The entire world is facing numerous challenges during COVID-19, but those you encounter as a divorced co-parent may feel unique and sometimes even isolating. Parents right now are deciding how their children social distance, but what happens when you and your co-parent disagree?
In the early days of the pandemic, whether or not to distance was much easier for most co-parents as stay at home orders and work from home mandates gave them very few choices. As states are reopening, social distancing has become more complicated because personal levels of caution vary from home to home and person to person.
Initially, some co-parents quarantined to the extent that they had groceries and pharmacy needs delivered to their home. They did not have any interaction with others outside their homes, and only left for outdoor activities or to exchange their children as necessary.
Other co-parents continued to work on a daily basis at the office even if their employment was not deemed essential. They routinely left their homes to socialize with friends or families and for essential purposes.
Now with state regulations changing and, in many states, people becoming more relaxed, different factors come into play as the needs of children vary:
• Younger children may need socialization for development
• Older kids may feel left out from social events
• Mental health of children may be a consideration
• Health risks are still very prevalent
• Returning to school in September whether in person or virtual may feel like an impossible choice to make
• Losing a spot in day care may also be a concern
What do you do when you and your co-parent are trying to figure out how to navigate these uncertain times? Here are some common questions we have heard from parents and our best advice for them:
Q: What happens when one parent returns to work and the other is uncomfortable with this situation?
A: If the current executive order allows for the party to be working, then the parenting time schedule may likely be enforceable, unless there is a change in circumstances warranting a modification or harm to the child. The co-parents should attempt to find common ground so that one parent can return to work while making the other parent more comfortable.
Q: What happens if one parent needs to return to work and wants to hire childcare in their home?
A: Before hiring childcare, the parent returning to work should offer the other party parenting time when the parent is working. If neither parent is available to care for the children, then the parents should work together to try to find a suitable childcare solution that both parents are comfortable with.
Q: What happens if one parent is not adhering to the rules and is attending multiple functions that may put the child at risk?
A: If one parent is violating the Governor’s Executive Order, that may warrant an application to the Court to either place restraints on the parenting time (i.e., to ensure that the Executive Orders are followed) or to modify or suspend the parenting time.
Q: When one parent has parenting time in the summer and there is distance between the co-parents, will the parenting time which requires either the parent to travel or the child to travel (or both) be enforced?
A: It really depends on the specifics. In general, the parents should work together to find an alternative arrangement so that the child is not traveling by any public transportation means. If the parent is able to travel and get tested before the parenting time, that is preferred. Since some states such as New Jersey have asked people to quarantine after returning from so many states, the parents should consider where the other parent is coming from or where the child is supposed to go.
Q: Is it appropriate to take your children to dine at an outdoor restaurant, or take them to get a haircut?
A: Obviously state guidelines need to be followed. Co-parents should be working together and should be respectful of each other’s opinions and try to find common ground on what activities the child will partake in and what activities will be avoided.
Q: What happens if a parent wants to take the child on vacation/in or out of state?
A: It depends on where the vacation will be and how the parent and child will be traveling. Again, the co-parents should discuss and work together to find a suitable and reasonable compromise.
Q: When one parent is a high risk and the other parent is adhering to the new guidelines but is not taking extra precautions, should the other parent be forced to comply with stricter guidelines or should parenting time be suspended?
A: Suspension of parenting time is fairly severe. Unless one parent has a severe ongoing medical issue, a court would likely first attempt to place restraints on the parenting time or offer a modification of parenting time so that the parenting time can still occur. It is important, especially during times of high stress, for children to have support, love and affection for both parents.
If co-parents cannot come to a civil agreement on how situations should be handled, sometimes legal action needs to be taken. Here are some situations and examples where co-parents should consult their lawyers:
• An example of harm to a child is a child that is undergoing treatment which severely compromises the child’s immune system and one of the parents is taking the child to dine outdoors during the parenting time. This may be a situation in which the Court would modify the parenting time schedule or place restraints on the parenting time.
• An example of a change in circumstances would be a nurse parent whose work schedule has been changed due to the influx of patients to the hospital making the schedule impossible because the parents have agreed not to have third-party caregivers. This may require a tweak to the parenting time schedule.
• If you are making an application to force the other parent to adhere to stricter guidelines than the current Executive Order or to suspend parenting time for a specific reason, it may be helpful to offer suggestions about how the parenting time can continue or to offer make-up parenting time to show a genuine concern rather than simply trying to take away time from the other parent.
• In order to modify the parenting time schedule, you should first try to amicably resolve the matter. You may also attempt mediation with your co-parent. If you must file an application, you will have the burden to show harm to the child or change in circumstances which warrant a modification of parenting time.
COVID-19 has obviously thrown the world into a tailspin and people are having to making unprecedented decisions. And there is no one-size-fits-all formula for co-parenting during a pandemic. Each family, each child, and each circumstance should be heavily considered. However, it is important to know your rights, understand the legalities, and consult your attorney for any concerning questions.
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By Christine C. Fitzgerald