JURIST Guest Columnist Julie Colton, an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, discusses potential co-parenting challenges as states begin to lift COVID-19 stay-at-home orders..
Co-parenting will get trickier as stay-at-home orders are lifted. During stay at home orders, parents were dealing with uniform instructions about how to act. Co-parenting was still an issue when parents considered how to apply the guidance to their child and custody situations. These issues finally started to feel under control for many parents when the next challenge has arisen. As stay-at-home orders are lifted, the directions about social distancing are becoming more uneven. Parents will need to consider the regulations set by government, as well as social issues.
As parents head back to work, they will need to discuss potential childcare arrangements. Will they use the same provider? Will they limit the child’s time at a daycare? Will they allow the non-custodial parent to care for the child instead of a third party babysitter? Is a nanny practicing the same level of social distancing? Parents will need to have open communication about their intended childcare arrangements. They must be ready for these plans to change quickly as more information is learned. It would be helpful for a parent to get as much information from the childcare provider as possible, and then pass that information along to the co-parent. Both parents may need to talk to childcare provider to determine the specifics of how social distancing will occur within the facility itself. If the parents are using separate childcare providers, there may need to be a discussion about information being provided between the parties.
The CDC guidance requires masks for children over the age of two. Masks are not recommended for children under the age of two because of a risk of suffocation. Parents will have to decide when the child will the wear a mask. They will also need determiner what type of mask the child will wear. Will the parents share the child’s masks? Do the used masks need to be returned to the parent who purchased them? Should the parent returning the mask be responsible for laundering the mask?
When social distancing is explained to a child, the idea of the coronavirus can be scary. A child may feel pressure to follow the lead each co-parent during his/her custody time. If one parent is stricter than the other parent, children could be caught in the middle. A child may feel guilty about enjoying a social event with one parent when the other parent does not permit the same level of socialization. On the other hand, a child might feel pressure to socialize even if they do not feel comfortable doing so. Open communication between parents can help prevent children from being caught in the middle of these situations. Parents will need to determine what level of social distancing will be practiced in each home. Will the parents practice the same level of social distancing in their houses? If not, are the parents talking about how the children are handling the differences. While children often handle different sets of rules in different homes well, they may struggle more with different levels of social distancing.
Courts are beginning to reopen. This means the courts may start to be able to address custody disputes. Court responses will likely be delayed as the courts attempt to catch up on the items that were canceled during the court closure. As courts open up many are providing direction to local lawyers. The Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania has issued general emergency procedures for lawyers to follow, as well as area specific for information for custody cases and domestic violence cases. Co-parents should be prepared for court dates to continue to occur virtually via either phone or video conference.
If you are curious about how your court is handing the pandemic, you should try to locate the court’s website. Many court websites will tell you what types of cases are being heard and when they intend to reopen.
There are a number of different ways to try to resolve custody disputes without court. Parents may want to consider working with a co-parenting counselor to help them navigate discussions about disputes.
Parents may choose mediation to address co-parenting disputes. A number of mediators are begging to offer virtual mediation using video conference programs such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The mediator can conduct the session while continuing to limit their potential exposure. This move toward virtual mediation can be helpful in interstate and international custody matters. Parents may finally be able to find mediators who can assist them despite the geographic distance. This allows the parents to stay comfortable in their own home, while still working to resolve co-parenting issues. Mediators remain neutral. If mediation has stalled, you might want to consider collaborative law.
Collaborative law custody cases are continuing to stay active. In collaborative law, co-parents are continuing to hold virtual meetings with their team. The parents’ attorneys can help to move people past situations that appear impassable. If the collaborative team has a parenting coach, the parenting coach is also a great resource.
Please keep in mind that pandemic has changed everyone’s financial situation. This change can cause some family law disputes. Parents should continue to pay support during this time. If income has changed, the payor should consult with a lawyer about potentially adjusting payments. A support obligor with changed income should also consider consulting with their attorney to see if a support modification is warranted.
If childcare or children’s activities have changed, that might also affect a support arrangement. It might be important to let the other parent know you are having some financial issues. Disclosing this change can help build trust with the other parent. It might also open up communication. While courts may not be hearing these issues right now, some requests can be submitted to the court electronically. Submitting the request electronically might help to reserve a spot in a scheduling queue before the courts reopen. Parents can look into mediation and collaborative law to dress issues more quickly.
Most importantly, co-parents need to communicate openly and keep their children at the center of the conversation.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.
Julie R. Colton is a partner at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, where she focuses her practice in family law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches family law.
Suggested citation: Julie R. Colton, Handling Co-Parenting Issues as Stay-At-Home Orders are Lifted, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 18, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/julie-colton-coparenting-stayathome-lifted-covid19/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.