If you have read some of my prior blogs, you know that I’m a BIG advocate for having very detailed parenting plans and enforcing them to the letter unless (or until) you and your co-parent can effectively collaborate in a child-centered manner. Our recent pandemic, however, is going to change how parenting plans are implemented. I would hope that effective co-parents would be able to work this out without any disruption in their or the children’s lives, but in my world of high conflict custody disputes, this is unlikely.
First, I have to include this disclaimer: This is not legal advice, and you are encouraged to consult with your attorney (if you have one), or contact one, to get advice specific to your situation before taking any drastic action.
Second, I live in Phoenix, Arizona where they have declared a state of emergency to force bars, restaurants and city services to close; and schools and universities closed last week. Residents are encouraged to remain in their homes, and many businesses have made arrangements, where they can, to have employees work from home. We have not gotten to the point of being policed and forced to quarantine strictly, but there has been a marked shift in how we are living. So, how does this impact parenting time?
As expressed above, one would hope that parents would be able to work this out and avoid conflict, but in high conflict cases this is unlikely. This is a judgment call, but there very well could come a point at which transitioning a child is not healthy or poses too great of a risk to justify the potential harm to the children. I cannot say with any certainty, but as this moves forward, I do think judges are going to give a parent more leniency who elects to keep the children out of reasonable fear of contracting the virus. This does not mean they will get a free pass, but it does mean the courts are unlikely to take any significant action against the violating parent. My advice to the violated parent: You may want to consider letting this one slide.
As with any case, there are a number of factors that will have to be considered and this article cannot address all variables. Right now, stories are emerging of first responders and medical professionals who are living in alternative housing to protect their own kids during this time. If a parent works in a profession that is in high contact with the public, then considering shifting physical care of the children during this time may be prudent (minimum of two weeks). Additionally, homes with elderly grandparents or immuno-compromised family members may wish to isolate for self-preservation. Similarly, if a parent has ANY knowledge that he or she may have come in contact with an infected person within the last two weeks, they should want the child(ren) to stay with the other parent. Remember, the idea is to reduce the spread and try to avoid putting yourself or the children in any danger.
In a situation where shared, in-person parenting time becomes unsafe for one parent, there are several things the parent keeping physical care of the children could do to ease the disruption. The easiest thing to do is schedule a video conference (try FaceTime, Google Meet, Zoom, etc.) to maintain emotional connections safely. If schedules to chat live just don’t line up cleanly, Marco Polo is a fabulous, asynchronous video chatting app that works around that by allowing one party to record a video message so the other can read when they are able. Another wonderful distance tool is Netflix Party. This Google Chrome extension allows two people to watch a movie together while physically apart...and it has a chat feature to allow party members to talk as they watch. This can also be a wonderful time to let children create family and event scrapbooks to realize emotional connections in the physical world. You can go old school with this activity, or you could leverage all of your photo and video files on your phone through products like Shutterfly and Smilebox. Grandparents can benefit from these projects too!
This pandemic should not be used as an opportunity to harm or punish the other parent. In the face of uncertainty and anxiety, we need to focus on the well-being of our children in making parenting decisions. Wishing everyone the best during this challenging time.
Jason Castle is a family lawyer who specializes in high-conflict cases. He's also a former prosecutor & social worker. Hear his latest divorce thoughts!