Family law experts highlight rise in COVID-19 vaccination disagreements

A Gold Coast woman says she has reached “a stalemate” with her ex-husband who will not agree to allow their two boys, aged six and nine, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Anna (not her real name) and her children have now contracted COVID on the same week they could have been lining up with other children to get the jab.

While they are over the worst of it, Anna remains worried if another variant comes along.

She is one of many parents family law experts say are having difficulties coming to an agreement with the other parent.

Children as young as five can now receive a COVID vaccination, and the Queensland Health Minister says more than 39,000 young people are booked in at state clinics.

Gold Coast family lawyer Julann Tiernan said she had seen an increase in separated parents, who could not agree on the issue, seeking legal advice.

Ms Tiernan urged parents to shelter their kids from disputes, and said children rarely had a legal say in what happened under “parental responsibility”. 

Navigating a ‘hard no’ 

Gold Coast mum Anna said she would have been “the first in line” to get her children vaccinated.

“[Their father] feels he’s very informed in all the reasons not to vaccinate. He is not getting himself vaccinated and doesn’t believe the kids should be vaccinated,” she said.

“All I want to do is protect my kids, and the fact that we have a vaccine for our kids is great, but we are at a stalemate.”

Two kids hug a family member - anonymous. 
Anna says she will “keep trying to have the conversation” with her ex-husband (not pictured).(ABC Radio Sydney: Matt Bamford)

Anna said the pair shared a “really great” co-parenting relationship but the topic had been tricky to navigate.

“You’ve got to try and hold respect for one another as co-parents because there’s a bigger picture going on,” she said.

“And both of us ultimately want to protect the kids, so I try to be calm and understanding.

“So it’s really hard but to be told ‘no’ and there’s no further discussion about it, well where does that leave me?”

Parental responsibility shared

Ms Tiernan said vaccination was becoming a “hot topic”.

“People are wondering, if they do have differing views, how they overcome that given the current opening up of vaccination for children aged five to 11,” she said.

 A smiling woman with short blonde hair, wearing colourful earings, glasses and top
Julann Tiernan from Teirnan Family Law says the Southport firm has seen an increase in child vaccination queries.(Supplied: Julann Tiernan)

She said parents in an “intact relationship” were more likely to work together than those who were in a more “complicated” situation, but in both instances there was a “shared parental responsibility”.

“That means they must try and work together and reach agreement on what should happen to the care of their children following separation,” she said.

“Both parents have that as a right unless there’s an order by the court that changes that and gives one parent sole parental responsibility.” 

Ms Tiernan said, despite kids voicing their own wishes, it was ultimately up to the parents.

Mediation an option

Ms Tiernan said the first step in any dispute was to organise mediation to “flesh out options, air concerns, and try to reach an agreement”.

“Parents attend [a meeting] with a trained family dispute resolution practitioner or mediator who will work with both of them in a neutral way to try to help reach an agreement,” she said.

Two people, who faces not shown, negotiating at an office table
Ms Tiernan says mediation is generally the first step in resolving disagreements over children.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

For Anna, maintaining the relationship with her children’s father was a priority.

“I was at the stage where I was going to not get them vaccinated to keep the peace, only because I’m not going to go to mediation over this,” she said.

For those who could not keep the peace or come to an agreement in mediation, Ms Tiernan said an application can then be made to the Family Court.

Kids ‘should be sheltered’

Ms Tiernan said court was “sometimes a necessary thing”, but parents should “try to avoid” it.

“That’s the main concern the court must bear when it has to make a decision in these matters.”

She urged parents like Anna and others to keep children as far away from disputes and discussions as possible.

“My advice always to clients is to avoid including or advising your children at all of any court process put in place,” she said.

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How to speak to your kids about their COVID-19 vaccination

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