Co-Parenting During COVID-19
Should Co-Parents Temporarily Stop Shared Parenting/Child Transfers?
Written by S. Caldwell
Don’t tell me what to do!” I remember shouting this at my ex-husband a few days before our scheduled family court hearing. I recall how he frequently sent rude text messages, made harassing phone calls, or spoke condescendingly to me during our child exchanges and drop-offs. He wanted me to give up more of my time with our kids because of my recently discovered health issue. I was angry, mad, vengeful, and hurt. I shared with him that I was sick, now I couldn’t believe that he was trying to use my illness against me. Because of our work schedules, we had agreed that we would share joint legal custody. He would maintain primary physical custody, while I had liberal visitation. Until that day, it had been a long time since we argued about visitation and custody. This would be the first time that I had to take him to court to maintain visitation with my kids. Families who co-parent may be feeling the same frustration, anger, and confusion now with the coronavirus pandemic threatening already-existing custody agreements.
We are almost 3 months into the global coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19, the medical term for the novel coronavirus, has many countries dealing with large numbers of infected citizens, overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, depleted financial systems and closed borders. The coronavirus has had a significant impact on the global economy, local businesses and communities. Doctors, scientists, and other health experts have warned that COVID-19 may be the most dangerous virus to date. While touted as extremely hazardous to the human immune system, its method of transfer makes it even more dangerous. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both issued dire warnings in late January about the coronavirus. It is spread by human contact, yet infected individuals may be asymptomatic – show no signs of illness. Thus, this contagion has been easily spread across the globe by people who are not aware that they are spreading the virus!
Social Distancing & The Courts
Since mid-March, Business Insider and other news outlets have reported that an increasing number of countries have implemented social isolation policies. Families and individuals have been mandated to “shelter in place” and refrain from contact with others. When contact is necessary, people must remain at least 6 feet away from one another to create social distance. Many have closed “non-essential” businesses, schools, colleges, and large group activities (such as professional sports, concerts, etc.). Citizens in the U.S. were recently told to wear face masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus. While these extreme efforts have been adopted to curb the spread of the coronavirus, it has undoubtedly been disruptive to our daily lives. This has also had a huge impact on families, particularly those that co-parent. Simply put, parents may not be able to visit their children if the other parent lives in an area that is heavily impacted or infected.
Co-parenting during this pandemic and the position of family courts around the globe is a new area of discussion and research. On Tuesday, March 17th, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed the borders of the United Kingdom and mandated a stay-at-home order. Lord Chancellor Michael Cove appeared on ITV Good Morning with famed broadcaster Piers Morgan and suggested that children of divorced parents not be transported between houses during the country’s restrictions due to COVID-19. He stated that the country’s lock down guidance required limited contact with people outside of their households. Immediate backlash ensued. Morgan and co-host Susanna Reid promptly attacked Chancellor Cove, complaining that parents would not tolerate such infringement on their parenting rights. A barrage of questions was levied against him regarding the ages of children that the restrictions would affect, and how divorced and separated parents would be able to visit their children. The next day, Chancellor Cove apologized to British citizens, stating that he gave the wrong coronavirus advice on the TV show. He stated that his previous comments were perhaps “unclear,” and that it may be necessary for children to spend time with both parents. Chancellor Cove stated, “The guidance as it stands is: ‘Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.” He also reminded citizens to adhere to the new restrictions on their movement, limiting all unnecessary social contact.
In the United States, most courts are encouraging parents to follow their current parenting time schedules, whether court-ordered or not. Tiffany DeMarcus, a nurse in Franklin County, Ohio, recently went to family court alleging that her child’s father had refused to return their daughter when it was her co-parenting time. The father was convinced that DeMarcus had been exposed to COVID-19 while at work caring for patients. He believed that her job placed her in a dangerous situation where she could contract the coronavirus, and thereby infect their daughter. Domestic Court Judge Dana Preisse ordered that the current shared parenting or custody agreement be upheld. She conferred with other Franklin County judges, who provided a consensus that a parent’s job in the health industry does not invalidate a custody agreement.
Similar cases with healthcare workers in California and Oklahoma have recently been heard by judges. First responders and health care workers in those states were found to also have problems with ex-spouses who were allegedly disregarding court visitation orders. They were withholding their children from former mates who work in healthcare due to fears that the parent would contract the virus from infected patients and transfer it to the children. Those family courts similarly concluded that healthcare workers cannot automatically lose custody of their children due to fears of exposure to the coronavirus or from having a susceptible family member in the home. Judges concluded that without a diagnosis of COVID-19, parents should continue with normal shared parenting plans.
