When divorced parents can't agree on vaccinating the kids : Shots - Health News A divorced Pennsylvania couple could not agree on whether to vaccinate their children — and ended up in court. Since the vaccine was approved for kids, cases like these have skyrocketed in the state.

She wanted to vaccinate their kids against COVID. He didn't. A judge had to decide

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DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Children as young as 6 months are expected to be eligible for vaccines against COVID-19 any moment now. But it'll be up to parents whether their kids get them. And when parents are divorced, that decision may be complicated, as it has been for older children. Reporter Nina Feldman has the story of one such case that ended up in family court.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: Heather and Norm have had their share of disagreements. Their separation seven years ago and the custody battle afterwards were nasty. But over the years, the two have found a way to weather disputes cordially and check in regularly about their two kids, now ages 10 and 11. Here's their dad, Norm.

NORM: If someone would have told me in the middle of divorce that, you know, sometime in the future, you and your ex-wife are going to be able to just call each other on the phone and just have a chat, I would have said, no way. That is totally impossible.

FELDMAN: The two live about 20 minutes away from each other in a rural area outside of Philadelphia. Here's Heather.

HEATHER: This field doesn't look like much now, but it's full of thousands and thousands of all kinds of edible flowers in the summertime, and I sell them by the bouquet.

FELDMAN: Norm also has some property, where he grows gourmet mushrooms that he sells to local restaurants. Both parents drive pickup trucks and have giant trampolines in the yard for their kids to jump on.

HEATHER: It's just more fun than you can even imagine.

FELDMAN: But their carefully cultivated co-parenting came to an abrupt end when the first vaccines became available for 5- to 11-year-olds last fall. Because it's a health-related dispute, NPR is not using the parents' last names to protect the privacy of children. For Heather, vaccinating the kids was a no-brainer.

HEATHER: I felt like it was the only thing that is available to give us some layer of protection and a sense of control about all of the things that have been uncontrollable for the past two years.

FELDMAN: Norm is vaccinated himself, but for his kids, he had a different calculus. The way he saw it, serious COVID cases were relatively rare for young children. So for them...

NORM: I didn't really see any risk of not being vaccinated.

FELDMAN: It's important to note that COVID is not risk-free for children. Many more children were hospitalized during the omicron wave compared to previous surges. And unvaccinated kids were much more likely to get sick compared to vaccinated children. But Norm was focused on how new the vaccines were.

NORM: We don't have the long-term data, so I don't see how anyone could say for certain that this vaccine is 100% safe for children this age.

FELDMAN: It's also true that the long-term effects of COVID are still unknown. Heather was worried. She wanted the kids to get the shots. Omicron was becoming more and more dominant, and being unvaccinated was impacting the kids' education. Any time there was an exposure at school, the vaccinated students could stay in class. But her kids were sent home to quarantine. Heather thought about defying Norm and just taking the kids to get vaccinated on her own. But it's not so simple. In most states, parents with shared legal custody must make decisions about their children's health together. If one parent acts alone, it would violate their custody agreement. Heather didn't want to risk that, so she hired a lawyer, and a hearing date was scheduled in family court.

Family lawyers across the country are seeing these types of disputes skyrocket. Cary Mogerman is the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

CARY MOGERMAN: This has become a cause celebre in a world where vaccinations have been so routine for so many other maladies and illnesses. So we're seeing quite a bit of it.

FELDMAN: Mogerman says there hasn't been case law established on this yet, but that judges have been more likely to come down on the side of vaccination unless there's a specific reason not to. The judge in Norm and Heather's case made it clear this was going to be a tough call. She told the parents she thought they both had the best interests of their children in mind. They just had different ideas of what that meant. A few days after the hearing, the judge issued her order. Heather would have sole decision-making power on just this issue. The kids were getting vaccinated.

HEATHER: It's just a huge, huge relief.

FELDMAN: Heather called me when she got the news.

HEATHER: I didn't think it was going to take over three months and close to $10,000. But here we are.

FELDMAN: Norm and Heather both say they've always been careful not to alienate their kids from the other parent, even when they disagree.

NORM: Any book about divorce or co-parenting and it's always in bold, caps lock letters, like, do not disparage the other parent in front of the kids.

FELDMAN: But Heather says this time, she felt her kids start to resent her. When it came time to get vaccinated, they didn't want to, her daughter especially.

HEATHER: She just looked at me and then looked out the window and said, no. I'm not doing that. So that's also very much her personality. I had to stress, like, actually, sweetheart, you're 9. Yes, you are.

FELDMAN: Heather said it hurt to feel like her daughter had turned against her. But she said that's also just being a mom sometimes. You do what's best for your kids, even if they don't like it.

Heather took the kids to get their first shots this spring at a pharmacy. It was not the celebratory scene she imagined. They were mad at her. Once it was done, they stuffed their pockets full of Dum Dums, and she took them out for Chipotle. Still, as she watched them chow down on their quesadillas, Heather says she felt she could finally relax.

HEATHER: I exhaled for the first time in two years.

FELDMAN: Now, Heather and the kids have settled into what she calls junior year of COVID life. Now that summer is underway, she scheduled them for their booster shots. For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

KURTZLEBEN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WHYY and Kaiser Health News.

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