In this new reality that is life amidst the coronavirus outbreak in our country, and the world at large, there are many questions facing parents as to how to navigate this challenging and uncertain time.
For parents who are divorced or separated, the challenges inherent in this situation may feel even more daunting given that their children may be going back and forth between two homes. For high conflict families, the current situation may pose opportunities for increased conflict. Even with amicable co-parents, the increased tension and anxiety many are feeling at the moment may be leading to short fuses and frazzled interactions.
In this article we consider some possible issues faced by co-parents as a result of the COVID-19 virus outbreak and associated restrictions, and offer some practical tips for how to approach potential conflicts. We also provide a brief overview of the current Colorado court interim closures and operating information.
Social Distancing Dilemmas
What initially began as recommendations from public health officials regarding social distancing and increased sanitizing measures has now turned to mandatory statewide closures and executive orders minimizing contact with others, in some states. While most people seem to understand and appreciate the need to limit the spread of the virus, some may disagree as to exactly what measures are necessary. What happens if one parent believes that the other has failed to make the efforts through social distancing to avoid infection? Could this be a basis to limit parenting time based on the increased risk to the health and safety of the child and parent’s family? What if there is a high risk individual in one of the parent’s homes? If one parent withholds or threatens to withhold parenting time from the other parent based on concerns about virus infection, what can the aggrieved parent do to ensure they are still able to see their child? Is the possibility of infection a sufficient basis on which to seek to restrict parenting time? What if a child is considered high risk as a result of being immuno-compromised or having underlying health conditions?
None of these questions are clear-cut given the novelty of this situation and lack of judicial precedent. The burden on the party seeking to restrict parenting time is substantial in that an imminent threat of physical or emotional harm must exist. While there may be some limited circumstances in which an imminent threat might exist, such as a child with cancer or other serious health conditions, and where a parent or other family member is presumed to be infected, it is difficult to say whether, without more basis?, a restriction would be imposed. As for parents who may be in the position of enforcing parenting time if the other parent withholds, in many instances courts are temporarily postponing non-essential matters so it is not clear whether the court would rule on any motions filed in the interim.
If you or someone you know is facing any of these scenarios, consultation with an experienced family law professional or mediator is recommended.
What about that Spring Break Trip to Florida?
Another related question facing divorced families during this time is what happens if one parent indicates their intention to travel with the child and the other parent strongly disagrees. While many parenting plans require written consent for international travel, more typically domestic travel requires notification but not necessarily consent. May a concerned parent object to the other parent exercising their vacation parenting time with the child in light of a potentially increased risk from air travel? What happens in the future when existing international travel restrictions are relaxed but parents disagree as to the risk involved with traveling with a child while the threat of infection still exists in other countries?
These issues also implicate additional questions about joint-decision making, particularly with medical decisions, and are just some of the many questions that may arise as a result of these unique circumstances.
Schedule Changes and Parenting Time Exchanges
With school in Colorado closed through at least April 17, 2020, many parents are now faced with structuring their child’s daily life within the confines of their home, all the while keeping up with the responsibilities of running a household as well as meeting obligations to their employer. Parents who are working from home may need to supervise their children in ‘distance learning’ activities requested by the school while juggling conference calls and returning emails. Although divorced parents may typically follow a regular parenting schedule during the school year, and in many instances this involves parenting exchanges through school, questions may arise now in terms of the need to modify the schedule to accommodate both parents working from home. This is especially true given the recommendations regarding social distancing which has meant that nannies and babysitters may no longer be available as an option for childcare.
Although (absent mutual agreement) the parenting plan continues to govern in these instances, the parenting plan may not provide much guidance and the need for cooperation and flexibility has never been more essential.
Can you and your co-parent come to an agreement in the interim so that you each have blocks of un-interrupted time during the week to get work done at home while the other watches your child? Maybe if you’ve been alternating weekends you can temporarily agree to split the weekend days so that you each have one day with your child and one day to focus on work? Make sure to memorialize in writing any mutually-agreed upon modifications to your parenting schedule, and to track any changes in the number of overnights or missed vacation or holidays.
What is the Status of my Case with the Courts?
On March 16 and March 20, the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court issued an Order regarding COVID-19 and operating instructions for the state courts of Colorado. In response, many of Colorado’s twenty-two judicial districts have also issued their own administrative orders pertaining to interim operations. Not all administrative orders are uniform across districts, making it especially important to confirm with your attorney or mediator the particular rules in effect for your case.
Presently, the only matters that Colorado Courts are hearing which pertain to domestic relation cases are:
Temporary protection orders
Emergency and statutory hearings for dependency and neglect cases
Hearings on motions to restrict parenting time
Hearings on parental abduction prevention
Emergency mental health proceedings
And any other procedural hearings that are deemed necessary to prevent substantial risk of imminent financial hardship or imminent risk to the health, safety, or welfare of an individual or member of the community.
How long will this go on?
The Colorado Supreme Court has ordered that most operations and non-essential court services are suspended. Specifically:
Adams and Broomfield County have ordered all hearings vacated and continued. All parties and counsel shall contact the appropriate court to reschedule; the Court may also initiate rescheduling.
Boulder County has closed the Longmont courthouse through April 17, 2020. The Boulder courthouse will only conduct limited operations through April 17, 2020. All other non-emergency hearings will be rescheduled by the court for dates after May 31, 2020.
Denver County has stated that except for emergency matters, in person appearances are to be converted to phone appearances through May 15, 2020. Further, the domestic relations matters deemed essential are now consolidated to only two courtrooms.
Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln Counties are temporarily closed through April 3, 2020. All non-essential hearings/appearances have been vacated and continued. Parties and counsel are to work with court staff to reschedule.
Weld County has suspended all non-essential court functions through April 3, 2020. All parties and counsel are to contact the court to reschedule their case.
It is important that you communicate with your attorney about your case status if you have any concerns.
How We Can Help
Conscious Family Law & Mediation is here to assist you. We are fully operational, and offering online or telephone mediation sessions and attorney consultations. In addition, for those families who have been considering separation, but aren't presently ready or able to physically or financially separate during this crisis, we offer couples mediation at a reduced fee to help people work through temporary arrangements.
Amy Stengel and Janette Jordan are Conscious Family™ attorney-mediators licensed in Colorado. This article does not constitute legal advice nor create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and author. You should speak with an attorney before you take steps that may impact your legal rights.