The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect our lives, and most experts agree that social distancing will be the new “normal” for some time, even after shelter-in-place (SIP) orders are lifted. Within a family unit, parents can form a social distancing plan with rules for the family to follow in and outside their home. But for divorced or separated parents, social distancing and staying healthy when children are going back and forth between two households can be challenging.
How do Shelter-In-Place and Social Distancing Rules Affect Custody Arrangements?
Many court systems, including the San Diego Superior Court, have clarified that social distancing and shelter-in-place rules don’t directly affect custody orders. You should continue following your current custody arrangement unless you and your co-parent agree to an alternative plan or your custody order is formally changed by a court. Courts are making it clear that wrongful use of COVID-19 to deny court-ordered parenting time could result in penalties such as contempt of court and sanctions.
But, some parents might have valid concerns which could justify a temporary change to custody, such as:
- You or your co-parent has been exposed to someone with COVID-19
- You or your co-parent is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19
- You or your co-parent has a high-risk job and is frequently exposed to COVID-19
- You or your co-parent has an underlying condition increasing risk related to COVID-19
- Your child has an underlying condition increasing risk related to COVID-19
What are some co-parenting guidelines for dealing with school or daycare closures?
All schools in San Diego County and throughout the State of California are closed for an extended period of time. While the schools are physically closed to students, most are still enrolled full-time and participating in “distance learning” to varying degrees. Courts have clarified that parenting time should continue as if children were still physically attending school with the same start and end times. However, some parents are still working full-time outside the home, and may not be able to care for their children during what would have been a normal school day. Courts are encouraging parents to be flexible and work together towards what is in the best interest of their children, taking into account relative work schedules.
Legal Advice and Emergency Custody Orders
If you believe that sending your child to your co-parent’s home could pose a risk to you or your child’s health, you can ask your co-parent to agree to temporarily change the custody arrangement. Possible alternatives can be proposed, such as:
- Temporarily postponing in-person visits for a period of time (pursuant to medical advice and/or lifting of shelter-in-place orders) and scheduling make-up visits for a later date
- Scheduling daily phone calls and/or “virtual visits” using FaceTime or Zoom
- Keeping in touch by sending letters, cards, and text messages.
- Agreeing to adjust the custody plan and/or adding appropriate shelter-in-place rules for the parents, child, and other family to follow
But what happens when parents can’t agree? Custody disputes in the time of COVID-19 are new territory for both parents and family law attorneys. To complicate things even further, most courthouses have temporarily closed for nonessential cases. However, if you or your child’s health is truly at risk, you may want to seek help from a family law court. If there is a true emergency, you may be able to obtain a temporary child custody order from your local family court, despite the nonessential closures.
If you have questions about your custody arrangement as it relates to COVID-19, or if you have been unable to resolve custody issues on your own, you can contact the office of Garmo & Garmo for advice. Our family law attorneys are available for phone or video consultations.