Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is living through unprecedented times and learning to navigate their daily lives in a new way. And that doesn’t just mean wearing masks in public, working from home, and following arrows through the grocery store aisles. Now, long distance co-parenting arrangements are being renegotiated as families try to shelter in place and safety.
With schools and daycares closed, childcare is an even bigger issue than usual for most parents. Divorced or separated parents can usually count on getting a break when it’s the other parent’s turn for time with the kids. But in a coronavirus world, is it safe to try and maintain your normal visitation schedule?
And if it’s not, what are parents in this situation supposed to do, not only in terms of childcare but also maintaining their relationships with their children? Take a look at some of the things that you, as a parent, should know about when it comes to long distance co-parenting during the coronavirus pandemic.
Navigating Child Custody and Visitation in the Unchartered Territories of Coronavirus
If you’ve been through a divorce and custody case and you have an official parenting plan ordered by the court, it probably has all sorts of contingency plans. How to handle a missed visitation appointment. What to do if one parent is ill or incapacitated. Backup childcare plans in the event of a temporary daycare closure or snow day at school. But it’s unlikely that anything in your parenting plan addresses what to do in the event of a pandemic.
In other circumstances, you might handle a need for a potentially drastic change in the parenting plan by going back to court and letting a judge settle the issue, but even that is an option that’s not on the table for many parents right now – in many areas, family courts are closed. Meaning, parents who are confused about how this will affect their co-parenting plans are already swimming in uncharted waters.
And realistically, in any areas where family courts are open, the judges are also working without a net – if they had a game plan to follow for divorced parents co-parenting during a pandemic, it would have been included in the parenting plan. This means that even parents who can and want to go to court over a pandemic co-parenting conflict might get drastically different rulings depending on what judge they end up with – there’s not much precedent for them to go by.
Parents who have more informal visitation or co-parenting arrangements may be more accustomed to winging it than parents who have been following a strict schedule, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll have the answers either. In fact, it’s entirely possible that some previously friendly co-parenting relationships could become strained under the pressure of a pandemic and the possibility of long absences from their children, leading to conflicts that can’t be easily settled.
Successful Long Distance Co-Parenting Starts With Communication
Contentious co-parenting relationships are real, but what’s also real is the fact that both parents usually have their children’s best interests in mind and don’t want anything bad to happen to their child’s other parent, either. With family courts largely out of the picture, parents will need to make the effort to communicate with each other and try to work out the best possible arrangement under the circumstances. That may mean that one parent keeps the children for an extended period of time.
For example, if one parent is an essential worker and one is not, it may be easier and safer to let the non-essential worker parent keep the kids at their home, where they’re less likely to be exposed to the virus and spread it to others. The same applies if one parent is caring for a vulnerable family member or is medically vulnerable themselves. The parent who has the children during this time should make every effort to maintain the children’s relationship with the other parent through:
- Phone calls
- Video conferencing
- Text messaging
- And other low-contact means of communication
Chances are that this is going to result in arrangements that no one is entirely happy with, and that’s hard. However, both parents should make the best good-faith effort they can to reach an arrangement that is safest and healthiest for their children and for each other, and try to put their negative feelings on the back burner until the crisis has passed. Some custody and visitation arrangements may need to be revisited in court later after the danger is over.
Keep in mind that family court judges are likely to look kindly upon those parents who put their feelings aside in order to make difficult decisions in the best interests of their children’s and each other’s health, and they’re not likely to be happy with parents who refused to adapt to the extraordinary circumstances and make reasonable concessions in an unprecedented and emergent situation.
Considerations for Long Distance Co-Parenting
What about parents who simply can’t find common ground, or those who fear the consequences of potentially defying court orders in order to keep themselves or their children safe during a pandemic? There are some big unknowns here – there’s no way to tell exactly how things will shake out legally on the other end of the pandemic, so parents who disobey court orders or flout their parenting plans, even with the best of intentions, are taking a real risk.
One possible solution might be seeking mediation services. While many courts are closed, many mediators remain open for business and available to help parents negotiate difficult situations. Mediation provides an unbiased record of events, including explanations for actions and attempts of compromise. This could later be used in court to provide evidence of who was acting reasonable in good faith and who was not.
Thus, this evidence could be used to mitigate the consequences of actions that, in other circumstances, might be unlawful. It may also help to keep documentation of anything that might be relevant in court later on, which might affect your decisions about what the safest course of action is during these unusual and difficult circumstances.
If you know that you may be untangling custody issues in court once the coronavirus crisis has passed, a legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you. Legal resource groups can help you prepare and store documentation, find resources, and prepare testimony and evidence for the court at a much lower price point than a custody attorney.