Joint Parenting Under the Shadow of COVID-19

Time for a Cease Fire

Never in our lifetimes have we faced anything like the current threat brought by COVID-19 to our health, our financial security and, for some, our faith whether it be in humanity or in some higher power.

Our world has changed but that does not mean that the stresses that existed yesterday have disappeared. For anyone that is going through a divorce or worse yet, if a family has and continues to experience disputes over parenting issues whether they encompass time with the other parent, decisions being made that impact their children or a fundamental breakdown in communication, it is likely that those issues have only become worse in the last several weeks.

Family lawyers have been inundated with questions about how to continue to jointly parent their children with someone they do not trust and may not even like under the spectre of social distancing, self-isolation rules and the fear of contracting a virus that has altered the world almost overnight. As our courts have had to shut down for all but the most urgent matters where a child’s physical and psychological safety is at great risk and as many family lawyers have been required to shutter their offices and operate their practices from their homes, clients have been left feeling helpless as to how to deal with ongoing conflicts.

When we have been asked by our clients what they are supposed to do to deal with these conflicts in the context of COVID-19, our answer has been that we simply don’t know. As lawyers we have never had to contemplate the impact of this type of health emergency and the resulting closures of our courts, childcare facilities, supervisory agencies, schools, and the general reduction of so many other needed services. We have never had to consider how voluntary or mandated self-isolation would impact parenting schedules or the ability to transition children between homes.

So, what is the answer? Sadly, it still remains, “We don’t know.” But here is what we do know:

  1. Your children are scared. Even if they do not know or understand what is happening with this pandemic, they know that something has changed. They cannot see their friends or certain members of their family. They know that school has been cancelled and that even going to the Zoo, the mall or a restaurant is not possible right now. Do not fool yourself, no matter how hard you are trying to put on a brave face, your children will also sense your own fear about what is happening in the world right now.
  2. If your children are old enough to understand that people all around this world are falling ill and that some people are not surviving this pandemic, they will be worried about what will happen to their family. Your children will be worried that you may get sick or that their other parent will get sick. They will be frightened of getting sick themselves and they will be scared of losing someone they love.
  3. Your children need you to be strong and to support them during this uncertain time. They need to be able to rely on you to keep them safe and healthy. They also need you to understand that an important part of all of this is reassuring them, in spite of your own misgivings, that your children can rely on both of their parents to be there for them.
  4. Short of fears that the other parent will physically or psychologically injure your children, it is time to put your disputes aside, to have a ceasefire of sorts, and to deal with this crisis together. It is time to provide an example to your children of two strong, reasonable and caring parents who are able to put them before the issues that have fueled previous conflicts.

Fear not, once this crisis is over, you will be able to return to the conflict. You will be able to resume the feelings of mistrust, frustration and anger toward the other parent. But for now, for your children, you can do something different. If it is the other parent who has been unreasonable, inconsistent, difficult or generally awful, you still have the ability to change how you behave and how you respond.

What can you do?

  • Be flexible with the current parenting schedule. These are, as we have all heard, extraordinary times. Any flexibility that you agree to now will not be used against you later and may, if you concerned about this, actually serve to demonstrate that you are a parent who puts their children’s interests above their own.
  • Understand that if you do get sick or suspect that you may have been exposed to COVID-19, often the best other person to take care of your children will be their other parent. Your children will want to be with someone they love and know. Even if the other parent has different views on bedtime, completing homework, time allowed on the computer or watching TV, those differences are, in the overall scheme of things, minor and for the short term will not harm your children. Keep in mind, if it is the other parent who falls ill, you would want to be the first choice to have care of your children while they are recovering.
  • Follow the recommendations being made by our government and by the health professionals who are trying to keep us all as safe as possible. Social distancing is not about an infringement on your freedoms or your right to associate with whomever you want. It is about staying healthy and keeping your immediate family healthy. It is about keeping vulnerable members of our society healthy. For those of you who are involved in other relationship but do not live with your current partner, your relationship will survive not physically being with that person for a period of several weeks or possibly longer. If it does not survive that period of time, perhaps you should question how strong that relationship was in the first place.
  • Blended families are still families. If the other parent is residing with a new partner and if they have children either together or in the form of a blended family, it is not reasonable to take a position that your child will not have time with their other parent or be able to attend the other parent’s house. For the parent who is living with a new partner or has a blended family, and in fact, for both households, the expectation must be that social distancing rules and other recommendations made by the government and health authorities are going to be followed.
  • Open lines of communication. It is not unreasonable for the parent who does not have the children in their care to request an update as to how the children are doing. That does not only refer to whether they are feeling sick but generally how they are feeling both emotionally and physically. It also does not mean that the non-access parent has an open invitation to send numerous texts, emails or to call incessantly. Set up a specific time to call. Agree that if there is an emergency regarding the children, that the parent who has the children in their care will notify the other parent as soon as possible. Allow the children to have unhampered telephone or skype access with the parent who is not with them and encourage that time rather than making the children feel guilty for missing or worrying about their other parent.

If your family needs help to figure out how to parent in this new reality we find ourselves in, and if both parents are able to agree that this is necessary for the sake of their children, there are services that are still available. Parenting coordination can occur by way of video conferencing. Mediators are able to assist with developing an overall plan or to deal with specific issues or parenting schedules.

If your children are at risk. If their safety and wellbeing is at risk. If they are being exposed to drug use, violence, or if there is a threat of physical or psychological abuse, emergency applications may be made to the court. Be aware, if such an application is brought and found to not have been urgent, a court may refuse to hear it or may take more extreme action by varying the parenting arrangements in such manner to provide the other parent with increased or sole parenting time. You may also be subject to an award of costs or other financial penalty if the application was found not to be urgent.

Other issues that must be resolved and cannot be negotiated may also be addressed through private arbitration, however, both parties would have to agree to this process unless they are already subject to an Arbitration Agreement. Arbitration may occur by video conferencing and is often available much more readily than a court application.

If you have any questions about this article, or any other questions about your family law matter, please feel free to contact us.

We hope your families stay safe and healthy.