Corona virus and separated parents – what to do?

UPDATE : 23 MARCH (post lockdown). I’ve written another post here which is more up to date (but sadly not very helpful). I will update it when I Can.

First off, I don’t have all the answers. I can’t give you legal advice about your case.

 

That disclaimer out of the way, I hope I can say something generally useful. I know a lot of parents are worrying about all of this and how they should respond when there are child arrangements orders in place or hearings coming up.

 

I hope you can use this post to make some good decisions as parents about how to deal with the coming days.

 

A dad sent me a message earlier. It asked a question I have seen asked on various groups in the last few days, and which I had realised people would need answers to. But a combination of other commitments (court hearings, kids etc) and a lack of clear information  has made that difficult until now. Things are still changing.

 

This is what he asked :

 

I have a child’s arrangements order in place for alternate weekends I’m just very lost into in the event of government advice for no travel or a lockdown where I stand in terms of my order what I should do ? Am I able to still see my child like still collect to bring to home obviously can’t take her anywhere and that’s fine I really need to know what I’m suppose to do…

Really hope you can help I’m sure I’m not the only person worried

 

So thanks to that dad who has kicked me into gear.

I think there are three main questions I’m seeing :

  • What about sending my child for contact – will I be in trouble if I don’t?
  • I want to see my child?
  • What about hearings?

Sending your child for contact

When I talk about contact here, I’m generally talking about any situation where children move between one parent and another – so shared care too.

 

Whether or not there is a court order in place you still need to behave like a sensible parent.

  • If anyone in your household is symptomatic and you are therefore self isolating you should not be sending your child for contact with their other parent.
  • If anyone in the other parent’s household is symptomatic or they are self isolating you should not be sending your child for contact with their other parent.
  • If your child is poorly with something that might be coronavirus you should not be sending them for contact.
  • You should think about offering telephone or video contact as an alternative. You can try and make arrangements for starting things up again when isolation or illness has passed.
  • If you and your child would have to travel on public transport or expose yourself to health risk in order to get your child to contact (for example because you have a health vulnerability) you can ask for the other parent to collect them or make alternative travel arrangements.
  • If you or the other parent cannot manage travel arrangements because you now have unexpected childcare or work commitments due to coronavirus, you need to let the other parent know and see if you can find a workaround.
  • If you are worried about sending your child to contact because you don’t trust your ex to keep the children safe and to follow the guidance about corona virus – talk to them before making your decision.

I want to see my child

Again, I’m talking about contact and shared care here.

 

Whether or not there is a court order in place you still need to behave like a sensible parent.

  • If anyone in your household is symptomatic and you are therefore self isolating you should not be bringing your child into contact with their other parent.
  • If anyone in your household is symptomatic or they are self isolating you should not be bringing your child into your household contact or having face to face contact with them.
  • If your child is poorly with something that might be coronavirus you should not be demanding they come for contact.
  • You can ask about telephone or video contact as an alternative. You can try and make arrangements for starting things up again when isolation or illness has passed.
  • If your child and their other parent would have to travel on public transport or expose themself to health risk in order to get your child to contact (for example because they have a health vulnerability) you should think about arranging to collect them or about making alternative travel arrangements.
  • If you or the other parent cannot manage travel arrangements for contact because you now have unexpected childcare or work commitments due to coronavirus, you need to let the other parent know and see if you can find a workaround.
  • If the other parent is expressing their concern about sending your child to contact because they think you might not follow the guidance about corona virus and are anxious about your child’s safety – talk to them and offer reassurance that you understand and will follow the guidance and keep your child safe (and follow the guidance, obviously!).

Do parents have to stick to court orders?

Court orders are meant to be stuck to, and they can be enforced if they aren’t. If it is safe and practical to do so you should stick to them and you should expect the other parent to do so.

 

BUT. If it is obvious that some adjustment is going to be sensible, and if you can agree a change, then you should sort that out between you and not feel that you HAVE to stick to the letter of the order.

 

Your court order never anticipated that we would be in this situation. So, if it isn’t safe, you may have to make a plan B.

 

If you can agree sensible adjustments, that’s fine.

 

If you can’t agree about what is safe and sensible you will have to make your own best judgment as a parent. Whatever you do, the best way to deal with these difficult times is to communicate with the other parent about what your worries are, and what you think would be a good, practical solution.

