As the COVID-19 crisis continues to escalate across the country, family lawyers have been inundated with enquiries from co-parents with established custody arrangements about what they should be doing to protect their children from potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus without rocking the boat with the other parent. The Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia has compiled some recommendations for parents struggling to make sense of their rights and obligations, whilst ensuring their children are protected during this crisis.
RECOMMENDATION 1 – Stay Healthy
It is important that you model best practice hygiene habits for your children to minimise the potential spread of the virus. This means that frequent and thorough hand washing as well as responsible social distancing must be the new norm.
Let the other parent know that your household are following these guidelines so that they too feel encouraged to do the right thing. As with all co-parenting, consistent messaging across both households is best.
RECOMMENDATION 2 – Be present and considered
Bear in mind that children are not necessarily able to process this new normal in a way that allows them to have peace of mind. Children no doubt would have heard much through their school networks and via the saturated mainstream media coverage, so it’s important to remember that their little minds are probably overwhelmed with information. Younger children can readily become frightened by what they are hearing and seeing. Older children are also likely to be unsettled and anxious in the midst of potential interruptions to their studies and the cancellation of formals and social events.
RECOMMENDATION 3 – Meet your obligations
You must still meet your obligations under any current court order or parenting plan, unless a reasonable excuse applies. However, many parents are using the crisis as an opportunity to flout their obligations which is highly unlikely to pass muster in Court.
If arrangements become unclear to you or otherwise cannot be met, you must use common sense to find a workaround to such challenges. If you anticipate a change, you must give the other parent plenty of notice and a full explanation in writing. Beware that you are likely to find yourself back in court should you depart from the arrangements without providing a full explanation for doing so.
RECOMMENDATION 4 – Adapt
These are uncertain times so it’s important to be flexible with the terms of the current parenting arrangements.
Schools may be closed in your State, or you may have elected to withhold your children from attending school in States where schools remain open. This may pose problems in the event your current arrangements for changeover occur at school. Nominate or start planning for alternative changeover arrangements whereby social distancing practices can still be maintained.
School Holiday activities like Vacation Care and sporting camps are no longer available. Think about whether you are able to work remotely during the holidays or whether working remotely is even likely to be feasible in your situation.
RECOMMENDATION 5 – Be Open
Try to be on the same page with the other parent about what your respective households will be doing to shield the children from potential exposure to the virus.
If your child starts to show symptoms, you must share this information immediately with the other parent and an agreed response implemented. Know what your own self-isolation plan will be so that you are able to share this with the other parent accordingly.
Engage openly and honestly with the other parent about any worries you have and whether there has been any risk of exposure to the virus.
RECOMMENDATION 6 – Be Mutual
Think about how you would like the other parent to engage with you about these issues and replicate it. Make accommodations and/or concessions with the other parent if possible and expect such in return. If time is unable to be had with the children at one point or another, suggest that it occur at another time or be made up if the situation allows.
You as parents will benefit from some mutually agreed give or take and the children will also flourish.
RECOMMENDATION 7 – Be Compassionate
Being calm in times of high stress may seem almost impossible, but parents are more likely to reduce the conflict if both are making genuine efforts. Understand that very few people are able to make definite plans in times of stress and may respond to data in ways you think are disproportionate. This is an unprecedented crisis so don’t be too hard on each other if one’s response appears fickle, lethargic or manic.
RECOMMENDATION 8 – Be Solution Focussed
If parents can’t find it within themselves to compromise at times like this in the interests of the children, then it’s pretty fair to say that you’re on your own. Courts have limited availability at this time, dispute resolution services may be hard to access, and common sense combined with some respectful engagement is the surest path.
This may just very well be an opportunity to solve old problems with new ways.
RECOMMENDATION 9 – Help each other out to the extent that you can
It’s inevitable that people are going to lose their jobs or experience a reduction in income. This will impact what can be paid by way of child support or other contributions to expenses. The message and legacy of the days ahead should be that both parents and households must find a way to make it work in the interests of the children.
RECOMMENDATION 10 – Be patient and positive
This crisis is not going to end any time soon and we’re in for the long haul. Changes to our lifestyles are being rolled out indefinitely – we will no longer be able to work, socialise, parent and communicate in ways in which we’re accustomed to. It’s important to embrace the joyful moments in each day, stay connected to each other by phone or social media and reach out to your tribe who are likely to help you be the beacon for your children in the challenging times ahead.
For all enquiries in relation to issues of family and divorce law on the background of the COVID-19 crisis, our expert team are here to assist you today.