If you have an interim or permanent timesharing Order covering your child or children, how do you respond to the ‘new normal’ created by the ‘stay-at-home’ directives during the COVID-19 pandemic? These Orders set a schedule for each parent to have the child for timesharing (also referred to as ‘visitation’) and are created either by agreement of the parents approved by your judge or directly by the judge following a court hearing
‘Stay-at-home’ directives have been issued by state and local officials in response to the pandemic. This can be a very stressful time for parents who have a child subject to a timesharing Order. A frequently asked question is this: “Do I have to let the other parent have the child as required by the Order if I am afraid the child might be exposed to the corona virus?” As if the pandemic was not sufficiently confusing, we often must inform clients that the courthouse is essentially closed to the public but for a limited number of matters such as domestic violence issues, criminal matters and, in some jurisdictions, probate cases. Thus, it is highly unlikely to expect a judge to be available to resolve this question. What to do?
First, understand that court Orders must be obeyed unless or until they are modified or vacated by the judge. Second, realize that a judge may not be available to address your specific timesharing dispute. Third, realize that some alternatives, such as using private mediation or even utilizing binding arbitration, are still available if both parents agree to participate.
Note that if you believe the child is in immediate and certain danger from exercising timesharing with the other parent, you should act in the child’s best interest and immediately file the appropriate motion with the court having jurisdiction of your case. The motion should specify the relevant court Order, the emergency nature of the situation and request that the court address the matter as an ‘emergency’. An example of such an emergency would be where the other parent has in fact been diagnosed with the corona virus or the other parent lives with someone who has been so diagnosed and the child will be exposed to that other individual. The fact that the other parent is a ‘first responder’ or health care worker may not in and of itself be sufficient grounds to deny timesharing but may be a valid reason to temporarily adjust the timesharing.
As a practical matter, I would suggest speaking frankly and calmly to the other parent and create a protocol for timesharing that would include at a minimum wearing a face mask, encouraging frequent hand-washing, and cleaning the surfaces of the other parent’s home prior to timesharing with a recommended disinfectant. If these recommendations are agreeable to the other parent, then the parents should consider using an online service such as zoom to facilitate at least protected contact with the child during the pandemic. As an added incentive to such an offer, the parent with the child may consider adding additional ‘make-up’ timesharing with the other parent when the pandemic is officially declared at an end.
This time of enforced confinement and ‘lock-down’ is difficult for everyone. This is particularly true for children who may have to be isolated from their school and friends for an indefinite period of time. If divorced or otherwise separated parents cooperate regarding timesharing with their child, it can show the child that his or her parents are acting like ‘adults’ and, most important, are acting in the child’s best interest.