 

Try to remember that lots of people are really worried about corona virus and the health of themselves, their children and their extended family. Even if you think its safe, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about things. They might not be stopping contact just to spite you, or using corona virus as an excuse.

 

Even if you are sceptical about whether concerns are genuine, try not to fall into the trap of escalating matters by making a scene or turning up at the door. It won’t help relations, you probably won’t get your contact, and you are going to be stretching police resources if the other parent calls the police (quite apart from upsetting the kids). If it is an excuse, it won’t be a good excuse forever.

 

Instead, try to find other ways to keep in touch with your kids, even if you can’t see them. You won’t be the only one in this position.

 

If you are a parent worried about sending a child to contact, or to live with their other parent, try if you can to talk to them about your worries. They might be able to reassure you.

Whatever you decide you will be wondering about the consequences of doing something that doesn’t match the order or that isn’t agreed.

A child arrangements order can be enforced by making an application for an enforcement order (unpaid work, compensation etc). Even if an order is proved to have been broken there is a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’. Although each case will depend on the facts, much of what I’ve described above (not sending your child because of self-isolation etc) is likely to be a reasonable excuse for not sending a child to contact / back to the other parent. Ultimately you will have to make your own judgment about that as a parent, but I would suggest that if a parent acts on genuine health concerns or government guidance about corona virus they should not be overly worried about being in trouble with the court. I would suggest any parent in this situation should explain by email, text message or whatsapp (or platform of your choice) what they are worried about and why, and what their alternative suggestions are (video call for example).

 

One alternative suggestion I’ve seen online is that where one household is self-isolating meaning that the normal contact pattern is messed up, they are agreeing to a switch after 14 days (easier now school is out), so that any lost time is made up with a chunk of time after self-isolation ends, and a breather for the poor parent who was locked up with the kids for a fortnight. That might not work for everyone, but creative solutions are required here.

 

What about court hearings?

Lots of parents will have hearings coming up soon. They may have been waiting a long time for them.

Courts are working hard to make sure that urgent and important hearings go ahead. They are having to prioritise. Lots of judges and lawyers are in self isolation. As of today the default position should be that hearings are conducted by telephone or video rather than by attending court buildings – BUT the systems for setting up hearings to run that way are still being worked through, and courts are still working through how best to make things work when people don’t have lawyers, and when people don’t have a device (phone, laptop etc), or wifi, or phone credit to be able to dial in or receive a call from the court to take part in a hearing.

 

It’s also worth remembering that some hearings will not be suitable to be heard by video or phone link, and may need some face to face contact – at the moment my guess would be these might be hearings which will need witnesses to give evidence, or which will need interpreters, or which will involve people who will find it hard to connect or communicate via a link, for disability or other reasons. Long hearings and trials with live witness evidence that are due to happen in the next couple of weeks are probably at high risk of being put off, at least until things are clearer.

 

If you have a hearing coming up, be prepared for it to be postponed or for it to go ahead using phone or video link.

 

If you have a solicitor your solicitor should keep you in the loop about things like this, and although many solicitors offices are closed they are generally working from home where possible so should still be reachable. If you have a hearing coming up and haven’t heard from your solicitor you might want to drop them a line to check what arrangements are being made for your hearing, and to talk through the logistics.

 

You should keep an eye on your mail and your inbox for updates from the court, and if you have a hearing in the next week or two, contact your solicitor if you have one, and if not, the court – be warned that courts are very busy at the moment sorting out hearings for tomorrow and Monday and Tuesday – and may not have got to your case yet. Be prepared when you ring or email to tell them your name, and your case number, and the date of the hearing. Make sure you tell them if you or anyone else in the case is in person, and make sure you tell them if you have any childcare, travel or other difficulties, including if you may have a difficulty dialling into a hearing because you don’t have a working phone, you don’t have credit (the court may be able to dial out to you), or you have a health condition which prevents you from safely coming to court.

If it isn’t urgent, it is possible your hearing will be put off. The court’s first priority will be dealing with urgent hearings that are essential to keep children safe and which cannot wait. Things are likely to change and to stabilise in coming weeks as all the professionals get used to setting up and running hearings remotely, but things may not be completely straightforward if your hearing is in the next couple of weeks.

