Navigating co-parenting can be tricky in the best of times, but the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified tensions in many already-strained relationships. As new vaccines have been developed and approved for children, many co-parents have struggled to agree on the best health decisions for their children. Whether (or when) to vaccinate their children is an issue clouded by politics, fear, and confusion, leaving many parents frustrated and angry.
In addition to considering the health and welfare of their children, parents who share custody of their children must be mindful of the parenting plan in place for their child or children. If co-parents disagree, they may be unsure how to resolve their issues. How can Washington parents settle these disagreements, both for COVID-19 vaccines and future healthcare issues?
Washington Parenting Plan Guidelines
Washington law sets guidelines for courts to craft a permanent parenting plan in each child’s best interests. The judge has the discretion to order that parents share the absolute authority to make decisions about their child’s healthcare or that one parent has the final say.
Regardless of how the parenting plan allocates decision-making, any parent may make emergency decisions about the health or safety of the child while the child is in their care. However, this does not mean a parent can simply wait until their child is in their care to make an irreversible, non-emergency healthcare decision over the other parent’s objection. Such actions could lead to a contempt of court finding, resulting in jail time, fines, loss of custody, or other punishment.
Washington parenting plans include directions for resolving disagreements between co-parents, including those related to health care decisions. The default arbitrator of disputes is the family court system. However, filing petitions with the court is expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes effectively futile (as was the case during the height of the pandemic when the courts were closed for everything except emergency issues).
As an alternative, a parenting plan may allow the parents to use mediation, private arbitration, or counseling before seeking judicial intervention. These services can be cost-effective ways to resolve disputes more quickly than going to court.
Crafting More Helpful and Effective Parenting Plans
Washington State’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds and family court system encourage co-parents to work together to draft parenting plans. The best parenting plan is one both parents agree upon that effectively protects their children’s best interests and health. A family court judge will often enter an agreed parenting plan if it seems to be in the child’s best interests.
One way to make a parenting plan more helpful in emergencies, disagreements, and future issues is to be as specific as possible about how conflict will be resolved. For example, the plan may specify arbitrators, mediation services, or counselors the parents have pre-approved to resolve disagreements. Regarding medical decisions like vaccinations, parents may agree in advance to abide by the recommendation of the child’s pediatrician or another appointed health authority if there is conflict or disagreement. The more personalized and specific the parenting plan is, the easier it will be for the parents to resolve issues when they arise.
Modifying Existing Parenting Plans
Washington family courts have encouraged parents to communicate and work out arrangements to get through the pandemic, including temporarily altering visitation, parenting time, and other aspects of their parenting plans. In some cases, co-parents may realize that different arrangements work better for their children and family. If parents agree to modify their parenting plan to update their custodial preferences, visitation plans, or decision-making preferences, they may do so by filing a petition with the family courts. An attorney can help draft the request and ensure this process is handled correctly.
The decision of whether to vaccinate a child can impact a family’s ability to comply with a parenting plan’s custodial terms. Restrictions on travel for unvaccinated individuals can cause problems for parents who are geographically separated, especially internationally. If a parent with decision-making power decides not to vaccinate a child and it precludes a co-parent from their entitled visitation, the co-parents will likely be headed to court. In cases where there has been a significant change in the family’s situation, like this example, the court may agree to one parent’s proposed modification even over the other’s objection or may enter its own decision about what is best for the child.
Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney
An experienced family attorney advocates for your needs and your child’s best interests. They can empathize with your frustration and help diffuse volatile situations. If you are in the process of separating or entering a parenting plan for the first time, they can help you negotiate a flexible, responsive plan that works best for your family. If you are struggling with co-parenting issues, a family lawyer can help you understand your options for resolving vaccination and other healthcare issues and changing your Washington parenting plan if necessary.