The recent COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted many aspects of life already. When anxiety is high about potential health concerns and people are forced to stay in close quarters, problems can arise. China has observed a spike in divorce filings since the outbreak due to self-isolation. Similar problems may occur in the United States due to similar circumstances and those families that are already split in two may struggle with child custody amid the health scare.
Read below for more information on how this situation may impact your custody arrangement and what you can do about it.
COVID-19 Public Health orders versus custody orders
As coronavirus has spread, officials and local communities have tried to take steps to slow it. Schools are closing across California and other states. Other organizations are implementing drastic measures to combat the spread of the disease.
Many parenting plans are built around the school schedule. So, if your child doesn’t go to school, where will he or she go? Do you have a first priority in childcare built into your plan if necessary? Will you or the other parent even be able to miss work to care for your child? Does one parent have a more flexible work schedule than the other? Will you be able to ensure that your child turns in work if she has access to virtual work? Parents may find unique challenges presented by this epidemic when their visitation and parenting time is dictated by a child custody order.
Additionally, the pandemic may affect whether you can or should travel during spring break, summer break or other times in the near future.
The virus may impact you financially. Your employer may have closings and may not need your services for an extended period of time. You may be asked to work a reduced number of hours or face a layoff. You may work for an employer that is significantly affected by the pandemic. This may make it more difficult for you to pay child support or travel to see your child.
Adhering to Your Custody Agreement
Until there is an official change in your custody agreement, it is important that you maintain it as much as is possible. Otherwise, the other parent may allege that you are in contempt of court because you are not following the instructions of the court. Being found in contempt of court can result in significant consequences, including:
- Jail time
- Costs, fees and the requirement to pay the other parent’s attorney fees
- Changes to your custody agreement
- Community service
Modifying Your Custody Agreement
Before you can start making changes to your custody agreement, you will need to petition the court to modify your custody order or you may be able to make changes based upon mutual agreement with you and the other parent at mediation. You can complete a new parenting plan that would contain the changes you would like to see.
To have your child custody order modified, you will need to be able to show that there was a significant “change in circumstances.” This change must affect the child, not just you. Examples of such significant changes in circumstances include:
- The other parent becomes ill and is unable to care for the child.
- A parent relocates
- A parent frustrates visitation or communication with the other parent
- A child wants to live with the other parent
However, if you only want to make a change to the visitation schedule, you will only need to show the change would be in the “best interests of the child.”
Practical Steps To Address Child Custody Issues
In many situations, an official change in custody may not be necessary. Instead, you may be able to work together with the other parent to develop a short-term plan on how to address this issue. Provide clear communication about the issue, how it has impacted your work, whether travel should be restricted and how the school system or childcare plan is affected because of this issue. Try to work together to fill in the gaps where necessary.
Talk to your children about the virus and precautionary measures you should take, such as washing your hands frequently and avoiding physical contact with others. Also, talk about changes that will impact them, such as not being able to go to a large gathering or vacation you had planned. While your children may be disappointed, emphasize the importance of health and discuss the ability to partake int eh activity later, if this is possible.
Work together to come up with an emergency preparation plan that addresses the following:
- How will you designate parenting time if your child is not at school?
- How will your child complete schoolwork?
- What procedures will you follow if you or the other parent gets sick?
- What will happen if your child gets sick?
- Where will the child stay if a quarantine is ordered?
- Do you have a reunification plan in place if you get separated from your child?
- Do you have necessary medications, food and other resources to last if a quarantine is issued?
Having a predetermined plan in place can help you avoid conflict and give you more confidence if problems arise. Your children will need to look to you for an example so you must stay calm. Try to guide your family during this difficult time. It is important that your children feel safe and protected during scary times.
Also, watch out for signs that your child is struggling with events and tend to their mental health. Give them the freedom to ask questions and provide accurate, age-appropriate answers. Listen to your child’s feelings so that you can better address them. Your children may need counseling if the events are traumatizing to them.
By working as a unit and being available to your children, you can help instill confidence and security in your children, even during confusing times.