Handling Shared Custody In the Era of Coronavirus: All Your Questions, Answered by Professionals

I woke up this morning to the news that all of California has been put under shelter-in-place restrictions, wherein residents are only permitted to leave their homes for “essentials.” This news is understandably jarring for a bunch of reasons, but it poses some additional questions for those of us who share custody of children with another human being who is not, currently, sheltered in the same place.

As with…oh, everything else, this is an unprecedented situation, with no hard-and-fast answers. So I reached out to attorney Cheri Bell of Daprile-Bell Family Law Offices and parenting and relationship coach Graziella Simonetti of Your Parenting Pals to get some guidance on how to proceed in the best interests of our kids.

What issues specific to divorced or separated parents with children can you imagine arising during these times?

Co-parenting can be challenging in the best of circumstances and is likely to become more complicated during a global pandemic.  Some of the new co-parenting challenges that may arise as a result of the Coronavirus include homeschooling, parents working from home, loss of one or more incomes, illness of parents or family member, and an increased need for communication and problem solving with your ex.

COVID-19 has complicated most of our daily routines. And let’s be honest, as much as we love free time, most of us (especially our children) thrive and maintain better focus with structure and predictability. Our children have lost their usual access to school, friends, activities, and perhaps time with one or both of their parents. Co-parenting in these times can add another level of uncertainty and stress as we learn to navigate uncharted waters. Many parents won’t be able to keep usual parenting time agreements and may find it necessary to communicate and problem solve with their ex more than they have in the past. –Graziella Simonetti

How does the court system account for catastrophic situations like what we’re experiencing now? Or…does it? 

It really doesn’t. Most of the family courts are closed down except for domestic violence cases involving children and other “emergency” hearings. It’s uncharted territory, and changing rapidly, but what we have seen over the past few days is shut down of all but essential/emergency services. All hearings are being automatically continued or cancelled. –Cheri Bell

If a case is currently going through the court system, and the court shuts down, what’s the default situation, legally?

The default is the current order. If there’s a request for a change pending, that will wait. –Cheri Bell

In a shelter-in-place situation, what determines where the children go? Do both parents maintain visitation rights, and to what extent? Does shared custody count as an “essential”?

This is a question being asked by many of my clients, and I am, in general, suggesting that they stick with the “normal” schedule and that the children spend time with each parent (which seems to make sense, psychologically). Most of my clients are doing this and doing OK (for now….but we are only a few days into this!). I also am going to suggest a “reasonable person” standard for situations where a child or parent has been exposed or experiencing symptoms to keep a more quarantined arrangement. Of course, things such as airline travel or vacations would likely cease for time being and we would suggest defaulting to the “regular” schedule.

With regards to whether it is an “essential,” this truly remains to be seen. In my practice (and my actual real life being a divorced Mom) child exchanges are still taking place. Unless we are faced with martial law where they are stopping people on the roads, I would think that a family unit could include two homes with children residing in each for a particular duration of time. –Cheri Bell

In the absence of legal avenues for help, what should parents who are in conflict (about visitation, schooling, or appropriate risk measures) do?

Legal avenues for support around co-parenting are essential for high-conflict parents to maintain parenting time agreements and exchange the children in a safe and conflict-free manner. Many co-parents, for example, have orders of protection in place and rely on third parties for supervised visitation. Others utilize a parallel parenting style to eliminate direct communication with their ex.  With the absence of such safety measures, many parents wait in limbo for life, and their co-parenting arrangements, to return to “normal.” Hopefully, even in these turbulent times, parents still have phone/email access to their attorneys. For parents who are suspending parenting time with an ex as a result of a safety measure, consider keeping a log of dates and times of missed parenting time and the reason for the suspension. If it was previously deemed acceptable from the court that the non-residential parent has phone time or video chat with their child, continue to utilize these methods and log the date, time, type, and length of contact with the parent.

If a parent feels threatened or in danger as a result of actions/words from their ex, they can still contact the police and file a report. –Graziella Simonetti

What specific strategies can we employ to help our children get through this time with minimal conflict and positive positive relationships with both parents? 

Just as we are setting up temporary home offices and classrooms, we can consider setting up a temporary parenting time schedule.  We need to be flexible and forgiving as we find a new, though impermanent, way to give our children predictability and access to both parents. Just as we are likely utilizing technology for homeschooling, we can utilize apps that will allow your child to video chat with your ex. 

For young children, communicating through a screen can be difficult. Still, we can get creative! I have seen great success with a puppet show, book reading, or doing a virtual scavenger hunt over video chat.  With the scavenger hunt, for example, the physically separated parent might say to a toddler, “look around the room and show me two things that are red.” Interactive and lively communication is best with children of all ages. The parents can also utilize technology to communicate with one another, especially for those parents who practice a more parallel parenting style. There are many co-parenting website (such as Our Family Wizard) that allow for parents to upload schedules and communicate without having to speak directly. –Graziella Simonetti

Any advice for getting along with your ex during these bizarre times? 

When communicating and problem solving with your ex, use a business-like tone void of emotion or judgment.  Be cordial and make requests rather than demands.  For example, you might say “would you consider dropping her off at 10am instead of noon today?” instead of, “I need you to drop her early today.”  Our requests are much more likely to be heard and honored when said in this tone. Furthermore, it models for our children a respectful and productive communication style.

When working with co-parents, I often hear “but you don’t know my ex.”  This is true.  Still, one thing I do know is that every parent only has control over themselves!  We cannot control how the other parent chooses to respond, but (to borrow a line from Frozen II), we can always choose the next right thing.  We do this by maintaining our own control and choosing not to engage in unproductive conflict.  We do this by putting what works best for our child’s mental and emotional health ahead of our feelings of anger, disappointment, and frustration towards their other parent.  Our children’s resilience is strengthened by the care and support of loving and consistent caregivers. We can choose to be that for our child. –Graziella Simonetti

What about the future?

Once we are free to resume our social connectivity, it is important to transition back to the previously agreed upon routines and expectations.  It is unrealistic to expect that the physically separated parent can make up all of the all of the missed parenting time.  Flexibility and understanding are key. –Graziella Simonetti

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