 

Overall, whether it is about contact, court hearings or life in general I have three main tips :

  • try to keep calm and not overreact
  • try to follow the rules as best you can (yes, sometimes they seem contradictory, just do your genuine best)
  • communicate with others with kindness and consideration
  • offer to help out or adjust things (if you can) if your child’s other parent is struggling due to health or other corona related issues
  • show your family you love them – by video call if you need to, just until things get back to normal

 

For those interested in reading it, the guidance issued today by the President of the Family Division (the most senior family judge in England & Wales) is here. Keep an eye on the gov.uk site for updates about the court service and how it is running in terms of phone and video hearings here, and further updates from the senior judges at judiciary.uk.

 

25 thoughts on “Corona virus and separated parents – what to do?

  1. Excellent post, in my humble opinion. I hope it is widely read and taken on board.

    • Thank you!

    • McFarlane by any chance? 😀

    • Its all very well saying this but my ex has broken the court order many times this year – telephone and physical contact but now she is using this as an excuse and point blank refusing to allow me to have the children. Both families are well and have no symptoms and this week I’ve put in for an enforcement order which of course is going to take months to go through the courts. What options do I have but to wait? The children are not at risk, even if my relationship with them is

  2. Thank you Lucy! So helpful! 😀 😀 You’re a star.

  3. Oh, forgot to say, what if a parent is self isolating for 12 weeks as they have an underlying condition such as COPD or asthma etc, and you have genuine concerns that the other parent will not be social distancing during contact when they have the have the child? Thus putting the child at risk, and yourself at risk if the child carriers the virus back to you?

    • Talk to them (text based if necessary). Explain your concerns. Make a judgment call. Offer alternatives if appropriate and practical. Ultimately, this post can only ever be general guidance.

  4. Thanks for this. Your courts seem to be taking a more robust ‘can do’ approach than ours in Scotland. We at Shared Parenting Scotland published these tips from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC).

    A time of national emergency with schools, nurseries and contact centres closed might encourage just a few parents to find a way of sharing/supporting the parenting of their children and break away from the tramlines of their previous disagreements. Even one or two would be a success.

  5. Thank you so much. I wish I had seen this earlier, having just made the incredibly difficult decision not to see my son for a while. A schedule of back and forth every 3 or 4 days just isn’t sensible at the moment. As a Dad it is not an easy thing to do to say – I am self isolating. In my case it is partly because I am high risk – and I want to stay alive to help my son grow up in the future. But it is also because there is great animosity towards me from my ex and I wouldn’t trust that I would be informed if anyone had had symptoms. Also, sadly, some people are just not taking coronavirus seriously – whether it is denial, ignorance or failing to watch the news. Now schools have closed then it does show it is being taken seriously. I have communicated politely, sensibly and respectfully on the matter. No doubt I will be accused of breaching but it was the only option. There are so many sides to this. Some parents will quite rightly be wanting to ensure their children don’t come into contact with it and pass it on. But, awful as it sounds, my own concerns are that the other parent would quite happily see me dead! So a lack of trust does cause for desperate measures. I have requested phone contact – I am not sure if I will get it.

  6. Malcolm Lochhead

    That is extremely useful! But are Enforcement Orders really an option? The number of Enforcement Orders granted in 2019 was I think 17, out of thousands applied for. Are parents not just wasting money even considering such applications?

    • I have not suggested anyone should be wasting their energy or clogging up the courts with enforcement applications at this time.

    • What about in my case when I work every day in aged care and my estranged husband works in a company we set up together and we share care of the kids (10/4). Whenever the kids are unwell, or in this case, he just sends a text message and states that the kids (all 3) are now in my care 100%, and he is non-negotiable… won’t even have the kids whilst I go to the supermarket. His lawyers just don’t respond to mine… not even to provide disclosure.

  7. Pity the same reality easnt applied in Guernsey. I have no contact..I have no way of knowing my children are safe due to a corrupt system..I face a prison sentence in April for seeing my son and talking to him in a public place..the first time I’ve spoken to my son since boxing day 2014..my crime – I’m a Male and a father..

  8. Thank you Lucy. Has usual, straight talking, sensible and helpful advice.

  9. Hi Lucy
    Great post, as always. I’ve just put together a short guide for all familylawcafe.co.uk customers about where we are now re hearings and effect on child arrangements . On the first we need to get organised – disappointing HMCTS thinks Skype for Business should be used as it’s being phased out so we’re wasting money and it’s not as good as Teams the Microsoft replacement. On child arrangements most cases have an issue one way or another. I have tried to emphasise communication and trying to see the best in the other, having a bit of trust and that a lot of parents and children are going to be pretty fearful so don’t ramp it up.. Easier to say than do of course.

