As a parent, you’re concerned about coronavirus and want to do everything possible to safeguard your kids — and yourself — from this fast spreading health risk. But as a divorced co-parent, you’ve also got the added pressure of needing to coordinate COVID-19 precautionary measures with your ex.
Could COVID-19 disrupt your custody plans? When is it not safe for your kids to travel to see their other parent? What about international custody? We’ve been fielding a lot of calls from parents this week with urgent questions about coronavirus and its impact on custody. We have gathered a few of these questions and answers in this blog. We’ll be adding more as information on the virus changes.
Please note that these Q&As are for informational purposes only. To get answers that directly apply to your unique situation, we offer an initial attorney consultations, including online virtual appointments or in office visits. Contact us to schedule your initial attorney appointment.
Your Questions About Coronavirus & Custody
Q: My ex lives in Westchester County, NY and is supposed to have the kids this weekend. There is a coronavirus cluster in New Rochelle, which is one town over from where he lives. I don’t my kids going anywhere near there. Can I refuse to drop them off for the visit?
A: In this incredibly stressful and fearful time we’re going through, here is what you can do first: Call your ex and talk over your concerns. For all you know, your ex is also worried about the kids being in such close proximity to New Rochelle and wants to discuss alternatives. Could your ex spend time with the kids in your home this weekend? Could they FaceTime instead? Can you come to an agreement that you will tack a week on to summer vacation parenting time to make up for lost time over the next month and/or until the COVID-19 crisis wanes? If you can reach your own agreement, get it in writing and show it to your lawyer. You should be good to go on this temporary arrangement.
If you get pushback from your ex and they refuse to change the schedule, you may be tempted to disregard your order and refuse to drop your kids off. Before going this route, be aware that unilaterally deciding “I am not letting the kids see you,” without first getting an agreement from the parent or going to court, can land you in hot water. The New Jersey courts take interference with custody and visitation seriously. Potential remedies for refusing to follow parenting orders include basically anything the court thinks would be fair and appropriate, including changes in the parenting plan or even criminal arrest for kidnapping.
So, if you can’t agree on a change in custody plans, and if you believe that your child is at increased risk for coronavirus while in your ex’s care, consider filing an “Order to Show Cause” to get an emergency hearing. The standard on emergency orders, however, is very high. Be prepared to convince the judge that there would be “immediate, inimical and irreparable harm” to the child without the emergency modification. Has your ex had contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, or has your ex recently traveled to Italy or China, or attended the Biogen conference in Boston that led to a breakout amongst attendees, or been in a similar high exposure situation? Does your child have a compromised immune system or other underlying health condition? These are all important factors for the courts to consider in creating a temporary alternative custody plan.
Q: My ex and I have a horrible relationship and do not communicate well at all. What points can I focus on to make sure we’re on the same page with protecting our child from coronavirus exposure?
A: One of the best ways to deal with a high-conflict co-parent is to stick to a “just the facts” style of dealing with the issues at hand. Stay neutral and stay focused. To make sure you are on the same page, you can take steps such as…
- Visiting the CDC’s website of the NJ Health Department’s website and print out the latest recommendations on COVID-19.
- Ask your ex to let you know if anyone they know has tested positive for COVID-19, and request to keep the child away from that person and from anyone else that person might have been in contact with.
- Teach your child good hygiene— including good hand washing techniques and not touching their face with their hands. Make sure your child understands that these practices should be performed wherever they are — your house, at school, at their other parent’s home. Let your ex know that you are following these precautions and ask for their support.
- You can also consult with your child’s pediatrician for guidance, and share any helpful or necessary information with your ex. This is especially important if your child is immunocompromised or has another underlying health condition.
- Try to work together to make a longer-range family plan that prepares for the possibility of a severe outbreak in either parent’s community. The CDC has some helpful information for how to prepare.
If you can manage to work together productively on reducing your family’s risk for coronavirus, this crisis could become a blueprint for overall improved communication.
Q: My ex lives in Italy. The entire country is in lock down right now, but my child was supposed to go there over spring break. I am under no obligation to send my child there, am I?
A: Again, you want to communicate with your ex first on this to see if you can reach a quick agreement to temporarily change your plans and get it in writing. It is unclear whether your child would even be able to enter the country now given that Italy is essentially under a nationwide quarantine. There is also the matter that President Trump has suspended all flights from Europe, including Italy, for the next month. This excludes family members, but it may make any trip unduly stressful.
Should your ex insist that you still follow your custody plan and send your child to Italy, this would be cause to go to court to file an emergency custody motion to stop the trip. A family law attorney can help you present the strongest case possible. The judge may decide to postpone the trip to the summer or present other ways that parent-child contact can still be maintained.
Q: Some NJ schools have said they will go to virtual classes should circumstances warrant. If this happens at my kids’ school, does this mean that we would go to our summer/non-school schedule, or would they need to possibly negotiate a stop gap plan to deal with something like this?
A: You first want to look at the exact wording of your parenting agreement/parenting orders to see if there are any emergency contingencies for school being derailed. For example, do you have a clause in your agreement about what happens on snow days or when your child needs to stay home school because they are sick?
This language can be a starting point, if you do find it in your agreement, but with school closures going for weeks and months, not days, you will probably need to negotiate some kind of temporary plan to get through until your summertime parenting time plan can kick in. If you are stumped on what this temporary schedule should look like, this is where an attorney or even a mediator can step in to help you. The bottom line is that parents need to try to keep a cool head and negotiate whatever makes the most sense for everyone.
Q: My ex and I have to come to an agreement that is best for our child to stay put in my home rather than travel for parenting time. I appreciate my ex’s flexibility and ability to prioritize our child’s health. What can I do to support their contact with each other during this difficult time?
A: It is so heartening to see divorced co-parents pull together in a time of crisis. It’s proof that a divorced family is still a family. You can do so many things to help your child stay in touch with their other parent. Skyping a bedtime story, playing online video games together, watching the same movie on Netflix and having FaceTime going at the same time to share reactions, making fun short videos to send each other… And good old-fashioned phone calls work too! In today’s high tech world, the good news is that there are so many ways to keep in touch. With all the uncertainty in the world right now, being there to support your child in their relationships gives them a greater feeling of security. It’s worth the added effort.
More Q&As coming soon…
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