"The best interests of the child." It's a phrase heard in family courts across the nation, including here in North Carolina. But what does it mean? This legal standard leaves a lot up to interpretation for courts and for parents. Unfortunately, when it comes to certain issues like education, religious beliefs, and medical care, some parents have wildly different opinions on what is in the best interests of their child and what isn't.
Take for example the anti-vaxing movement, which has found traction in our country over the past few years. While some parents believe that vaccinating children on schedule per a doctor's recommendation is a good idea and "in the child's best interests," a growing number of parents feel strongly against vaccination. As you can imagine, this issue has sparked a debate that recently got the family courts involved.
The out-of-state case at hand
According to numerous news articles, including one in the Washington Post, a father of a 9-year-old boy wanted his son vaccinated while his ex-wife, who is the boy's primary caregiver, did not. This resulted in a court order, which the mother signed and agreed to follow. In October, however, she was arrested and sent to jail for seven days for contempt of court because she failed to vaccinate her son, which the court -- and the boy's father -- felt was in the boy's best interest.
The argument on both sides
Cases like this present judges and parents with challenging situations, especially here in North Carolina, because our state allows parents to exempt their child from vaccination for medical and religious reasons (G.S.130A-156 and G.S.130A-157). When parents agree on medical decisions for their child, there is generally no reason for the courts to become involved. However, when unmarried parents or divorcing spouses have differences of opinion on matters relating to their legal custody rights, disputes such as this must be decided by a judge. In determining what is in the child's best interests when parents disagree on these issues or in determining which parent will have legal decision-making authority if the parents do not agree, the courts may consider the child's safety with either parent, whether both parents will make decisions that are focused on the child's wellbeing and, among other things, each parent's ability to care for their child.
While some people believe vaccinations protect children from deadly diseases, and that not vaccinating exposes the child as well as others to significant risks, other people feel strongly that the decision to vaccinate is a choice and that safety concerns regarding vaccines outweigh the risks of not vaccinating. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in a custody dispute with someone who does not share your beliefs about medical, educational, and religious decisions, you may have to argue your position to a judge and attempt to convince the court that what you believe is in the best interest of the child. These disputes are tricky and often intersect with other areas of law, including constitutional law.
The choice is up to parents and judges
Despite attempts to stop the anti-vaxing movement in the United States, many parents are still choosing to delay vaccination for religious, personal, and philosophical beliefs as well as medical reasons. As such, it's possible a case like this could find its way into a North Carolina courtroom. The question then becomes: How would a judge in our state decide? Only time will tell. While this case raises a rather unique example, a child custody lawyer can help if you have disputes with the other parent regarding medical, educational, or religious issues and disagreements regarding which parent should have legal decision-making authority.