Joint custody after divorce is difficult under the best conditions, where communication between both parties is plentiful and respectful, everyone’s in agreement about the terms, and trauma from the relationship’s dissolution is no longer having a heavy impact on either parent or child. But the conditions of a dangerous, global pandemic that’s prompted shelter-in-place orders across the country are brand new to us all. With courts closed across counties, there aren’t a lot of options left for co-parents but to figure it out on their own.
Many states’ shelter-in-place laws include language that seems to allow for continuation of a normal child custody schedule. Maryland, for example, lists the exception 2.b.iv, which allows “Travel required by a law enforcement officer or court order.” California’s order, on the other hand, doesn’t take a clear stance and instead directs readers who want more information to a broken link (thanks to a bad embed in their document). Colorado couldn’t agree on whether they should even shelter-in-place at all. You can see how things get tricky with inter-state custody agreements, especially. With all this inconsistent messaging, it’s no wonder parents are confused.
Regardless, with the legal system more or less shut down and police preoccupied with far more dire matters (domestic violence is on the rise), ultimately it’s up to individual families to sort this themselves. So what questions should you be considering as you work with your partner to navigate this unknown territory as peacefully as possible? Here are a few.
What’s the virus like in each parent’s region?
Some areas of the country (and the world) are hot spots, while others haven’t seen high rates of COVID-19 cases. Is either parent located in an area heavily hit by the pandemic? Is safe travel between a hot spot and a cool one feasible, or would it potentially spread the virus further?
What’s the housing situation like for each parent?
Consider the pros and cons to sheltering in place at either home. Does one parent live in a large home in a more rural area with easy access to green space, while the other is cooped up in a city apartment where the outdoors can only be accessed by passing through high-trafficked communal spaces, like a lobby or shared elevator? Do they live alone or with others? How will being forced to shelter-in-place (for a potentially very long time) at either home affect a child’s well being?
What’s the work situation like for each parent?
Medical professionals are already self-quarantining away from their families, renting apartments or Airbnbs in order to avoid going home and bringing the virus with them. But exposure goes beyond the front-line staff at a hospital. Consider the exposure each parent’s career entails (and the exposure of anyone they’re living with). A grocery store worker or someone employed at a correctional facility is going to have a much higher exposure rate than someone able to work from home.
What’s the preparedness level for each parent?
Does each parent have continued access to the resources they need for a quarantine? This includes the obvious things like food, cleaning supplies, and face masks, but consider factors beyond these: can each parent easily obtain medical treatment if needed? Do they live close to a hospital? Are they stocked on medicines to treat symptoms at home (something as simple as children’s fever and pain reducer)? Can they safely and easily restock throughout a long quarantine? Do they have access to their own vehicle in the event of an emergency?
Are there mental health concerns for either parent?
People respond differently in times of crisis. Is either parent overwhelmed (whether with work stress or just general anxiety as a result of the pandemic)? Are they required to care for others, such as another family member, at this time? If a parent is dependent on mental health services in order to function, are they still able to access those services and receive needed treatment?
Is it logistically easy to adhere to the existing schedule?
Change is difficult for children (and let’s face it, adults, too). What’s the current schedule and is it easy enough to safely maintain? Are you a ten minute drive away or is it a 2 hour journey across state lines? Do you rely on public transit to keep the schedule, which means reduced schedules and a high rate of exposure? Is your child required to travel alone during a time of heightened tension?
If you’re having difficulty coming to an agreement about how to proceed with custody during the pandemic, consider reaching out to a mediator. While most courts are completely closed (which means a written agreement can’t be signed by a judge), many lawyers are working from home and mediation over teleconference is often possible.
Above all, stay safe and stay sane. Our children are watching how we respond to a crisis — let’s make sure that the behaviors they’re learning are the good ones.