Just in the last two weeks, our office has been swamped with calls regarding COVID-19 and parenting issues. Many of these calls are from panicking parents who are desperate to see their children because the other parent will not return the child out of fear of getting a COVID-19 infection. Parents are claiming they can’t transport the child because the Governor said to stay inside or that the other parent’s house is not safe. Some parents insist on keeping their child indefinitely.
Parents want to know what the law states in a situation like this, but we are living in unprecedented times, and the law was not written to address pandemics and mass quarantines. Unless parents had the foresight to include emergency situations like this in their divorce agreement, they must adhere to their regular custody and parenting order.
And so, when parents call me asking, ”do I need to follow the court order during this pandemic?”, the answer is yes! The two Executive Orders entered by Governor Murphy (107 and 108) do not suspend parenting time orders. Additionally, the Governor’s Office has not issued any order suspending court orders that apply to custody or parenting time. In short, unless you have a new order suspending, modifying, or changing your current order, you are required to follow the current order. With that being said, courts are not holding hearings. In some situations, the court may entertain emergent hearings which will be held by phone or video conference.
Now is the time to be flexible for the sake of the children. Parents need to be reasonable in working together and flexible in providing makeup parenting time. Should there be a legitimate reason to suspend or deviate from the current order, parents can put in writing that they agree to make up time in the future. For instance, if one parent should test positive for COVID-10 or experience symptoms, it would be reasonable for the children to stay with the healthy parent until there is no longer a risk to the children. In this case, the parents can draw up an agreement to have the ill parent make up that parenting time when they are recovered or at a later date. Make sure you use and technology such as Facetime, Facebook video chat, or WhatsApp to allow plenty of contact with the other parent. This is the time to remember that children are anxious too, and the last thing they need is to see their parents fighting over them. During these uncertain times when childcares and school are closed, it is crucial to have clear communications between parents in order to find workable solutions for child care, which allows both parents to have access to children as much as possible. The current state of our nation may likely result in modifications, albeit temporary, of parenting time.
While it is understandable that parents are hesitant to give up parenting time, it may be necessary given the current situation. However, there are certainly things that families can do to make sure that once this difficult time is over, missed time with kids is reinstated or made up.
Being proactive in creating a modified schedule in the event that one or even both parents are unable to care for their children can prevent a crisis down the road. If there needs to be a substantial modification of parenting time which results in one parent not seeing the children for an extended period of time, makeup time in the summer is one option. Acting in a reasonable manner now that is in the best interest of the children may go a long way in a future hearing should a parent need enforcement of current order or try to impose sanctions against a party who refused follow a current court order. Remember, parents do not lose their rights by making modifications.
For the sake of their children’s well-being, parents should come up with a safety plan together, in advance, and taking into account that traveling may need to be limited due to restrictions in place.
There are some common sense recommendations that parents can follow.
1. 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. The New Jersey link is https://covid19.nj.gov/.
2. 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. Stick to the order unless there is a real safety concern.
3. 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.
4. NOW IS THE TIME TO TRULY CO-PARENT.
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 concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances seriously. This is clearly uncharted territory. Nobody is saying to put a child at risk, but it is time to work together given the school closings and restrictions under Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 107 and 108. Under these orders, the public is allowed to travel to visit families including transporting children from one parent’s home to the other’s.
5. BE UNDERSTANDING.
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.
6. FIND A SILVER LINING
Although some parents, such as healthcare workers, may be working overtime, others are working from home or not working at all. Use this time to spend more quality time with your children whether that time is in-person or virtual. Now, more than ever, people are able to make meaningful connections from remote locations. Netflix Party allows people to watch movies together from remote locations and Zoom allows multiple family members and friends to connect from all over the world.
Most importantly, rise to the occasion to forge a new path to co-parenting in which both parents put the needs of their children first.
If you have concerns regarding parenting or custody issues and need to meet with the legal team at the Burnham Douglass amid the Corona-virus outbreak, please call us at 856-751-5505 or contact us online. We will address any questions you may have. We are working by video conference, telephone and email to answer questions.
Our offices are located in Marlton and Northfield, New Jersey, and we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Burlington County, Camden County, Gloucester County and Atlantic County