What do I do if my child’s parent is violating the parenting time schedule or withholding my child from me during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought about a great deal of uncertainty in the lives of many across the state of New Jersey. The outbreak has called for stay-at-home orders and self-isolation in an effort to curb the spread. As New Jersey schools are now closed for the year and as we enter yet another month in which our lives and the lives of our children have been significantly affected, certain custody disputes may arise. For example, a parent may elect to withhold a child from another parent, believing they are better suited than the other parent to care for the child during the pandemic. Or, a parent may believe the other parent is not complying with CDC and state guidelines and refuse to permit that parent to see the child. The good news is that New Jersey Courts are open and are addressing such disputes, including any emergent issues that may arise. The bad news is that the judiciary has provided very little guidance on how issues such as this should be handled.
However, The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) has provided the following guidelines. These guidelines set forth a framework which should be followed by all parents during these uncertain times:
Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.
Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Do not leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.
BE COMPLIANT with court orders and custody agreements.
As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions, there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums, and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.
Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly, both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.
Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take serious concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.
There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.
Despite the existence of these guidelines, custody and parenting time issues may still arise. Therefore, do not hesitate to give us a call if you want to protect your custody and parenting time rights.
Written by Gregory Pasler, Esq.