. After their separation, Norm immediately had them vaccinated.

Now they have changed position. Norm said he changed his mind because the COVID-19 vaccine has not been proven to work like other vaccines recommended for school-aged children. Heather said her reckoning has changed due to the urgency of the pandemic – plus she has a decade of motherhood under her belt.

In her closing remarks, the judge said it was clear that both parents cared a lot about the welfare of their children, they just had different ideas on how to achieve it. She said she doesn’t take these cases lightly.

The parents waited days for the judge to make a decision. Heather said she was a nervous wreck, really unsure of how the chips would fall.

It’s unclear to what extent Heather and Norm’s complex story or the evidence they submitted was considered. In the end, the judge issued a simple order outlining the decision, without any explanation:

Heather would be granted decision-making authority over the issue of COVID-19 vaccination, but nothing else. She made an appointment as soon as she received the order.

“This is relieving news,” Heather said. “I didn’t think it was going to take more than three months and nearly $10,000. But here we are.

The battle for their hearts and minds

It wasn’t an unambiguous victory for Heather, however. The whole process had an impact on the children. The back and forth between their mother and father had made them skeptical of vaccines and resentful of her. She had kept them informed the whole time: had informed them that she and their father could not get along and that the decision was made by a judge. She broke the news to them separately.

“My son is really nice,” recalls Heather. “He curled up next to me on the couch and just looked like, well, OK. He was very accepting, and that was really his personality.

Her daughter, on the other hand, didn’t take the news either.

“She just looked at me and then looked out the window and said, ‘No, I’m not doing that. “”

Heather, who lives in Montgomery County, disagreed with her estranged husband over the decision to vaccinate their two children against COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHY)

According to Heather, it’s also a function of her daughter’s personality. But it’s also the result, Heather thought, of her daughter being told she had nothing to do with her body she didn’t want.

“I must have stressed at that point, like, actually, honey, you’re 9. Yes, you are,” Heather said.

It hurt to feel like her daughter had turned against her, but at the same time, it’s part of parenthood, Heather said.

“You make tough decisions to protect your kids all the time,” she said. “You disappoint them.”

Norm was also disappointed with the decision.

“It didn’t make sense to me when we started the conversation; at this point, it makes even less sense to me,” he said, noting that omicron infections had dropped significantly and it was possible that a new vaccine would be needed to target a future variant. . Recent research also indicates that with omicron, the Pfizer vaccine was much less effective than expected in 5-11 year olds.

Still, Norm said, he had been careful to navigate the conflict without taking his children away from their mother. He also remains committed to that after the decision.

“You read any book about divorce or co-parenting, and it’s always in all caps and bold, ‘Don’t put the other parent down in front of the kids,'” Norm said. “So I was very, very aware of that from the start.”

Heather said she set the same ground rule for Norm. But she worries about how this experience will affect her children in the long run.

“How does this frame their critical thinking going forward? Do they then live in limbo where they really never know what is right? she said she wonders. As a mother, she considers it her duty to give her children a moral compass.

“It’s tough when their hearts and minds are kind of armed against what I think is a medically sound decision for them,” Heather said.

Norm is more convinced that the experience will be positive for the children. He said he thinks it will teach them to navigate conflict and accept different opinions.

Heather took the two children to receive their first doses in early March. She hadn’t told them where they were going, and when they got to the pharmacy, she said, they felt ambushed and angry with her. She shrugged. Sometimes, she thought, that’s just a mother’s job.

After the injections, quick and painless, her children filled their pockets with Dum Dums and Heather took them to Chipotle. It might not have been exactly the celebratory moment she had imagined, but as she watched them eagerly dig into their quesadillas, she felt that, for the first time in two years, she could finally exhale.