Co-parenting in the coronavirus pandemic: A family law scholar’s advice

As millions of people around the world practice social distancing and self-quarantine, they are separating themselves from everyone but their immediate family members. However, for divorced or separated parents who share custody of their children, the definition of "immediate family" isn't obvious.

Already, family lawyers around the country are being inundated with calls from anxious parents worried about returning children to co-parents who are not willing to practice social distancing. They are contemplating keeping their child away from the other parent, in violation of a shared-custody agreement – but wonder how courts will react.


I have been a family law professor for almost 13 years. I have written numerous articles about custody and visitation. Until recently, I never even contemplated how these traditional family law concepts might change in response to a pandemic. Few custody and child-support court orders will have provisions covering how to share parenting in a pandemic – although they may become common in the future.

This is uncharted legal territory. The federal government, many states and even municipal governments around the country have declared states of emergency.

With many family courts closed, divorced or separated parents will have to make up arrangements as they go along. My strong advice is that parents should not try and equate the COVID-19 pandemic with other types of emergencies that may be covered in their custody agreements.

Instead, they should seek to work together – however difficult that may be – to provide for the best interests of their children, and to preserve a sense of fairness and equity, both emotionally and legally, however custody is shared.

Finding common ground

As workplaces shut down or convert employees to working from home, many parents may find opportunities to adjust schedules so the child can be cared for by one parent or the other, rather than bring in the care of sitters, nannies or members of the extended family.

Public health experts say it's best to limit social circles to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Parents should try to be a team in this situation, even if it is difficult. This is not the time to keep a minute accounting of how many overnights the other parent has had or to argue that the current school closures should be treated like summer vacation. Avoid gamesmanship.

Talk through concerns and be open to new arrangements. Reassure the other parent that any current reduction in their parenting time will be made up – eventually – and that in the meantime, they will have increased phone calls, video chats and other forms of non-physical contact.

I do recommend keeping records, including contacting the other parent in writing (by text or email), explaining what your concerns are about the current custody plan, and proposing a reasonable solution. It will be very helpful to encourage the other parent's thoughts and suggestions on the proposal. Any coronavirus custody arrangement should accommodate the concerns and interests of both parents.

It is stressful for everyone – parents and children alike – to live through this pandemic. Children don't need the added worry of parental fights. They badly need more stability and reassurance – especially about their contact and connection with those who love them the most.

Judges look out for the kids

It may not be easy to come to agreement. Every relationship – and ex-relationship – is different. Some couples may be used to sorting things out in court. That is less possible now than during normal times.

Most family courts are closed for everything but emergency matters, which almost certainly do not include custody disputes. Of course, after the crisis passes, the courts will reopen.

At that time, I have little doubt that judges will be pleased with parents who have worked together to identify their children's best interests, and taken steps to protect their health and safety. And I expect judges will be furious at parents who put their own interests before their children's, and refused to cooperate with a willing and reasonable parent.


images.theconversation.com


Disobeying a court order is a big unknown

If agreement is really impossible, the path gets much more precarious. Shared-custody agreements and orders were crafted when the present crisis was unimaginable, but violating them is risky – even if the reason sounds solid. Judges may reduce visitation and custody for parents who interfere with their ex-partner's custodial rights.

Parents who fear for their children's health may be willing to take their chances and hope that when this is all over, the family court will agree that their decision was reasonable. It is a big gamble – and regardless of the outcome is likely to involve significant legal expense and time fighting in court.


images.theconversation.com


Seeking help to settle disputes

There are alternatives to conflict and animosity, and waiting for courts to reopen and sort things out.

Many family court mediators remain available to help couples work out pandemic related custody issues. Although the specific circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic are unprecedented, parental disputes about children's health and safety are common. Mediators are well versed in these issues and can help families reach reasonable agreements.

Mediated agreements – even attempts at agreements – provide a contemporary and largely objective record of the parents' thoughts, circumstances and concerns. That record may help judges sort out who was being reasonable and accommodating in seeking custody changes, and who was not.

In the effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Americans are repeatedly reminded that the decisions they make today will have direct consequences on our individual and collective well-being in the future. This warning is not specifically directed at divorced or separated parents, but it is just as applicable.

The custody choices parents make in the next few weeks affect not only the immediate health and welfare of their children and families, but may also affect their future custody arrangements. Courts rarely look kindly on parents who put their needs before their children's. In the aftermath of a pandemic, it safe to assume this will be even more true.

The circumstances surrounding many custody disputes have changed drastically in the past week, but as always, the safest bet is cooperation.

Marcia Zug is Professor of Family Law, University of South Carolina

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.

True

The average American produces nearly 5 pounds of waste material—cardboard, plastic, aluminum cans, and junk mail—each day. The United States creates significantly more garbage than the rest of the world (roughly 3 times more!), and we're running out of places to put it.

