I saw the voicemail when I got home. My phone had been on silent since I had just gotten my four teens vaccinated against COVID at the health department.
The message was from a police officer in a neighboring town following up with me on a “potential parenting plan dispute.”
When I called the officer back, he explained that my ex-husband had contacted the police department claiming I was in violation of our parenting plan by vaccinating our kids.
The officer was now investigating me.
Aside from traffic violations, I’ve never had any interactions with the police. I felt intimidated. I was scared. It was hard to act normal on the phone because internally I was freaking out.
I’m a regular person with a job, a mom with teenage kids, not someone who knows how to handle a police encounter.
I thought, okay, this is obviously a misunderstanding. I just agreed to everything the officer asked me to provide to him to prove my innocence of a “crime” that I hadn’t actually committed and that wasn’t a crime anyway.
But at the moment I thought, well, he has the power. I have no control over this. He can come over to my house anytime and what if he comes here when the kids are home and they get scared? What if the neighbors see and think we’re no longer safe people to interact with? What if I don’t comply with his demands and that creates more problems for my family?
So, I did what the officer asked. I sent him the parenting plan highlighting the section in question. I sent him the communications with time stamps showing that I was in compliance with the court-ordered plan.
It took a long time for me to calm down enough to think clearly. I spoke with my partner. I spoke with my lawyer. Logically none of this made sense.
There were several major problems with this situation.
1. I was not in violation of the parenting plan and provided the necessary evidence to the police officer on the same day.
The police officer emailed my lawyer: “Based on the information that was provided to me by you and your client and the elements of the parenting plan, I do see there has been a violation of the parenting plan. Your client sent me a copy of the parenting plan where it states on page 13 a ‘violation of any provision of this order with actual knowledge of its terms is punishable by contempt of court and may be a criminal offense under 45–7–309, Montana Code Annotated.’ As it has been determined that there was a violation of the parenting plan, I will need to meet with your client to issue her a citation for the offense.”
The officer did not state any specifics of what he believed the supposed violation to be.
2. In Montana, COVID vaccinations for minors require the consent of a parent/guardian. It is not required to have both parents’ consent.
Vaccinating my kids against my ex’s wishes is not illegal according to our state law, even if I had violated the parenting plan (which I didn’t).
Even if I had violated our parenting plan (see point number three, below)…
3. Parenting plan disputes are a civil matter.
My lawyer reminded the police officer of this but the officer still maintained he would proceed with the citation.
Police do not usually get involved in parenting plan disputes, unless a serious crime has been committed, such as kidnapping (when the parent doesn’t return kid/s to the other parent at the agreed-upon time), child abuse, interpersonal/domestic violence, etc.
Many parenting plans, like ours, include the above-quoted clause to allow enforcement in these special circumstances. It is basically unheard of that a police department would use that “contempt of court” clause for anything that is not extremely serious like the examples above.
4. The police officer and the police department had no jurisdiction (even if they thought I had actually committed a crime by vaccinating my kids).
I live in a different town, the kids live primarily with me, go to school here, and were vaccinated here. The police officer works in my ex-husband’s town at the local police department.
The “crime” was not committed in the town the police department has jurisdiction over.
I thought it was strange that my ex-husband didn’t call the police department of the town where our custody case is filed, where the kids live primarily, and where the supposed “crime” happened.
While I was on the phone with the officer he mentioned without prompting that he wasn’t on anyone’s side and that he was just asking questions. I thought this was off since I didn’t make any comment regarding whether or not he was biased. That together with my ex calling the incorrect police department led me to do some research.
I found that the officer attends the same church as my ex-husband. The officer is related to a woman who served with my ex-husband and his wife in a church-sponsored youth group.
I was fully prepared once I received the citation, to file for discovery to see the original complaint and all communications between my ex-husband and this police officer. It never came to that.
For 12 days, the police officer didn’t respond to my lawyer.
For 12 days I was worried that this officer could show up at my home or work, at my gym, wherever, to track me down and issue this citation in public or in front of my kids.
This morning I received an email from my lawyer that the officer had finally gotten back to him after 12 days with a one-liner saying he would not be issuing a citation since it was a civil matter.
This, of course, is precisely what my lawyer had told him from the beginning. Something the officer should have known when my ex-husband called with the complaint in the first place, and certainly after speaking to me, or at least once I sent him the parenting plan and my lawyer pointed out the civil nature of the situation.
But instead, it took the city’s prosecutor informing the officer that it was a civil matter for him to drop it.
And for 12 days I’ve been thinking COVID vaccines have now become so politicized that the police feel the need and right to intervene? That vaccinations rise to the level of kidnapping and abuse to enforce the contempt of court clauses in boilerplate custody agreements and parenting plans? Is this a joke?
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There is no way I’m the only one this is happening to and there is no way everyone else has had such a lucky outcome.
I have money for a lawyer (and an excellent one at that). I have a flexible work schedule to deal with calls from police officers and their demands to send them documentation. I have internet and computer access. I speak English. I have a support network to talk me through difficult situations. I am not a minority in my community and don’t have other pressing concerns that make it harder to deal with this scary situation.
In short, I have a lot of advantages that allowed me to escape this ridiculous situation relatively unscathed and I know there are others out there for whom things would have likely taken a worse turn.
If you are one of these people, please reach out to me.
I was too embarrassed and ashamed at first to talk about this because I was worried about what people might think. But mostly, I’m worried about backlash. What if me talking about this openly will invite retaliation from the officer or my ex-husband or the police department or some anti-vaccine advocates? It is still scary for me but less scary than it would be for individuals with fewer advantages than me.
I had the general idea that if you’re charged with a crime it’s likely you actually did something. If this happened to a neighbor, would I believe them when they explained that the police officer was wrong and overstepped? Maybe and maybe not.
But I’m speaking out because I don’t believe I’m the only one this is happening to and I would like you to reach out to me if this or something like this has happened to you or anyone you know. Feel free to share this with others who have been affected.
Juliane Bergmann is a German American writer. She was named a semi-finalist in the 2021 Medium Writers Challenge for her essay “How to become a more selfish parent.”