The Impact of COVID-19 on Separated and Divorced Parents
In light of the current circumstances, the fight against Covid-19 has resulted in the Government announcing stringent restrictions which are impacting significantly on our once normal day to day lives. Ultimately, such restrictions are unsettling family arrangements and the uncertainty is impacting on our children’s well-being. The ‘lock down’ restrictions mean that we are all are being told to stay at home and keep away from others to manage the current COIVD-19 pandemic.
What does this mean for separated and divorced parents who co-parent?
The Government has confirmed that separated parents can still co-parent and share care of their children during the UK lockdown.
The stringent restrictions raised concerns for children who share their time between two parents in two different households. This could be by order of the Court or as part of an informal agreement between the parents. Such stringent restrictions left many confused and worried on Monday 23rd March, as Boris Johnson banned UK residents from visiting any household, other than your own. Separated parents were concerned that such restrictions would impact on their ability to spend time with their children.
However, clarity to such concerns have since been provided. Mr Gove confirmed: where parents do not live in the same household, it is a permitted reason that children under the age of 18 are entitled to move between the homes of their parents.
Challenges separated parents are likely to face:
Issue one: Existing Child Arrangement Orders
On one hand, parents are concerned that they may be in breach of their existing Court orders if they were to self-isolate at home with their children. This would prevent the other parent spending time with the children during this current time. On the other hand, others are concerned that this current situation is a scapegoat for some parents to disobey their agreed/ordered child arrangements.
Parents must remember that the paramount consideration is to make decisions that are ‘in the best interests of the children’.
Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that represents children in the Family Court) issued clear advice to separated parents during this ongoing pandemic. They state:
Wherever possible, parents should stick to the agreed child arrangements and continue to try to comply with the Court Order, to maintain the children’s routine in these uncertain times. During such uncertain times, maintaining a sense of routine will help your child feel safe and secure.
Cafcass confirm that the Child Arrangements Order in place should be complied with unless to do so would put your children, or others at risk.
The expectation must be that parents will care for children by acting sensibly and safely when making decision regarding the arrangements for their child and deciding where and whom their child spends time with.
It is stressed that the current situation should not been seen as an opportunity to disobey the agree arrangements or a Court Order. This is unlikely to be viewed favourably in the Family Court and it is likely to cause distress to the children, who will be worried enough with their routines being upturned.
Issue Two: Continuation of Informal Child Arrangements
The country is in the middle of a Public Health Crisis on an unprecedented scale. Parents need to attempt to agree on what is best for their child/children whilst remembering this is an incredibly anxious time for their children. The best way to deal with these difficult times will be for parents to communicate with one another about their worries, and to discuss what they think would be a good, practical solution.
Issue Three: If One Household Has an Individual With COVID-19 Symptoms
Many people are understandably very worried about COVID-19 and the health of themselves, their children and their extended family.
Whilst parents must make their own judgement call. If the child moves to another household where someone falls ill with suspected COVID-19 symptoms, under the Government’s advice the household must self-isolate. Therefore, it would seem sensible for that child to remain there for the duration of self-isolation, as long as the parent is capable to care for the child.
If the children end up spending a reduced time with one parent than usual, because of self-isolation, then it may be appropriate to make up this time afterwards.
Issue Four: Variation of Current Court Orders
Where parents agree to vary the arrangements in the CAO
The president of the family division and Cafcass have issued the following guidance:
where parents, acting in agreement, exercise their parental responsibility to conclude that the arrangements set out in a CAO should be temporarily varied they are free to do so. It would be sensible for each parent to record such agreement in a note, email or text message sent to one another.
Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements in the CAO
The president of the family division and Cafcass have issued the following guidance:
Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a CAO, but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the CAO arrangements would be against current PHE/PHW advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the Stay at Home Rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.
Where, either as a result of parental agreement or as a result of one parent on their own varying the arrangements, a child does not get to spend time with the other parent as set down in the CAO, the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent within the Stay at Home Rules, for example remotely – by Face-Time, WhatsApp Face-Time, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.
Issue Five: Supervised Contact
Other difficulties arise where one parent’s contact is supervised, or handovers are unable to take place due to the non-availability of other people.
If there is a non-availability of people who would ordinarily supervise your child’s contact, then you must communicate clearly and honestly with your co-parent. If it is not safe for you to communicate directly (there is history of domestic abuse) then consider using a third party to assist you. Alternatively, arrangements could be agreed by Family Mediation or therapy.
You must explain the reasons for the change to your child, yet it is vital to allow your child to keep in touch with the other parent. For example, this could be done indirectly on a remote basis.
Issue Six: Contact Centres
Child Contact Centres have been in the very difficult situation of having to make judgements about whether they are able to offer services that are safe whilst also being concerned about not taking steps to cause unnecessary disruption to the attachments that children have and seek to maintain with people they care about but no longer live with. It is with regret that for some Centres the only way they have been able to guarantee the safety of children and their families has been to close services.
Some Centres are still open and continue to offer their services. The National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) and Cafcass will continue to work proactively with these Centres to ensure that there is a diverse range of services where this is safe and appropriate. It is inevitable that some of these will also have to close in the coming weeks. Although, Cafcass will continue to do their best to support the children and families that rely on Contact Centres.
Issue Seven: Keeping in Touch on a Remote Basis
We are lucky that in our society it is fairly easy to keep in touch with each other without leaving the home. If the children are well enough, lots of FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or other video contact will be favourable.
Cafcass key message is as follows:
“Where Coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of a court order to be varied, the spirit of the order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child.“
To show our appreciation to all key workers during this unprecedented time, Rotheras Family Law Department are offering free initial appointments to all key workers for the next six months as of today (1st April 2020). ID is required as proof.
This publication is intended for general guidance only. If you are faced with any challenges in relation to co-parenting during the current pandemic, then our team of Family Law Solicitors would be delighted to assist you. Our solicitors have longstanding experience in resolving dispute in relation to child arrangements and co-parenting. Call us on 0115 9100 600 today.