The Consequence of Violations of Family Court Orders

The headlines are everywhere: “Mom jailed for refusing to vaccinate child.” Outrage and confusion may have been a common sentiment for anyone reading such a headline without delving further into the story. Those who actually read past the headlines, however, quickly realized that the controversial issue of vaccination (or lack thereof) was not the root cause of the mother’s, Rebecca Bredow’s, incarceration.

In fact, it was her own willful refusal to comply with the agreement she entered into with her ex-husband, James Horne, which resulted in her being jailed for contempt of the Court. According to various news sources, the parties shared custody of their children. As such, they agreed to vaccinate their child. Thereafter, Bredow’s refusal to vaccinate the child per the agreement was adjudicated to be a violation of the Court’s Order.

As cited by the New York Times, Judge McDonald noted that Bredow had a “history of making child-rearing decisions without the consent of [Horne].” As a result of Bredow’s recalcitrance regarding the vaccination, the Judge granted temporary custody to Horne, ordered enforcement of the parties’ agreement, which required vaccination of their child, and sentenced Bredow to jail.

Bredow was quoted telling the Washington Post that this was “about having [her] choices as a mother to be able to make medical choices for [her] child.” But, in situations where the parties share custody, as Judge McDonald emphasized, the child “has two parents, and dad gets a say.”

This newsworthy story highlights the potential difficulty of sharing decision-making authority for children after divorce. In New Jersey, it is very typical for parties to share joint legal custody. This means that both parents must work together to agree to decisions affecting the health, welfare, education, or religion of the children. Where parties agree to certain custody arrangements and their agreement is then entered by the Court, those agreements have the same force and effect as though they were Court-ordered.

Understandably, sometimes circumstances change. What was once thought to be in the children’s best interests may no longer be. For such situations, New Jersey law permits a person to file a motion for modification based upon a legitimate change in circumstances. Alternatively, parents may attempt to work together to formulate a new arrangement that better fits the current situation.

But, taking matters into your own hands or exercising self-help, as Bredow did, is never a good idea. As clearly demonstrated by her jail sentence,  the violation of a Court Order can have serious repercussions. In New Jersey, a violation of a custody or parenting time order can trigger various penalties, including economic sanctions, temporary or permanent modification of custodial arrangements, required participation in community service, incarceration, or “any other appropriate equitable remedy.” R. 5:3-7(a).

The Family Court retains broad power to enforce its prior Orders. Although it is a Court of equity, it may not always be a Court of leniency. 

Natalie Diratsouian works in the firm’s family law section, to contact her click here.