Shared Custody During The Coronavirus Crisis
By Claudia Silverman, Certified Family Law Specialist
This is an unprecedented time. It affects our lives in myriad ways. We are stressed to the limit about our health and the health of our children and of all our families and friends. Adding to the stress is that we don’t know who may be contagious, because people may be contagious but symptom-free. Further adding to the stress is everyone’s financial stress. Many parents have lost their jobs or are facing reduced income. Adding even further to the stress is that we do not know when this crisis may end, whether it will get worse, and how much worse it will get. The uncertainty is unsettling.
Shared parenting with a former spouse or partner can be difficult in the best of times. How can it be managed in these worst of times? Should parents follow the parenting plan even though it requires the children to travel back and forth to each home? What if one parent has been diagnosed with COVID-19? What if your child has a compromised immune system? What if you know or suspect that the other parent is not following the guidelines for staying home and socially isolating? While there are no absolute or easy answers, we hope that the following provides some guidance.
Follow Court Orders Regarding Custody and Visitation
First, review carefully your court-ordered parenting plan, if you have one. Although the Governor has issued an Order that all persons stay at home, your children have two homes. Please do not use the Governor’s Order as an excuse to hold the children in your home contrary to the existing Court Orders for shared custody, and contrary to the wishes and expectations of the other parent. A parent’s failure to follow the court orders, absent some written agreement, could result in the parent losing custodial rights. Remember that although the courts are closed (except for emergency orders), you may have to account later for the actions you take today.
If, and only if, your children are clearly and obviously in unnecessary risk of contracting coronavirus at the other parent’s home, and only if all efforts to resolve the problem have been unsuccessful should you consider seeking emergency orders to alter the Court Orders. It would be wise to seek the advice of a medical professional or therapist before you seek such an emergency court order. Communicate with the other parent and attempt to reach agreement before seeking any emergency Court Orders.
Cooperate and Communicate Respectfully With the Other Parent
Do everything you can to cooperate with your former spouse or partner about the parenting plan and keeping yourselves and your children safe. If you have concerns about the other parent’s parenting, safety of the children, or other issues at this stressful time, communicate calmly and respectfully with the other parent about your concerns. Do not berate, accuse, belittle or lecture. You are far more likely to come to an understanding and agreement with the other parent regarding your concerns if you communicate them respectfully.
If you and/or the other parent are home-schooling the children, share your experiences, successes and failures with the other parent, and seek their input and advice. Home-schooling is very hard. Acknowledge that and collaborate with your co-parent on the methods that work.
If Necessary for the Health and Safety of the Children, Alter the Court Orders by Mutual Written Agreement
With the Court Orders in mind, you and your co-parent are free to make a plan that ensures that the children will be able to have maximum contact with both parents.
Imagine for example, a situation where parents share custody under a court-ordered shared parenting plan. However, one parent is not working and the other is a health care worker caring for COVID-19 patients. Faced with this situation, the parents may mutually agree that it is not safe for the child to spend in-person time with the working parent. The parents may then come to an agreement that during this crisis, the child will reside exclusively with the parent who remains at home. The parents can make other arrangements for liberal and frequent custodial time with the working parent, via Skype, FaceTime or phone.
Any agreement you reach with the other parent that changes the current orders should be in writing. While you and your co-parent may prefer text messaging, text messages are not the best form of writing for any agreement, as they are difficult for a judicial officer to review. Get the agreement in writing on paper and signed if possible, or at least in an email. Consult an attorney, if possible, regarding the language to avoid misunderstandings and to avoid later problems in court. Be as precise with your language as possible.
If you and your co-parent agree that the child should remain in your home exclusively, be extremely generous with your creative efforts to ensure contact with the other parent.
Be Creative – Technology is Your Friend
If you and your co-parent mutually agree that one parent should not be physically present with the child at present for legitimate safety concerns, be creative to be sure that the child is engaging with the absent parent as much as possible. Depending on your children’s ages and interests, you could have the children send drawings, letters or poems to the other parent. If possible, send them via text message, Instagram, email or other electronic means to ensure real-time communication. Do your children play an instrument? Do they like acting out plays or skits? Do they like to tell jokes? Have them record a video of themselves engaging in their creative efforts and share the video with the other parent. For the chess players, sign them up for online chess so that they can play chess with the other parent (you can restrict your younger child’s account to avoid their contact with strangers). Let your video gamers play online video games with the other parent. These are just a few ideas – come up with your own, in collaboration with the children and the other parent.
Stay Updated Regarding Health Information and Advisories
Be informed so that you and your co-parent can make the best collective choices for your family.
Manage Your Own Stress and That of Your Children
You and your children will thrive best during this crisis if you manage to stay calm and if you help them to de-stress. Find time to engage in the activities that keep you and your children centered and calm. Think about what those things are: exercise, meditation, listening to music, cooking, watching comedies on TV or Netflix, or engaging in a craft or hobby. Find new hobbies or new ways to de-stress, too. Then make sure that you take time each day to engage in those activities and encourage your children to do so, too.
Keep the Children Safe: Follow Social Distancing with your Children and Prepare Healthy Foods for the Family
Practice Social Distancing and Safe Health Practices
Do not invite your friends, or your children’s friends, to your home. When you go out for exercise or walks, maintain a six-foot distance from others. Wash your hands frequently, and make sure your children do, too. Teach them how to wash with soap for 20 seconds by singing the alphabet song.
Try to help the children get enough sleep. Depending on their ages, make sure you read them bedtime stories or limit their screen time before bed.
Prepare Healthy Foods for The Family
We are all trying to go to the supermarket less than we normally do. Some say that we should try to go only once a week. With this in mind, when you do go to the store, stock up on lots of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats or meat substitutes. Avoid the soda and junk food aisles. A healthy diet will help boost your family’s immune system and help to ward off illness. Make a good list, get what you and your family need, but don’t hoard.
Share your efforts to keep healthy with the other parent. If each of you knows you are doing your best to keep the children safe and healthy, you are more likely to come to a mutually agreeable solution to co-parenting during this crisis.
If you or your children are stressed or depressed, seek counseling with a licensed therapist. Therapists are conducting counseling safely via Zoom or Skype. If you have a therapist you trust, call him or her. If not, find one.
Summary: This is a challenging time for all of us. We all need to use all our efforts to care for each other and our children, and to weather this storm. We need to be the adults in the room.
For more information, read the California’s Governor’s Order and the Guidance from the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, with the links below.
Parenting Plans (Custody)
Division of Property
Marital Settlement Agreements
Same Sex Marriage and LGBT Family Law
Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements
Modification of Existing Parenting Plans (Custody)
Modification of Child Support or Spousal Support Orders
Mediation of Family Law Matters
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