Navigating Child Custody and Placement During the Coronavirus Pandemic
The COVID crisis has pushed the rules of co-parenting into uncharted territory. Here's how you should handle shared physical placement during an age of social distancing.
The coronavirus crisis has pushed the rules of co-parenting into uncharted territory. With schools and daycare centers closed indefinitely, and fears of exposure forcing families to weigh quality time against the potential health risks, many parents are struggling to maintain shared custody schedules.
These are unprecedented times. On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down a statewide stay-at-home order, yet several municipalities continue to implement their own safer restrictions and rules, adding to the confusion for families with shared physical placement arrangements. In addition, most family courts have suspended or delayed court proceedings due to the COVID emergency, making it even more difficult to resolve family legal matters.
The issue becomes even more complex when parents disagree about following their usual parent-time standards, especially during an age of social distancing. A parent may have primary physical placement, but they may also share decision-making responsibilities with the co-parent per a joint custody agreement.
Shared physical placement can be difficult, for example, if one parent is an essential worker, or when exchanging a child requires traveling across municipalities with conflicting stay-at-home orders. Other parents may simply worry about impacting the health of their immunocompromised children, live-in family members, or themselves.
While many state Supreme Courts have issued orders requiring parents to continue with existing visitation schedules, other states have handled child custody enforcement on a case-by-case basis.
So, where does child custody placement during the pandemic fall in Wisconsin?
Despite the unusual circumstances presented by the coronavirus, Wisconsin officials have encouraged divorced or separated parents to continue following their court-ordered custody agreements, to the best of their ability.
There are, of course, questions to consider about child safety that may result in altering or going against a joint custody order. Unique factors might include:
Parents who live across state lines
Underlying medical conditions of the child or household
A parent or family member who has been exposed to, or contracted the coronavirus
In these cases, it’s best to set aside any disagreements and work together to do what is in the best interest of the child. If one parent refuses to follow a court-ordered schedule due to COVID-19 or a stay-at-home order, that may be the time to consult with a family lawyer to weigh options, including but not limited to, filing a motion for contempt.
The Department of Children and Families has issued the following guidance for families sharing custody of children, including tips to help families stay compliant:
Be Healthy: Help your family stay healthy by staying informed about the latest changes to your area’s social distancing and health guidelines. Avoid relying on social media forums for news updates, and instead, rely on credible sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reliable media outlets for information. Continue washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces, and wearing masks in public to help prevent spread or bringing it home to your loved ones.
Be Mindful: Talk to your children about the pandemic. Be ready to answer any questions they may have, including about school and schedule changes, in a calm and age-appropriate manner.
Be Compliant: If possible, keep to your existing placement schedule. With most of normal life upended, it’s important to stay level-headed so as not to generate additional stress and relationship strain between co-parents, which could ultimately negatively affect your children.
Be Creative: With schools, sports, and activities suspended indefinitely, it’s important to accept that there will be schedule changes. Some parents may need to work more hours; others may be working less. In the event one parent is missing out, the other should arrange — and stick to — opportunities to keep contact. Platforms such as FaceTime or Skype can keep the parental bond strong during missed visits.
Be Transparent: Should a parent or child start exhibiting virus symptoms, it’s critical that that information is shared with the other parent. If concerns around exposure arise and a parent must go into self-quarantine, parents should discuss childcare arrangements, as well as a plan for how to maintain parental contact during that time frame.
Be Generous and Understanding: Many parents are dealing with immense levels of stress during the coronavirus pandemic. Several families are facing financial instability, job loss, and general anxieties over protecting the health of their children and loved ones. Try to remain cordial and accommodating with your co-parent.
The coronavirus has upended our family lives, and while stay-at-home orders are slowly easing, co-parenting challenges may remain present. We strongly suggest sticking to your court-ordered physical placement schedule and working together to keep your children happy and healthy as we all look toward a brighter future.
If you still find yourself with questions around navigating child custody and placement during the pandemic, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our experienced family law attorneys to discuss your case. Our office is open and ready to serve clients in Greater Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin as we all navigate life through these challenging times.