Most people are aware that recycling is important, but knowing exactly what and how to recycle properly can be confusing. Let's face it: we are, as a nation, stretched pretty thin in this particular moment; now we have one more thing to worry about? In a word, yes.

Don't worry though, because whether you're new to recycling or have been doing it for years, there is always something more to learn and endless ways you can help. To make saving the planet a little bit simpler, we compiled a list of small things you can do that will make a huge impact.

Acknowledgment. Most of us go about our day without thinking about the garbage we're producing, so simply tuning in to the choices we make is a big step forward. For example, online shopping increased dramatically in 2020, translating into a lot more cardboard boxes, plastic shopping bags, and Styrofoam takeout containers finding their way into households. That is a lot of trash!

Awareness. Buy from brands with a proven track record of environmental responsibility. Select foods in recyclable containers. Take the time to educate yourself on the best eco-friendly grocery stores in your area, and then... actually shop there.

Keep Reading Show less

It's not every day that you see an NFL player sporting a jersey of a professional female athlete. In fact, if most of us wrack our brains, we probably can't think of any day that we've seen that.

So when Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, walked out of the locker room after last night's last-minute win against the Minnesota Vikings, people took notice of his shirt—a yellow and green jersey with the name and number of Sue Bird, the Seattle Storm WNBA superstar player. The Storm just took home their fourth WNBA National Championship title.

But that wasn't all he did.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo courtesy of Lily Read
True

Now more than ever, teachers are America's unsung heroes. They are taking on the overwhelming task of not only educating our children but finding creative and effective ways to do it in an unpredictable virtual learning environment.

Lily Read and Justin Bernard, two Massachusetts educators from one of the most diverse public high schools in the U.S. (over 25 different languages are spoken in the student body!), feel ready to meet the challenges of this unprecedented school year. Their goal: find ways to make virtual education "as joyful as possible" to help support teenagers during quarantine.

"Our school is very economically, racially, and linguistically diverse," said Read, "which means meeting the needs for all those students is incredibly complex." That wide range of diversity means that they spend a lot of time in professional development, preparing to meet students where they are. This summer, educators in their district spent weeks learning everything from how to provide emotional and social support via virtual platforms, to meeting 504 plans and Individual Educational Plans for disabled students virtually, to mastering the various online programs necessary for instruction.

Bernard, now in his fifth year of teaching, also coaches the high school football team. Prior to the pandemic, there were clear expectations for student athletes, with clear goals and incentives to keep their grades up. Now, Bernard is concerned that student athletes will begin to fall through the cracks without the structure of physically going to school each day, and he is on a mission to do everything he can to keep that from happening.

Keep Reading Show less

Ever since Donald J. Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, I've had so many questions. Four years later, most of them still remain unanswered.

For example how does a man who has had so many failed businesses convince people he's a great businessman? How does a man who was fined $2 million for using misusing charitable donations for his own political gain convince people he's charitable? How does a man who paid a $25 million settlement to students he defrauded with his fake "university" convince people he'll be trustworthy with the highest office in the land? How does a man who the entire country heard say he "tried to f*ck" a married woman and grabs women "by the p*ssy" get any women to vote for him? How could a man who cheated on all three of his wives, paid hush money to a porn star, spends his Sunday mornings golfing instead of going to church, and dodges questions about the Bible gain the adoration of evangelical Christians?

It's that last question that has perhaps been the most baffling one to me. Especially considering the super devout Christian beliefs of his vice president and running mate, Mike Pence. Like, how does that even work?

Keep Reading Show less

Sometimes a politician says or does something so brazenly gross that you have to do a double take to make sure it really happened. Take, for instance, this tweet from Lauren Witzke, a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate from Delaware. Witzke defeated the party's endorsed candidate to win the primary, has been photographed in a QAnon t-shirt, supports the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was a U.S. government inside operation, and has called herself a flat earther.

So that's neat.

Witzke has also proposed a 10-year total halt on immigration to the U.S., which is absurd on its face, but makes sense when you see what she believes about immigrants. In a tweet this week, Witzke wrote, "Most third-world migrants can not assimilate into civil societies. Prove me wrong."

First, let's talk about how "civil societies" and developing nations are not different things, and to imply that they are is racist, xenophobic, and wrong. Not to mention, it has never been a thing to refer people using terms like "third-world." That's a somewhat outdated term for developing nations, and it was never an adjective to describe people from those nations even when it was in use.

Next, let's see how Twitter thwapped Lauren Witzke straight into the 21st century by proving her wrong in the most delicious way. Not only did people share how they or their relatives and friends have successfully "assimilated," but many showed that they went way, way beyond that.

Keep Reading Show less