Child custody arrangements are rarely simple and can often be precarious. Parents are often hesitant to ask each other for even minor deviations from the plan for fear of upsetting a fragile peace. Even when life circumstances allow for smooth sailing, co-parenting presents many opportunities for conflict – and the COVID-19 pandemic has not been smooth sailing for anyone.
Throughout Pennsylvania, parents are struggling to raise their children despite immediate and secondary problems caused by the pandemic. New issues have arisen that parents have never before had to consider, but now cannot ignore, such as what to do if:
- One parent works in a job that regularly exposes them to COVID-19?
- One parent is dating someone who works in an essential job?
- A parent is unemployed and can't pay child support?
- An employed parent needs childcare in order to work from home?
- A parent lives out of state, in a state that is a coronavirus hotspot?
- An ex isn't taking social distancing as seriously as the other believes he or she should?
- The ex's new partner isn't taking social distancing seriously?
- A child has serious medical issues that require lessened exposure?
- A parent is undergoing treatment for cancer, or has other medical concerns that put them at greater risk?
- An elderly grandparent lives with one parent?
When a Parent is on the Front Lines
Should a parent who could potentially be exposed to COVID-19 due to the nature of their job still get to visit with their child? The answer is “yes, but”. Ideally, both parents will work together to find accommodations and modifications that keep everyone safe and the parent who faces greater exposure will openly communicate any increased risks. If parenting time is missed because one parent believes he or she might be at risk, parenting time should be made up later. Both parents should work together to make sure the child gets to talk and videoconference with their parent who can't be present because of virus exposure. But, people don't always do what they should and one parent may be legitimately worried about the health of their child, or the health of everyone else in their household.
When One Parent Isn't Taking Social Distancing as Seriously as the Other
Many disagreements arise when one parent is not social distancing to the same extent as the other. This can be about much more than personal preference or politics, too. If the other parent shares a household with someone who is at high risk or has a compromised immune system, the need for social distancing could be higher. If the child is more likely to be exposed to the virus when visiting the other parent, the could get sick or could transmit the virus to the at-risk family member. In a perfect world, the parents would work together to find a happy medium that protected everyone's health and that everyone could live with, but the world is rarely perfect.
Out-of-State Parents and Travel
Travel, especially air travel, has been a major concern for many people throughout the pandemic. When one parent lives out of state and must travel to see the child, or must have the child travel to them, it can create new issues and concerns for both parents, particularly when the non-custodial parent lives in a coronavirus hot spot. In addition, exposure to COVID-19 through air travel is a significant cause of concern for many people. Parents should try to compromise in these situations and plan to schedule make-up time or to travel by car rather than by plane.
When schools began transitioning to remote learning in the early days of the pandemic, parents who were able to work from home suddenly had to figure out how to do their jobs while also facilitating their child's education. This further complicated custody and co-parenting arrangements, and added to the frustration parents were feeling. The non-custodial parent may have been frustrated with the educational efforts of the custodial parent, and the custodial parent may have been resentful of the extra workload the non-custodial parent was not experiencing. An open exchange of information regarding the child's education can help keep both parents on the same page, and co-parenting apps can help with this. Now that school is back in session, the drama is beginning again.
It's Risky to Take Matters into Your Own Hands
Even with good reasons and the best of intentions, choosing to violate a custody agreement can hurt a parent in the long run. Courts often won't rule in favor of a parent who violates a custody and visitation agreement. Perhaps a judge would be sympathetic to the circumstances created by the pandemic, but it's just as likely that a judge will decide that the parent who didn't follow the plan was in the wrong.
Not Much Help from the Courts
To further complicate matters, many family courts have been closed or are bogged down with cases. Parents are finding it difficult to adjust custody orders. Courts have told parents that the existing orders should be followed as issued, but if there is a sincere concern for the health of a parent, child, or other relative sharing a household, many people feel like the matters just can't wait.
No custody case is the same. There are some situations where the parents should agree to follow the orders as they were issued before the pandemic because the risks of exposure to the virus are low for that family. To reduce the conflict, both parents should also follow all of the recommended precautions during their custodial and non-custodial time with regard to social distancing, limiting their exposure to groups of people, and practicing good hygiene. These steps will go a long way to putting the other parent's fears at ease. Using available technology, such as Zoom, Facetime, or Skype time for both parents to communicate with the child can also help alleviate some of the conflicts and help the child feel more at ease.
If the pandemic has created new issues in your custodial arrangement, attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help. We are very experienced in helping Pennsylvania families navigate the issues around child custody, particularly during these difficult times. Give us a call today at 888-535-3686.