In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s statewide stay-home orders have dramatically changed our lives. Nowhere is this more apparent than in split-custody households where children generally go back and forth between mom and dad’s home. This sudden upheaval between current custody orders in the wake of stay-at-home orders, which are designed to slow the spread of the novel Coronavirus, has parents perplexed about what they should be doing. To top it off, San Diego County Superior Courts are closed and the traditional avenue for relief is temporarily unavailable .
Despite this unprecedented time, the family law bench has relayed general guidance to the public, emphasizing that all current orders remain in full force & effect, and to exercise common sense in any modifications. Courts are also signaling an warning to any parent attempting to alienate the other parent, or thwarting custody as a result of the Coronavirus, unless the child’s health or parent’s health is at risk.
Any proposed change to custody should be mutually discussed by parents either directly, through attorneys or a mediator, all of which can be done remotely.
In reality, this is a challenging time for all family dynamics-even the most well-meaning parents. The primary goal is always to keep the child’s best interest as the basis of all actions. Here are a few ideas that may help to comply with court orders or mutual agreements while ensuring the safety and well-being of children.
If you are unable to comply with current custody orders (e.g. visitation involves travel via plane, exchanges occur at school or parks, you have a vulnerable child [asthmatic] or vulnerable household member, or have been exposed to a sick individual) communicate your concern to your co-parent. Likely, the other parent also has the same concerns as you.
Here are some suggestions of how to deal with custody orders and address your concerns:
- Communicate- Contact the co-parent and ask if you can discuss an alternate visitation plan due to your inability to comply with the plan in place under the current circumstances. If the co-parent agrees, set up a time for a call and write down what was discussed.
If you are unable to have a productive dialogue with the other parent, consider hiring a mediator to facilitate a temporary resolution.
- Be Open To Creative Solutions– When discussing an alternate plan, you may include the following, if applicable: change of pick up/drop off location, change of visitation dates, times, and amount of time spent with the other parent, changing the logistics of supervised visitation, use of online resources like Zoom, Facetime, Marco Polo, etc. to ensure contact, and agreement to allow for making up any time lost with child after this crisis is over.
Keep in mind that this plan is designed to be temporary & leaves room the ability to modify as circumstances change.
- Write-up a Term Sheet-After the discussion, create a record of what was agreed upon during the call and send to the other parent to confirm that your summary captures all of the points previously discussed. Include language allowing both parties to modify upon mutual agreement. You may also include information stating you will return to pre-COVID-19 orders or agreements when statewide shelter orders are lifted. If you have an attorney, ask him/her to help draft a stipulation.
- Consistency is Key- Understand that stability and consistency is paramount to a child’s mental health and well-being. Now is not the time to tally the parenting scoreboard, because that is never helpful. This means that even if you feel the other parent allows for too much screen time, or feel that you are doing a “better” job at handling your child’s virtual schoolwork, for example, these reasons are simply not sufficient grounds to withhold custody from the other parent.
Regardless of what your opinion is of the other parent’s parenting style, the fact that your child will have some form of consistency is more beneficial for your child and does a far better job at easing their anxieties.
- Be The “Hero”–When in doubt, channel your inner “hero.” Now, more than ever, parents should put even more effort into putting aside their personal conflicts for the sake of the children. Focus on your children’s well-being and safety, because your conflict directly impacts how children react to the current situation.
Be the hero by being reasonable and flexible- It will payoff tenfold. If you need to sacrifice some visitation time with your child in order to ensure their safety, do so. This is temporary and you can address make-up time later. If you are on the receiving end of a co-parent that is refusing visitation, document all attempts to resolve the situation and contact a family law attorney to help you enforce those orders.
Finding creative ways of making visitation plans work amid the current stay-home orders is challenging but doable. Keep in mind that the court will ultimately hear about what actions have been taken by both parents, in the event a compromise has not been reached.
If you have questions or need help modifying existing custody orders, contact Braunstein Law today at (858) 603-6473 to set-up a free half-hour consultation.