The recent examination of parenting schedules during COVID-19 is causing quite an uproar in the family courts. Alexis Dobbins, co-parenting educator, mediator and strategist stated, “Child custody and visitation agreements have been severely impacted by the coronavirus epidemic. The over-arching theme in child custody and visitation agreements is this: that all decisions are to be anchored ‘in the best interest of the child(ren)’. By allowing both parents to determine the optimal living arrangements for their children during this pandemic – and acknowledging that third-party assistance may be needed but should not be seen as punitive,
Alexis Dobbins is the founder KIDSNEED2, A Positive Families Initiative.
but supportive in nature – would help moms and dads remain fixed on the ultimate purpose of such an agreement. That is, to provide a childcare and housing decision that would ensure the best possible outcome for their children during this unprecedented moment in the history of this nation.” Dobbins also reminded me that situations like this reaffirm her belief that “custody arrangements, if at all possible, should be developed largely by the parents involved; and while such agreements should be presented to the court as a matter of process, parent-led covenants allow for changed circumstances with a minimum of legal involvement and underscore a willingness to see the children as the cornerstone of all such decision making.
A Co-Parenting Pause
Many countries are using police, military, and other law enforcement personnel to force citizens to remain in their homes as the number of deaths from the coronavirus increase. These extreme measures have been enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by severely limiting contact with other others, including family members. Yet there are numerous stories of states, and countries, that have not implemented social distancing rules. While it is uncertain whether they do not fear catching the virus or they are in disbelief of its danger, pictures and stories of family and social gatherings populate social media. It appears that some people believe that as long as they only interact with family and friends, they will be safe from exposure. These negligent behaviors appear to attribute to the continued spread of COVID-19. Social visiting (particularly families and loved ones) does not take into account four major issues: 1) the real possibility that people may have contracted the coronavirus and show no symptoms (asymptomatic); 2) the incubation period can be up to 2 weeks before symptoms are noticed, and during this time the virus is highly contagious; 3) there are millions of people who have not been tested; and 4) no one can attest to whether they have been exposed to the virus by someone they have been in contact with - unless the infected person can accurately recall their whereabouts during the time they were contagious!
While families continue to visit with each other, parents may be similarly placing their children at risk via shared parenting. The courts and the science/medical field have not yet examined the possible repercussions of continuing to allow children to move from one parent’s household to the other. It seems as if they have failed to recognize that healthy children can be at high risk for complications (or death) due to the coronavirus. The continued transfer of children could be deadly to other household members who are at high risk, including grandparents or other relatives living with the
family. As most countries are mandating that families stay home and avoid contact with others, logically, we can infer that children are placed at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. An infected child may be a carrier of the virus and show no symptoms of illness and transfer the virus to the co-parent’s residence. A child may also come into contact with asymptomatic carriers and transmit the virus to the other parent’s household after a shared parenting exchange.
For example, imagine that Karen is a co-parent with 3 children, 2 from a previous marriage and 1 with her new spouse. Her spouse is able to work during the pandemic and leaves daily to go to his place of business. Karen stays home with the children and assists the children with online schooling. When the weekend arrives, Karen’s ex-husband Tom, picks up their 2 children. Tom takes the children to his home where his new wife and other 2 children live. He may also have an elderly parent living in the household. Both Tom and his new wife are still employed, and both leave the home for work daily. Karen and Tom’s children face twice the exposure to COVID-19. Aside from living in 2 households with people who may have been exposed (or could eventually be exposed) to the coronavirus, the children are exposed to 2 separate communities where transmission can occur. Both parents’ respective communities experience the ongoing risk of exposure via the regularly scheduled intermingling and transfer of their children within those communities.
Consider children or household members with health conditions who may be at higher risk for complications with COVID-19. It is possible that one or both households may be hesitant to share details of their outside activity (and possible exposure risks) with the other parent. Parents should take steps to protect a child or family member who is high risk and discuss such with the other parent. Both should jointly exercise caution and discuss the best household for the child to remain in during the current shelter in place regulations. This would not equate to giving up any parental rights, merely a show of concern for the health of the child and their respective family members. Parents could later discuss making up any missed time with the children, given that the pandemic is an unusual and unexpected occurrence.
