As we roll into yet another month within a pandemic-ridden country, the rules and regulations relating to COVID-19 continue to evolve based on new findings coupled with the harsh reality that we may be living with this virus for longer than we initially expected.
While forms of interaction such as traveling, shopping, education, eating out, and social gatherings have been openly discussed on a myriad of news outlets by a variety of professionals, one area that has not been as openly discussed is how child custody rights may be affected by COVID-19.
Social distancing and child custody is an increasingly important topic affecting any parents who share custody of their child/children. While the rights of parents to see their children during the COVID-19 outbreak are being respected, it is also vital to protect the health and safety of all parties involved.
One thing to remember: each state’s shelter-in-place order does not directly affect court mandated custody orders; what that means is, parents are still legally obligated to follow their current custody arrangements and parenting schedules during the pandemic, unless both parents agree on changes.
However, it is understandable that parents may be concerned if any of the following situations applies to their personal, family situation:
- Their child is at high risk for contracting and/or becoming ill with COVID-19.
- Their ex (or, the other parent of the child) has been exposed to someone confirmed to have tested positive with COVID-19.
- Their ex appears to have symptoms of COVID-19 (i.e. dry cough + fever, difficulty breathing, etc.)
- Their ex has a job during which they are repeatedly exposed to COVID-19.
Medical experts describe the coronavirus as highly contagious and causing severe respiratory complications, making people with asthma at high risk for contracting and having difficulty overcoming the virus. If a child has asthma or some other underlying health condition that compromises their immune system, it is recommended that parents speak with the child’s pediatrician for advice and insights as to how to best protect the child.
Based on the pediatrician’s suggestions, and if, at any point, one of the parents believes that sending their child to the other parent’s house is posing a risk to their child’s health, it is possible that both parents can agree to a temporary change to the custody agreement.
Changes to that order could include:
- Agreeing to postpone child custody visits for a set period of time, based on the pediatrician’s recommendation
- Scheduling daily Skype/Face-Time calls, or regular phone calls, instead of relying upon actual contact
- Continuing to stay in touch through text messages, cards, videos, or virtual games
- Have a virtual dinner together instead of visitation
- Take a virtual class together (art, fitness, food-related, etc.) instead of visitation
Sadly, parents don’t always agree on what’s best for their children, or on how to implement necessary changes – and even more disturbing, one parent may not be respecting the state’s mandates regarding COVID-19, thus putting both themselves and their children at great risk.
If this is the case, it may be necessary to involve a family law attorney to help sort through the complicated dynamics of the situation. While some states have made it clear they won’t modify custody orders except in extreme cases of endangerment to the child, other states are more open to modifications. It is best to meet with a local family law attorney to gather the details.
When all is said and done, the key to gracefully navigating child custody during this pandemic is open, peaceful conversation. Stephanie Steckliar is a family law attorney in Pennsylvania who penned a guide for how separated or divorced parents can deal with custody complications brought on by COVID-19. Here are a few tips inspired by her advice:
- Don’t dwell on the past (arguments, the break-up, etc.) Realize that everyone is affected by COVID-19, and keep the focus of the discussions on the topic at hand
- Keep all relevant medical providers and doctors updated regarding the children’s health, especially if anyone in the family has been exposed to COVID-19
- If parents discuss changes to the custody visitation plan, make sure those changes are noted in writing, whether it be texts, e-mails, or an informally drafted contract; keep a paper trail!
- Don’t make assumptions about the other parent’s household exposure
- Have a conversation about how the children’s exposure to the public could impact the custody schedule
Be kind to each other during this process. Decisions are best made with a clear and open mind, keeping the medical facts in the foreground and the children’s best interests as a priority. Stay safe!