The coronavirus outbreak has brought systems all across the United States to a standstill. The judicial system has been no exception. Courts in every state had been closed for months and now with them opening up, cases are piling up and the courts are backlogged.
Child custody is one of these matters and has been rapidly growing in importance as the safety and well-being of children is causing friction in the custody process. For separated or divorced parents who have retained peaceful relations, no such issues have occurred. However, many other co-parents are struggling to handle the situation, especially those with court cases still pending.
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COVID-19 has required co-parents and their children to adjust to the changing environment. With stay-at-home orders being issued, states have had to evaluate the importance of custody exchanges and whether they violate these orders.
For example, in Ohio, the social distancing order does include travel required by the court order to transport children, while other states say that type of transportation is essential. With these restrictions in place, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers have introduced guidelines to help co-parents survive the changes and keep the best interests of their children in mind.
The guidelines instruct co-parents to follow local and state custody orders, implement more communication with the other parent, follow court orders, encourage use of virtual services like Zoom, and discuss ways to make up for lost time. Many parents have used COVID-19 as an excuse to violate their court orders which only creates more cases for the courts to handle.
An Opportunity for Co-Parents
Even though coronavirus has proved problematic for child custody cases, it also provides an opportunity for co-parents to work together with the best interests of their child in mind.
There are several key questions that co-parents should talk through concerning their child’s visitation schedule:
- How can we work together to follow our current agreement and the current plan in place, switching between homes?
- Can one parent better support an environment for homeschooling? For instance, is internet service available at one home and not another?
- Does the work of one parent involve a lot of contact with the public which may compromise the health and safety of the child?
- What other family members also live in the house? How much contact do they have with the public?
- Is a member of the household in a high-risk group? (i.e., over the age of 60, suffering from underlying medical conditions, or immunocompromised)
- Does one house provide more space or better access to safe outdoor areas for the child to play and get exercise while still employing social distance?
Answering these questions and more can give co-parents an idea of how to ensure their child is given the best environment during the pandemic. Since court orders still should be followed if possible, it is important for the parents to work together to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their children but also to ensure that both parties still have access.
Many courts have issued specific instructions to remind parents to assess their situation and if their current custody structure no longer works, that parent should consult with an attorney about filing for a modification in their appropriate jurisdiction.
The Need for a Child Custody Lawyer
For some co-parents, COVID-19 has not proved to be much of a disruption as good relations between the separated parties make compromise easy. However, this is not the case for every family. As much as one parent may want to cooperate for the sake of his or her child, a sour relationship with the other parent may lead to a near-impossible resolution.
When a written agreement about custody issues cannot be made, utilizing a child custody lawyer can help generate fair results that will be enforceable in court. For example, court custody orders are still in place regarding child visitation and exchanges. If one parent tries to weaponize the coronavirus pandemic to prevent the other from spending time with their child, legal action can be taken.
Under normal circumstances, violating an agreement can result in reduced custody or visitation rights, and so far, it seems the pandemic has not changed how a court may rule in this situation. In most situations, the best option to strive for is mediation. Temporary modifications to current custody orders can provide answers at a time when the courts cannot.
An attorney can assist in drafting stipulations that are binding, even if they are not enforceable until a later time. These stipulations, while temporary, can help navigate custody issues related to COVID-19.
Coronavirus has created challenges in child custody matters that no one could have predicted. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and the safety of the children have played a part, and courts have not been in session to create enforceable resolutions.
Predicting what a judge will do when faced with these new issues of first impression are anyone’s guess. For many co-parents, this has created unnecessary tension to an already stressful year. Luckily, there are options that can help settle these matters. Mediation with the assistance of a lawyer can help create a fair and peaceful solution.
Of course, the best-case scenario is always for co-parents to work out these issues with their child’s best interests in mind.