Maryland family law attorney (and soon to be Licensed Social Worker) Audra Petticord recognizes that this shared parenting dilemma is one that is uncommon, yet worthy of further examination and discussion. She notes that family court calendars are usually full of typical custody cases and other family issues being heard and are usually backlogged. Audra stated that “Households with low risk to the parents, children, and household members - I don’t think the courts will recognize that one parent should be able to deprive the other parent of access of the child (although this may come to change in time as judges start to watch their friends and family personally battle this disease). With that said, I think most courts would strongly appreciate parents working together to minimize the back and forth for a child as much as possible/ reasonable and to consider what is in the best interest of the child. Maybe parents should alternate months with the child. At the end of the day, the court will look at the best interest of the child and their circumstances at the time, so this will not be a one size fits all approach.”
Getting Families Onboard
As the founder and Executive Director of the Maryland based non-profit, Our Blended Families, Inc, I have been passionate about helping blended families. For almost 4 years, I have advocated for co-parents and family members who have shared parenting arrangements to learn effective communication skills, understand emotionally damaging behaviors and correct them via counseling and mediation, learn and apply current family court laws, connect with businesses and non-profits that help improve their finances, education levels, and provide resources and information that can better life for them and their children. I have worked with many co-parents who recognize the difficulty that can accompany shared parenting. Numerous parents have shared stories of the struggle to raise children in two separate households - with varying levels of support, economic disparities, geographical barriers, a mixtures of relatives that may include half or step siblings, and having to manage all of those issues with a former mate.
Despite individual family complications, I have consistently implored co-parents to recognize the benefits of shared parenting. Allowing children to spend time with both parents has consistently been proven to provide children with the best foundation for success in life and helps promote a child's well-being. In September of last year, the National Organization of Parents issued a report stating that children living with an unsupported single-parent, or a fatherless home, represent 63% of teen suicides, 71% of high school dropouts, and 90% of homeless and runaway children. To combat these high numbers, social scientists, psychologists and legal scholars have fervently discussed the increased need for shared parenting, which allows both parents to actively participate in raising a child. While fewer than 30 states have implemented shared parenting laws (equal parenting responsibility and equal parenting time between both parents), many states are creating and voting for such legislation. The shared parenting model is important as multiple studies have shown that children who are raised with two parents: 1) tend to perform better in school; 2) are less likely to commit crime; and 3) have higher future earning potential. Children thrive when allowed to be in the presence of both parents.
Family and children’s advocates should continue to encourage shared parenting and cooperative communication, yet consider advocating for the examination of a temporary pause on the transfer of children between homes. Discussing a temporary change in the living arrangements or shared parenting schedule should be optimistic and done in a loving fashion, while reiterating that the changes are only temporary. In the face of reduced parenting time for one of the co-parents, both parents are implored to make healthy shared parenting decisions. Remember that the decision should be made in the child’s best interest – not based on emotions or feelings. Both parents are likely dealing with other coronavirus-related matters (possible job loss and limited local resources), and the other parent should not compound these issues with feelings of jealousy and the belief that the decision was “not fair” to them. It will be important that parents work together to maintain contact and good communication with the other co-parent and their family.
During this difficult time, both parents should focus on making things easy on their children. In the U.S., more than 72% of the school districts are closed or have instituted distance-learning solutions. Children’s daily routines have changed, and without an end date to the pandemic, many children may be feeling stress. While implementing a temporary pause on your co-parenting, you can try to eliminate unnecessary conflict and placing additional stress on your child. This can include using FaceTime, Zoom, Google DUO, Skype, text, and other forms of communication. Take time to research online activities that the parent and children can play simultaneously including PlayStation or Nintendo games. As many schools remain closed, invite the other parent to assist with homework or school projects that the child may be working on. This may be done over the phone, with video-chat applications or individual school district online platforms. Parents may alternate days of the week reviewing their child’s schoolwork. Being mindful of state and county guidelines,if one parent lives nearby, perhaps they can drive to the child’s residence. Possibly engage in a walk around the neighborhood (wearing facial masks) or interact in other forms of exercise or play from a safe distance. Work with the other parent to develop innovative ways for them to partake in multiple aspects of the child’s life. Do not be afraid to fail in one area, as this will be new for everyone! Keep the ideas flowing between both parents, new spouses or significant others, and even allow the children to suggest ideas for keeping in touch during the shelter in place. The COVID-19 pandemic can be the start of better co-parenting relationships, and possibly be the beginning of new relationships for some parents who have otherwise not been connected to their children.
