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Rethinking COVID-19 Co-parenting Plans

parenting plans

Co-parenting during normal times is tough enough – bedtime, sleepovers, dietary concerns are but a few topics that can try the patience of Job during child custody discussion.

Now, toss a pandemic in the mix. Norms are skewed beyond belief as divorced parents face a host of new situations: school closings, indoor space restrictions (or closures), face mask requirements.

How can a parent whose child(ren) split time between households navigate what can be tricky custodial waters that now are a swirling whirlpool because of the coronavirus, AKA COVID-19?

Children of the approximately 790,000 divorces in the United States – as well as children whose parents never married – are turning into another hazard in the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported in March 2020, just as the virus was making itself known in the United States.

Schools closed. Not only that, but many places co-parents used for custody exchanges (with exceptions, depending on the state) shuttered. Then, too, the virus has affected different parts of the country in different ways, making the application of family law universally near impossible.

Ferrying a child between parents’ houses to comply with custody requirements should be fine – if the parents live near each other or within a short driving distance. When parents live a distance that requires longer travel time by air or other mode impacted by COVID-19 countermeasures, parents may need to find other means to get their children to their other parent.

In general courts expect parenting time schedules to be followed and COVID can not be used as a guise for denying the other parent time with the child. If the child has a sniffle or cough that isn’t enough to keep the child from the other parent. Until the child tests positive for the virus, keeping the child from the other parent may well be considered an unwarranted denial of parenting time.

Best interests of the child

Jason Owens, a Boston-based family law lawyer, raised eyebrows thanks to his blog entry dealing with the intrusion of coronavirus into child custody issue, the Times reported. In his missive, Owens asks: What if a parent gets too sick? Or tests positive? Or a child gets infected? What if a parent is let go from a job and can’t provide financial support? What if a parent’s new partner tests positive?

“It’s just awkwardly, incredibly daunting now,” Owens told the Times. “Everyone is flying blind. One parent will say, ‘Have you been socially distancing?’ And the other one says: ‘It’s none of your business. I have a right to my child.’ Anxiety causes defensiveness. But often they’re reacting to their own history. Messy divorces mean messy custodies.”

No one knows what will get parents in trouble with the courts as far as bending custody rules go. “Courts are going to have a hard time helping now, and maybe even after things get back to normal,” Owens said. “We’re seeing lots of judges taking a hands-off approach. You’re going to hear that these were not willful violations.”

Still, Owens, noted, “Parents should expect that their texts and emails during all of this could be submitted to a judge later.”

Family courts in most states have adopted a case-by-case, judge-by-judge stance on court cases. However the situation and the judicial and legislative response to it is constantly evolving. We first wrote about co-parenting during Covid-19 in April 2020. See that article here – Read More.

Keep in mind that family law courts will reconsider custody arrangements if a parent isn’t adhering to public health precautions. Endangering the health of a child is not a matter considered lightly by a court.

If one parent becomes concerned about a co-parent’s refusal to comply with a mask mandate and seeks interim custody, it would not be surprising for the non-compliant co-parent to lose custody, at least for a time. A family law court may well decide it is in the child’s best interest that decisions about their health, schooling, and extra-curricular activities be made by the parent who accepts the public health concerns presented by the pandemic.

Create a Plan

The best way to avoid the uncertainty–and high cost–of a messy court battle with a co-parent is to create a plan you can both at least tolerate. Remember, the goal is to avoid expensive court battles and conflicts that put your child(ren) in the middle. The goal is NOT for one parent to ‘win’ and the coparent to ‘lose.’

PLAN SUGGESTIONS:

Stick to the original pre-pandemic parenting schedule as much as possible. This provides consistency for the children.

Check your state’s most recent executive orders about sheltering in place or isolating. Many provide exemptions to allow parents to adhere to child custody and parenting orders, but you should be clear on what your state’s restrictions include.

Agree to comply with public health guidelines such as mask and social distancing.

Keep a record of whom the child(ren) has contact with, and if there is any potential exposure to Covid 19 the other parent should be notified immediately.

Parents who are essential workers should state how they limit potential exposure and what precautions they are taking, such as wearing PPE and what they do when they return from work.

Parents should agree on whether child(ren) will be allowed to visit extended family members and what precautions will be taken during such visits, if any.

Parents should decide on a plan of action if one parent is exposed to Covid 19 and must isolate, if one parent exhibits symptoms and must isolate until tested, or if one parent tests positive for Covid 19. Also, depending on the situation, parents may need to consider a plan of action if both of them become ill with Covid 19.

Agree on who will oversee the schooling if the schools switch to distance learning. This may depend on parental temperament or on which parent is able to work from home. Both parents need to put the child(ren)’s interests before their own egos and bruised feelings.

Accept reality that the pandemic upended many people’s lives, and for the sake of your children treat your co-parent with far more grace and patience than you think s/he deserves. Allow your child extra video time with the other parent if they can’t be with the other parent due to quarantine.

On arguing well

Even with an agreed-upon list of people whose advice parents agree to follow, disagreements that bloom to arguments are likely to occur. So, how do divorced parents argue their points of view effectively?

Most importantly, don’t begin by telling the other parent they’re wrong. Everyone wants to feel as though their perspective is at least being heard.

An article by Bustle online magazine offers up 11 ways to argue in a healthy manner: “Argue” and “healthy” can be used together in a sentence and not be mutually exclusive. The suggestions – culled from several articles published elsewhere – are of the common-sense variety, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them.

Never yell: Try to keep the level of your voice in check. Lowering one’s voice can help reduce the anger factor.

Paraphrase: One partner states their position for up to a minute while the other listens. Before the second partner can rebut the stated position, the partner must paraphrase it, which demonstrates the position was heard.

Take a time out: It’s OK to walk away from an argument when signs of anger become overwhelming. Take a deep breath or physically walk away to keep from doing or saying something that would torpedo the discussion

Ask yourself why you’re angry: Try to figure out what’s the genesis for the anger before starting the discussion.

Timing is everything: When bringing up a contentious issue, make sure to carve out time to work it out. In other words, don’t bale.

Keep on topic: Be clear about the topic and stay on topic when arguing. (This is related to Don’t Stockpile)

Stay humble: You need to prepare yourself that you may not be right and that the other person may present valid points. This is the difference between a constructive argument and an unproductive fight.

Don’t engage when hungry or tired: You may miss something.

Use “I Feel” statements: Using “I feel” statements rather than “you” statements doesn’t put the other person on the defensive and helps to eliminate the blame game.

Try being empathetic: Try putting yourself into the other person’s shoes. Overreacting could be really insecurity. Hypersensitivity could have roots of being hurt previously.

Refusing to lash out or blame someone and turning that negative energy into a positive conversation. More importantly, it can help make co-parenting relationships better and the participants happier.

One woman, in a New York Times article published in March 2020, discussed what she and her former spouse went through to work through matters concerning their children. While recognizing that they would inevitably have disagreements, she said she hoped they “can use this moment as an opportunity to turn the page a bit on our approach to co-parenting. … We share two amazing children, who need both of us.

“A pandemic doesn’t change that; it makes it clearer.”

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