THE EFFECT OF COVID-19: CHILDREN OF SEPARATED PARENTS
The government issued strict guidelines on 23rd March entitled “Rules on staying at home and away from others”. In addition, advice was given about staying safe and reducing the spread of infection which is continuously updated by Public Health England. Those rules are very clear; it is not permitted for any person, including a child, to be outside of their home for any purpose other than essential shopping; daily exercise; medical needs, or attending essential work.
The government also, however, issued further guidance for families dealing with child contact arrangements and stated that “where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes”.
Whilst this is clearly an exception to the ‘stay at home’ rule, there will need to be communication between the parents as to how the ‘stay at home’ rule is adhered to in each household, and whether there is any increased risk of infection, for example, if there are any vulnerable individuals in either one of the two homes
How can we as parents try to ensure our children are affected as little as possible by these changes in circumstances?
As mentioned above, communication is key. Agreements will need to be reached as to what is appropriate for the children during their time with each parent, discussion will need to be had as to what arrangements are in place in either household and what the daily routine will be for the children with their parents, in terms of staying at home, needing to visit a supermarket and the form of daily exercise.
Parents will need to discuss the daily timetable for home-schooling and, if necessary, adapt contact, taking into account the parents’ work commitments. Passing resources between homes is also key to ensure continuity and stability providing for an uninterrupted education as far as possible.
If communication between the parents is difficult, or even impossible, then remote, telephonic, or online sessions with a mediator are still available during this time, and we can assist in providing clear, substantive and independent communication between parties.
What if I cannot see my children in the times allocated to me by way of court order/agreement due to frontline working commitments or the children being at risk in my household?
Parents should work together to adapt to this unprecedented situation and no court order is designed to deal with it. If direct visiting contact is impossible then the parent with residence needs to ensure that they are making use of other communicative methods such as Zoom, WhatsApp video calls, Facetime and Skype. Providing for additional calls in lieu of contact wherever possible. Additional holiday contact later in the year could also be agreed to make up for any missed time. This need for adaptation in necessary circumstances is not, however, an excuse to withhold contact during this time if otherwise the child would not be at risk and contact can reasonably take place. The courts’ view is that a relationship should be maintained with both parents wherever possible. Parents need to be as flexible as possible where these difficulties arise in terms of arrangements, keeping the wellbeing of the child or children as their paramount consideration at all times.
How formal should any changes in arrangements be?
This is a stressful time for everyone, including children, even if they do not understand what is going on they will feel the impact of changes to their routine. Amicable communication is of course key but where any Child Arrangement Orders are temporarily varied by the parents with parental responsibility, it would be sensible for each party to record that agreement in writing, be it in a note, email or text message.
Where difficulties are faced, and if one parent is withholding contact unjustifiably, it is key to keep a note of that obstruction, whilst attempting to resolve the dispute, either with our help or that of a mediator, or both. Ultimately the recourse of court proceedings is still available. Although it is important to keep in mind that the underlying spirit and willingness to adapt and cooperate will be recognised and taken into account by the court.
Are the courts open and if I need to make an application will they deal with it?
Applications are still being processed and e-filing is the preferred method; hearings are also still taking place, albeit remotely. Court proceedings should always be a last resort, especially when children are involved, because there will be an inevitable increase in contention as a result. Specialist legal advice should be obtained with regard to assisting with communication, advising on enforcement of any court order and, if absolutely necessary, we can assist with an application to the court and the instruction of representation at the hearings.