Now is the time to consider the best interest of our children, the safety of our households, and that of our communities. Parents would undoubtedly experience some heartache and mental anguish due to schedule changes, yet the pain should hopefully subside with the comfort of knowing that they will still have access to their children either through the use of technology (phone, video, etc.) or visibly (with safe visits), along with a support system of family and friends. Any shared parenting schedule changes would only be temporary and solely for the current shelter in place directive. Changes should not be made with malice or bias and attempts to permanently modify custody or shared time should not be considered; neither parent should begin making unjustified or vengeful allegations against the other. Both should be mindful that being vindictive or deceitful could likely place them in contempt of court. Parents should calmly and factually discuss which home is best for the child/children to remain in until state lockdowns are released, or until coronavirus testing is more widely available.
The CDC website reported on April 10th that the death toll from COVID-19 was almost 19,000. With no cure and no treatment for the coronavirus available, we must do everything we can to keep ourselves and our families safe. The need to examine a momentary pause on all co-parenting exchanges and develop safer methods of child/co-parent interactions may reduce coronavirus exposure to households. Without such considerations during this pandemic, the phrase “shared parenting” may be viewed as parents running the risk of “sharing” the coronavirus while “parenting” and exchanging children between 2 households. Implementing a pause on co-parenting exchanges would require sacrifice on the part of both co-parents and should be regarded as offering their children an increased opportunity to live a healthy and support-filled life during this global health crisis.
I’m reminded of the story of King Solomon and the two women. Found in any Bible, 1 Kings 3:16-28 tells the story of two women who sought justice from King Solomon. Both women were pregnant, lived together, and had given birth within 3 days of each other. One of the women rolled over onto her baby during the night and accidentally smothered it, killing the newborn. She then switched the babies so that she would have the living baby and the other sleeping woman would have the dead baby. The next morning, the sleeping woman awoke to find a dead child. Just as she was beginning to mourn the loss of her child, she noticed that the other woman was actually holding her baby. She realized that her baby was still alive and that the dead baby was the other woman’s child. The women argued about this for some time and ultimately sought King Solomon’s wisdom to prove who the rightful mother was of the living baby. Neither woman was willing to admit to being the mother of the dead baby, yet both women claimed to be the rightful mother of the remaining, living baby. Solomon suggested that the living baby be cut in half, allowing both mothers to receive a piece of the baby. One of the mothers eagerly agreed with King Solomon’s proposal, stating that if she couldn’t have the baby, no one should. The other mother began to cry and pleaded with King Solomon to spare the baby’s life. She professed her love and desire for the child, and did not want the baby to be killed by the King. She then offered to give up her claim on the baby and allow the other woman to take the child. King Solomon recognized that the real mother of the baby had to have been the woman who would spare her child’s life, even if it meant that she would no longer be able raise the child.
As the days got closer to my family court date, this story of King Solomon weighed heavily on my heart. I loved my children with everything I had and did not want to lose any visitation time with them. Ultimately, I recognized that it was more important that I take care of my health by undergoing therapy for my illness, before I could be a fully dedicated and attentive mother to my children. I never made it to the courthouse, having decided that my thoughts were irrational and selfish. I realized that my ex-husband had to forcefully get the young, stubborn woman that I was to focus on the best needs of our children. I really had no need to worry, as they would be in the loving care of their father and stepmother. Looking back, I feel as if I handed my children over to King Solomon in an effort to provide them a more stable life. After my therapy I immediately re-connected with my children and resumed our shared parenting schedule. Our family unit emerged more connected and loving than ever, as a strong, united co-parenting team.
Shaynel Caldwell is the Founder and Executive Director of Our Blended Families, Inc. and is a Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE-P). She is a family advocate who supports under-represented, non-custodial parents by lending a voice to their needs and locating solutions for parental alienation via shared parenting. Shaynel has partnered with many groups and non-profits that offer family services to improve the lives of children and parents. She also appeared before the Maryland House of Representatives in 2018 to advocate for shared parenting legislation and continues to advocate for this cause.
All articles published here are the individual thoughts of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Our Blended Families, Inc.