The Corona Virus or Covid-19 pandemic is a unique event for everyone. No one could have anticipated that most of the world would be under travel restrictions for an extended period of time. Court orders for custody and visitation were not drafted with this type of scenario in mind. A current court order is effective unless it is modified by a court. Parties can enter into temporary agreements in the best interest of their children. Everyone needs to exercise their best judgment and not use this emergency situation as an excuse to ignore existing court custody and visitation orders. In certain circumstances, there may be a legitimate reason to make temporary changes to the parenting access schedule. There may be a child or other family member with a compromised immune system or a pre-existing condition that makes them more susceptible to the Corona Virus. If the child is going back and forth between residences, this may put the family member at increased risk. If this is the case try to talk/text/email the other parent and explain the reason for limiting access at this time. Offer to switch weekends/weeks or offer extra time during the summer to make up the missed time. Reassure the other parent that you are following the Corona Virus guidelines at your home and keeping the child safe. Try to work out a schedule of FaceTime, Skype, Duo or other video conferencing with the child, so that the other parent can see that the child is safe and healthy.
If you are the parent who is not getting your parenting access during this emergency, use phone time or video conferencing to share positive messages with your child. Do not tell the child that the other parent is keeping the child from you. Use this time to play a video game, read a story, sing with your child or just talk.
This is a good time to try some new ways of approaching co-parenting issues. If talking with the other parent is difficult, try to communicate by text or email. If you and the other parent have trouble communicating without getting angry, maybe you can have a trusted and reasonable family member or friend negotiate with the other parent. Let the other parent know that you are following the current recommendations and staying at home. If you are limiting your home to family members only, share that information with the other parent. The other parent may be concerned about the child’s exposure to the virus if you are someone who normally socializes with many friends and family in your home. While who you have in your home may not be the other parent’s business, with the risk of exposure to the virus right now, many parents are legitimately fearful.
Discuss how you will decide when normal parenting access will resume. The government has recommended a 15 day isolation period, so maybe you and the other parent can agree to resume regular exchanges after the 15 day period has expired, or when the state of emergency in Maryland has been lifted. It is possible that you may only miss one or two of your parenting weeks. Then you can try to work out when you will get the missed access time back. Maybe you can get extra time during the summer, or you can have an extra access period in the next 30 days. If none of this works, you will at least have a written record that you tried to work with the other parent when you finally get a hearing in front of a judge on a Petition for Contempt. If you used a friend or family member to help negotiate with the other parent, that person may be a witness for you if you are unable to work out an agreement.
If the other parent refuses to negotiate or at least discuss when the normal parenting access schedule will resume, or how make up time will be determined, then go ahead and file a Petition for Contempt. The courts are currently closed to the public, but the forms are available online at https://www.courts.state.md.us/legalhelp. The courts are supposed to install drop boxes for members of the public to file documents while the courts are closed. Be prepared to wait for the court to act. Even if we were not under this virus issue, the courts may take months to get to your case.
What the judges would “typically do” may be a lot different 6 months or a year from now when you finally get a hearing about this loss of parenting access during this major health crisis. Some judges may look at this situation as being outside of any normal circumstances. In some cases, judges may give make up time and in others, they may feel that a parent was justified in making a decision based on the health crisis.
Covid-19 is creating a difficult situation for everyone. If the other parent is a health care provider or law enforcement, it is probably safe to assume that the parent is aware of the most recent recommended precautions for keeping loved ones safe. Make this an opportunity for high-level co-parenting. Ask the other parent what is being recommended to keep your children safe so that you can be practicing the best safety measures in your home. Discuss what might be the best practice for exchanges of the children, whether it might be a good idea to switch weeks or agree to a future make up week during the summer. Offer to keep the children if the other parent needs to work more shifts due to the emergency or needs to get some rest. If the other parent wants to exercise the normal parenting access schedule, you are legally obligated to do so, unless you have some evidence that the other parent may be careless with the children’s health.
Keep calm and remember that communication is the key to any successful co-parenting relationship.