  10. Unfortunately it takes two to be reasonable and sensible. Having asked for phone contact while I am self isolating that will not be forthcoming and I am informed also that my ex will be keeping son in school because she now claims to be a key worker (fabricates). I of course will not see him for a very long time if that is the case as it is the opposite of social distancing. This was accompanied by a demand to pay all the dinner money. I am afraid I may have to think about court. Why should being high risk prevent me from seeing my son fir months when the other parent is ignoring government guidelines to protect others and follow social distancing. And why should my son go to school when schools are closed, purely because my ex doesn’t want to look after children at home (I would be happy to do that – I work from home).

  11. Here in NZ where we’re just about to enter 28 day (minimum) shut down. Split care of children was given specific mention. Children should continue to go between their usual homes in the usual way.
    For the vast majority that means different houses in the same town on a regular basis. For those in other circumstances it may be different.
    I had a call about this 10 minutes after the shut down was announced from a bloke who has week about care, whose week has just started. “M’s told me that our daughter needs to go back to her straight away, for the duration of the shut down. My suggestion (prior to the government clarification on this), was to suggest write her an eMail saying you’ll look after her for the week as usual, if M still feels the swap is bad at the end of the week you’re more than willing to keep her for the duration otherwise you can carry on caring for the rest of the shutdown.

  12. Hi… My 6 year old twin boys live with their mother at her parent home. Both her parents have cancer. I too live with my mother and both her and I have health issues.

    I have been in self isolation since 15th march. I haven’t seen my children for 7 weeks now apart from 15 minute Skype calls twice a week.

    In the 4th May I had a hearing over the phone. I suggested my proposal in offering to keep my children for 12 days and they will isolate with me. As both households are isolating I don’t see where the risk is. The mother goes shopping etc albeit self distancing.

    The judge ordered that the children remain with the mother until our next hearing at the end of July. That will be 22 weeks without seeing my children. They seem quite distressed when I’m talking to them on Skype.

    I also asked if I could drive and say hi at a distance. The judge declined my request saying the police wouldn’t be so happy if they found out the judge allowed that.

    Surely the children’s welfare is of paramount concern here. 22 weeks where children are isolating and not being able to see their father is inhumane and Concerning.

    The mother has tried everything to limit my contact to zero. I really don’t know where I stand. My concern is that as her parent are ill with cancer, then where do we draw the line as this could continue until there is a vaccine. Wouldn’t the children not be better off living with me as it presents a lesser health risk?

    • Thanks for your comment K. I can’t comment on the specifics of your case or give advice. I’m sorry to hear you can’t see your children at the moment. I hope the next hearing produces some progress.

  13. Similar situation here. I have only had 3 x 2 minute phone calls in two months. My son is a tween and really struggling and unhappy. I also think this cannot go on until there is a vaccine. But how does a court enforce phone contact? So easy to prevent it or disrupt it. My son has had two homes and back and forth every few days his entire life and and this is a massive shock to his system. Need to get him here for a while but it is a risk for me and would need a 2 or 3 week stay to allow a full 10 days in case any symptoms appeared. With precautions during the first week. I think the courts should look at expanding their guidelines for this situation and make a blanket “holiday schedule “ of 3 weeks in each home alternately. Normal flexibility would apply if someone got sick. Even my elderly parent, who is extremely vulnerable, is advised to leave home for hospital appointments .

  14. Hi.my partner has bad asthma and chest infection.my ex partner wants me too see children but I am very worried about my partner health what can I do

    • Hello Lee, I don’t give legal advice on this blog, but actually your question isn’t a legal one is it? It’s a hard decision to take but one you must take as a parent and a partner. All I can suggest is that you try to keep good communication before and after your decision, whatever it is – can your partner reassure you about the children’s exposure to the community to allow contact to happen? If you decide to hold off on face to face, can you set up some good video contact in the meantime? And now, can you manage to set up some distanced contact at a park or something that allows the kids to see you but which doesn’t put either them or your partner at risk? (that said, parks are very busy around here and I’m not going anywhere near them myself).

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