April 14, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
With the massive changes brought about by COVID-19, the question that’s in the back of a lot of people’s minds is “How does this affect existing court orders for custody and parenting time?” After all, we’re supposed to limit contact between individuals and children traveling between homes means more exposure for all involved. So perhaps the answer is for whoever has the kids to keep them until restrictions on contact are loosened.
But, from my vantage point, I see courts uniformly instructing parents and lawyers that, whatever order is in effect remains in effect until modified. In other words, as far as parenting time orders go, there’s been no change, virus or no virus.
I maintain multiple Google Alerts for a wide variety of topics, including terms like “shared parenting,” “non-custodial parent,” “child’s best interests,” and the like. I receive scores of articles every day and, since the advent of the virus, a huge number of them have been about what happens to parenting time and parent-child contact orders during lockdown or otherwise restricted contact.
The answer across the board is “nothing.” Everything remains the same as before. Literally no article or piece of news I’ve seen in the past three weeks – and there have been hundreds of them – says anything else. It’s true from coast to coast. Here’s one piece from the excellent Marilyn York in Nevada (Reno Gazette, 4/7/20). And NPO just received a letter from the Chief Judge of the Probate and Family Courts of Massachusetts, Judge John D. Casey. Both are clear as a bell: orders that were in effect remain in effect.
And that includes parents who are on the front lines of caring for COVID-19 patients. The fact that you’re a nurse or an EMT can’t be used against you in a modification hearing. Yes, you have greater exposure to the virus, but courts are not allowing that to interfere with your parenting time.
The answer to increased exposure is to be extra diligent in limiting your potential exposure to others. So being more than usually cognizant of washing hands, clothes and other items that have been contacted by others is important, as is keeping your distance when it’s possible.
Plus of course, just because this crisis is upon us doesn’t mean that kids in some way no longer need both parents. In fact, they probably need them more. The crisis itself and the many changes it’s brought about in everyone’s life are bad enough for children and so it’s even more important than usual to make sure their relationships with their parents aren’t impaired. In his letter, Judge Casey made a special point of exactly that.
Courts are to be lauded for doing the right thing and not allowing this critical time to be used as an excuse to limit parents’ contact with their children.