To write that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of us live our lives would be an understatement. The coronavirus has presented all of us with new challenges, from mass unemployment and economic instability to stay-at-home orders issued by states and cities across the nation.
Parents engaged in a child custody arrangement are among those for whom the COVID-19 pandemic has serious implications. In previous blogs, we’ve written about how the pandemic affects child custody arrangements in Texas, and what parents can expect from the court system. Today, we'd like to give parents our best tips for how they can successfully co-parent their children at this time.
Understanding COVID-19 and Child Custody in Texas
First, let's take a brief look at how courts are handling child custody during the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas:
- Child custody orders are still legally binding. In March, we wrote a blog about how traveling for the exchange of possession was considered essential travel by courts. Today, as Texas moves towards reopening the state, that remains true—your child custody order is still legally binding, and refusal to comply with your custody order may result in legal penalties.
- Courts are closed, and cases are backlogged. To change the terms of your custody order, you have to file for a custody order modification with the court responsible for the order. Even as courts start to reopen and filing for a modification becomes easier, many courts are still experiencing a backlog of non-emergency cases, so receiving a timely hearing may still be difficult.
Texas is now beginning to reopen "nonessential" businesses, such as restaurants and retail stores, that were closed at the outset of the pandemic (albeit in a limited capacity). However, that doesn't mean struggles induced by the pandemic will end anytime soon for parents in a custody arrangement.
As the economy reopens, parents who lost jobs during the pandemic will feel pressure to seek new employment. Many parents who work will still be asked to work from home.
Moreover, the state reopening doesn't necessarily mean that individuals are at less risk of contracting the virus. In fact, Texas saw it's biggest single-day jump in confirmed coronavirus cases the day it began to reopen. States are reopening because governors have determined that their state hospital systems can handle the strain of the pandemic, not necessarily because fewer people are getting sick.
Essential workers who may regularly come into contact with the virus and high-risk individuals, such as those who are immuno-compromised, will have to take the same precautions (like social distancing and wearing protective gear) to prevent themselves from getting sick.
In other words, life may change less than people hope as states begin to reopen. The effects of this pandemic are likely to be felt for months, if not longer. Here are some things parents can do to co-parent their children effectively in the coming months.
Maintain Open and Honest Communication
We understand that, frequently, parents in custody arrangements are estranged from one another. However, during this time, communication between parents is vital. Parents should focus on ensuring their children remain safe and taken care of, and try to put tensions with one another aside for the time being.
If your child's other parent is difficult to communicate with, it may be worth looking into alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation. A mediator can help even estranged parents remain on the same page and communicate consistently enough to form a thorough parenting plan, which brings us to our next tip.
Develop a Comprehensive Parenting Plan
Both parents should be on the same page when it comes to the following issues:
- Social distancing. Parents should discuss what kinds of activities they feel comfortable bringing children to during this time and should ensure their children remain socially distanced when in public. Can your children play in the park with a friend as long as they remain distanced? What about restaurants, can you eat out? If your children or either parent are at high risk for the coronavirus, how does that change your social distancing practices? Remember, your children connect your households. Just because you may be at low risk from the virus doesn't mean the other parent is, and if either parent is at high risk for the virus, the other should take that into account.
- Protective gear, safety, and hygiene. Both parents should do their best to ensure they adhere to CDC guidelines, such as having children wear masks and gloves when out and about. It's crucial that both parents take the pandemic seriously. The New York Department of Health issued an advisory warning parents that some children who contract the virus later experience toxic shock-like symptoms similar to Kawasaki Disease. Our understanding of the coronavirus is continually evolving, and the impact of the virus on groups initially thought to be low-risk (like children) may change over time. Right now, it's better to err on the side of caution.
- Education. Many parents found themselves thrust into the role of substitute teacher when schools closed down due to the pandemic. Currently, Texas schools are set to reopen for the fall, albeit in a limited capacity with many guidelines. Will your children attend public school or continue to be home schooled? What precautions will you take? Will both parents try to educate their children throughout the summer? Many children miss their friends, so an activity like summer educational programs may be a good idea—but both parents should be firmly on the same page.
- Exchange of possession. Locations such as schools and childcare centers that many parents rely on to exchange custody are currently closed. Parents should identify a new location to transfer custody, at least until schools reopen.
- No Self Help. If a parent does contract COVID-19—or if one parent thinks the other has contracted COVID-19—it is important to continue to follow the possession schedule already in place. If one parent were to violate the other’s right of possession without first obtaining the Court’s approval, the violating parent would likely be subject to a finding of contempt, fines, periods of punitive confinement, and sanctions.
During the pandemic, both parents should remain open to the idea of informally modifying the custody arrangement should the circumstances warrant such an action.
For example, if one parent is an essential worker and the other parent is at high risk for the virus, it may be dangerous for children to change households and risk bringing the virus to the high-risk parent.
If you're in a situation like this, parents should discuss whether it's more appropriate for one parent (ideally, whichever one is at a lower risk of coming into contact with the virus) to take sole custody of the children during the pandemic. If both parents are essential workers, it may be wise to discuss another alternative, such as having children stay with their grandparents, godparents, or someone else who is largely quarantined otherwise while the parents work.
If you decide to alter the custody arrangement, ensure that both parents maintain regular contact with the children. Discuss options such as consistent chats over videoconferencing software like FaceTime or Skype. Ideally, the children's relationship with both parents should remain strong throughout the pandemic, regardless of adjustments to the custody arrangement.
Ask Your Children How They Feel
It can be easy to forget that this pandemic is just as stressful for children as for adults, albeit in different ways. Young children now find themselves without their friends, which may be jarring. Adolescents and teenagers found themselves missing out on experiences like prom and graduation that they may consider landmark events. Young adults are moving home from college, unexpectedly cutting their studies and time with friends short.
Both parents should communicate consistently with their children, and perhaps more importantly, communicate with each other about how their children feel. If your children feel depressed or have difficulty handling the stress of the pandemic, both parents should be on the same page when it comes to addressing those issues.
We know that this is a difficult time for parents across the US. Parents can effectively co-parent their children during the COVID-19 pandemic by maintaining open communication and acting proactively in the best interests of their children.
Our firm remains open to help current and new clients during this time. If you have questions or concerns about your child custody arrangement, contact us online or give us a call at (940) 293-2313.