Many parents involved in custody and visitation matters are currently grappling with how to protect their children from the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
- What if the other parent has traveled to an area with a high concentration of reported COVID-19 cases, such as Seattle?
- What if the other parent works in a field (e.g. doctor) where they are likely to be exposed to the novel coronavirus?
- What if the other parent appears ill at a custody exchange?
- What if visitation is monitored at a facility where other people might have been exposed to COVID-19?
These are difficult questions to answer. With a lack of adequate testing, we do not know how widespread the coronavirus pandemic really is. We also do not have a complete understanding of the virus’ potential impact on children.
Even if we could properly assess the risk, most of the courts in California are closed or have limited access, so it is difficult to obtain any emergency relief to modify custody and visitation. As a result, parents are placed in the potentially conflicting position of protecting their children from exposure to COVID-19 and complying with court orders for custody and visitation.
Two notable family law organizations, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) have prepared some guidance for how to handle concerns over custody and visitation related to the novel coronavirus: “Seven Guidelines for Parents Who are Divorced/Separated and Sharing Custody of Children During The Covid19 Pandemic”:
- BE HEALTHY.
Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.
- BE MINDFUL.
Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.
- BE COMPLIANT with court orders and custody agreements.
As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
- BE CREATIVE.
At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.
- BE TRANSPARENT.
Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.
- BE GENEROUS.
Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.
- BE UNDERSTANDING.
There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.
Adversity can become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child. For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories. It’s important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe.