Parenting In a Pandemic

Answering Questions About COVID-19 and Custody Orders

As of the time of this post, Ohio is under a stay-at-home order.  Most Ohioans have been directed to refrain from going to work, from traveling on non-essential business, or from coming into direct contact with people outside of their immediate household.  So how does that impact families with parenting or custody orders where children move back and forth between homes?

The Ohio Department of Health order already seems to contemplate that parenting arrangements should continue, despite the requirement for social distancing: travel as required by a court order, including to transport children pursuant to a custody order, is specifically identified as Essential Travel.  Here in central Ohio, Franklin County’s Domestic Relations Court has also weighed in, in favor of continuing to exchange children between households:

With respect to parenting time issues and the state-ordered school closures, parents who have shared parenting plans or custody orders should continue to follow those orders to the best of their abilities and in the spirit intended by the Court. Parties should adhere to all holiday and spring break schedules as designated by their schools at the beginning of the school year regardless of recent changes. They should follow the regular parenting schedule during all other times unless their orders specifically address school closures. The parties should also communicate about the location, health, and welfare of the children daily and should discuss travel plans and arrangements as required by their parenting plans or custody orders.

Most Ohio courts are taking a similar approach, both in enforcing existing orders and evaluating the need for new ones.  But in the absence of ongoing litigation, here are some guidelines for parenting during a pandemic from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers:

SEVEN GUIDELINES FOR PARENTS WHO ARE DIVORCED/SEPARATED AND SHARING CUSTODY OF CHILDREN DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

From the leaders of groups that deal with families in crisis:

Susan Myres, President of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML)
Dr. Matt Sullivan, President of Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC)
Annette Burns, AAML and Former President of AFCC
Yasmine Mehmet, AAML
Kim Bonuomo, AAML
Nancy Kellman, AAML
Dr. Leslie Drozd, AFCC
Dr. Robin Deutsch, AFCC
Jill Peña, Executive Director of AAML
Peter Salem, Executive Director of AFCC

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 and avoid the rumor mill on social media.

2. BE MINDFUL
Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.

3. 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. In some jurisdictions, there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.

4. BE CREATIVE
At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums, and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.

5. 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.

6. BE GENEROUS
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 seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.

7. BE UNDERSTANDING
There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.

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.

These aren’t hard and fast rules.  Every case and every family is unique, and parents will have to use their best judgment and common sense to make decisions regarding parenting orders and custody arrangements throughout this public health crisis.  In the long run, keeping the above guidelines in mind when making those decisions will help keep families safe, happy and healthy.

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