On August 10, an Illinois judge barred Rebecca Firlit from seeing her 11-year-old son because she is not vaccinated against COVID-19. After being met with a barrage of commentary and outcry online, however, Cook County Judge James Shapiro abruptly and with little explanation reversed his order on August 30th. Many experts claim Judge Shapiro greatly overstepped his bounds, as Firlit’s court appearance was for routine child support matters only.
About the court order
Firlit was participating in a Zoom court hearing regarding child support along with her ex-husband when, she told WFLD 32, out of the blue Judge Shapiro asked her if she was vaccinated. She responded that she was not, due to past adverse reactions to vaccines. Shapiro then stripped her of her child custody and parenting time until she got vaccinated, leaving her only communication with her son via phone and video calls.
“It had nothing to do with what we were talking about. He was placing his views on me. And taking my son away from me,” Firlit said.
Added her attorney Annette Fernholz, “In this case you have a judge, without any matter before him regarding the parenting time with the child deciding ‘Oh, you’re not vaccinated. You don’t get to see your child until you are vaccinated.’ That kind of exceeds his jurisdiction.”
WFLD 32 also pointed out that the child’s father had not brought the vaccination issue before the court, but that he supported the ruling.
Shapiro reverses his order
A few days after the WFLD story and others hit the media, Shapiro vacated his order, stating only “this court hereby VACATES paragraph 3 of its August 11, 2021 order based on the absence of a pleading or hearing on serious endangerment.” He also recused himself from Firlit’s family law case completely.
According to the Chicago Tribute, Firlit’s ex-husband plans to appeal the rescinding of the original order. For now, the court has appointed a guardian ad litem to protect the child’s best interests.
The Tribune also spoke to Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, an endocrinologist and chief operating officer of the advocacy group Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, regarding the safety of children under 12 and unvaccinated parents. “It’s a very interesting ethical dilemma,” she said. “There are so many people who are not vaccinated yet, and there are certainly less aggressive interventions than tearing apart a mother and child.”
Katharine Baker, distinguished professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, points out that having a medical exemption to vaccination can make a big difference in custody matters. “The interconnected nature and relationships between the people involved make these questions complicated balancing acts. (Firlit) can make the argument that if she gets very sick [from a vaccine], that will have a detrimental effect on her child.”
Judge has questioned vaccination status before
After Firlit shared her story, another citizen came forward claiming that Judge Shapiro had also questioned his vaccination status during a child custody case. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Shapiro asked Edward Hambrick of Joliet whether he was vaccinated during a Zoom court hearing. Hambrick, who recorded the hearing on his cellphone (against court rules), shared the video after reading about Firlit’s situation.
In the video, Shapiro asks Hambrick if he has been vaccinated, which leads to a discussion about HIPAA. In another video, Shapiro is heard telling another man that he has been ordering parents to get vaccinated:
It’s just dumb not to get vaccinated. Nobody with half a brain is not getting vaccinated these days. The only people not getting vaccinated are dying, OK. So I urge you and your daughter to get vaccinated. It’s stupid not to and I have been ordering parents to get vaccinated and some kids to get vaccinated also. That’s how strongly I feel about the efficacy of this vaccine. Reasonable minds cannot differ about this vaccine.
Hambrick has since filed a petition for a new judge.
Never take your time with a judge lightly
These incidents both show the amount of power a judge has over your family law case, no matter how short or long a time you spend on a hearing. Your judge has the ultimate power in the courtroom; even more than your attorney. Just one sentence or question can cause a judge to issue nearly any decision or order they want, and in Rebecca Firlit’s case, it cost her parenting time with her child that she will never get back.
This power is not unique, either. Judges throughout North Carolina wield the same power over the families who come before them, too. This is why it is critical that you work with an experienced attorney who can make a strong case on your behalf. It is your best chance at protecting your family and yourself. Otherwise, you could be at the mercy of a judge who doesn’t know you or your children, or what is truly best for your family.
What is a guardian ad litem?
As we mentioned earlier, Rebecca Firlit’s son has been appointed a guardian ad litem until this matter is resolved in court. Here in North Carolina, a guardian ad litem may get involved in a child custody case in order to represent the best interests of the child – and the child only. This helps ensure that there is one impartial person whose sole function is to look after what is best for the child, and that all decisions are made with his or her well-being in mind.
A guardian ad litem helps a court gather vital information regarding child custody and visitation cases. They can talk to the child, parents, family members, teachers, and other important people in the child’s life to form an opinion about what’s best for them. In simplest terms, a guardian ad litem is the voice of the child.
The family law attorneys at Epperson Law Group, PLLC can answer any questions you have about child custody and guardians ad litem. We can help you through the entire process and ease your concerns. Contact us today for experienced legal advocacy. To make a consultation with one of our lawyers in Charlotte, Boone, Concord, or Weddington, please call 704-321-0031 or fill out our contact form.