Whether you are both still living under the same roof with your children; separated and trying to implement a pendent lite parenting schedule; or post-judgment with an existing parenting agreement, COVID-19 is adding another element of stress to what is doubtless an already stress laden situation. While the fundamental and overriding concept of safeguarding children’s best interests still prevails, it remains to be seen how courts will apply this concept to COVID-19 applications. What is emerging, however, is an expectation for clients to demonstrate to the court that they have made good faith efforts, infused with ample measures of common sense, flexibility, and creativity, to resolve the issues between parties.
For example, it is understandable that parents have concerns about children going back and forth to each other’s homes for parenting time. Such concerns are magnified if one or both parents are “essential employees.” The goal should be to try to establish common “COVID-19” ground rules in both homes so as to avoid sending mixed messages to the children, and to present a united front by way of implementing what may be awkward and time consuming, but essential, measures. The ground rules include procedures that both parents should follow in their respective homes (removing shoes and clothing in a designated “hot zone” upon returning home from work, wiping down groceries, letting boxes sit for two or more days before opening, etc.) to procedures that both parents require the children to follow. Numerous issues regarding fundamentals such as hand washing, wearing face masks, and social distancing for children already exist. They will only multiply when stay at home restrictions ease. Questions will arise regarding interactions with friends and resuming activities. Will the children be required to wear facemasks while playing outside, will they be allowed to play at a friend’s home, what will the consequences be for failure to follow the protocols set in place?
Courts are generally reluctant to “micromanage” such household ground rules. If, after having made good faith efforts to communicate with the other parent, you are having difficulty reaching agreement on such issues, consider asking your children’s pediatrician to provide guidance. In order to avoid being referred to a set of general guidelines, make sure your pediatrician is aware of specific circumstances regarding your children. For example, your pediatrician may not be aware that you are separated and the children are going back and forth between two households, or he/she may not be aware of the exact circumstances of each parent’s employment. If you decide to seek input from your pediatrician, consider doing so via a pre-scheduled phone call with both parents and your pediatrician, and providing your pediatrician (and each other) with a specific list of questions sufficiently ahead of the call to allow your pediatrician to do any research that may be needed. Be respectful of your pediatrician’s time and be prepared to pay for it. Ask your pediatrician to put his/her recommendations in writing so that both parents have the same set of “guidance” to implement in both homes.
Hopefully, seeking the guidance of your children’s pediatrician (or other trusted medical provider) will resolve and address your concerns. If it does not, and one or both parents deem further measures necessary in order to safeguard your children’s health and best interests, this initial step will serve as a foundation for what you choose to do next. The experienced and accomplished family law attorneys at CSG will be helpful in identifying and helping you assess the pros and cons of your various options, including court intervention, which is best viewed as a last resort for a multitude of reasons.