Co-parenting with an ex-partner can be trying in the most normal of times; co-parenting when the very transfer of your kids can mean exposure for them—or you—to the coronavirus is a whole new level of challenging.
Rare is the custody agreement that includes stipulations for navigating a parenting plan through a pandemic, and yet here we are, getting orders to physically distance ourselves from others as much as possible and, in some areas, stay home altogether. So when do you say, “Enough is enough, the kids are staying here for the duration, and I don’t care if you don’t like it”?
Florida family law attorney Ken Gordon, of Brinkley Morgan, says no one in his firm of 25 lawyers has actually begun writing language into parenting plans about how to handle custody during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, though—particularly in cases that are still in the early stages and maybe only have temporary court orders in place—things are starting to heat up.
“Where the line is on what is a rational solution versus an irrational solution is blurred,” Gordon says.
Can you choose to isolate with your child?
Parents across the country are waking up every day wondering whether they should travel with their child to visit the other parent or whether the child should be coming and going from home to home even in the same local area. Residents in many areas have been told to “shelter in place,” or stay home except for essential outings. But does a visit to a parent qualify as “essential”?
“Let’s say mom (or dad) says, ‘I have the children and I’m watching the news and I believe this pandemic is serious, and I’m choosing to shelter in place,’” Gordon says. “Well (if you’re the other parent), what are you going to do?”
The most rational answer, he says, is probably… nothing. The police aren’t likely to get involved in a custody dispute—they’ll tell you to handle any issues through the court system. And you can call your lawyer and try to get a hearing, but like everything else, the courts have largely gone to virtual hearings, which are hard to coordinate and therefore hard to come by.
And when all of this is over, Gordon says he thinks it unlikely that one co-parent who chooses to shelter in place with their kids, keeping them at a physical distance from the other co-parent, will be found in contempt of any court-ordered agreement that was previously in place.
“For them to be held in contempt … means they have to willfully disobey a court order,” he says. “In this particular time, with the pandemic and everybody flipping out, it’s not unreasonable that people would be really upset or concerned … So to prove that they’ve acted contemptuously, you know, good luck.”
But he says to remember, particularly for parents who are still in the process of finalizing a parenting agreement, that although they may not be found to be in contempt of a court-order in this situation, their behavior at times like this will be noted by the court.
Stay focused on the child’s best interests
Of course, even if you do decide to shelter in place with your child, that does not mean a parent should use this as an opportunity to limit all contact with the other parent. If sheltering in place seems necessary where you live, you should make every effort to ensure the other parent can connect frequently via phone and video chat.
“Filter any decisions you’re trying to come to grips with as a co-parent all through the filter of, ‘Is what I’m saying child-centric,’” he says.
Now is the time to stay patient, to recognize that tensions may be running high and to try to get through this unusual time without further heightening any pre-existing animosity.
“It’s kind of the wild west out there and unfortunately, there will be a lot of people out there who will take advantage of the situation,” Gordon says. “But they may think they’re doing the right thing.”
Basically, there are no hard and fast rules on what to do here and when to decide that any contact with anyone else, including another parent, is too much contact. But now is the time to dig deep and be the best co-parent you can be, whether you’re the one at home with the kids or the one who ends up shut out.
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