Child custody disputes between parents may be flaring up during the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. Changes to nearly everyone’s day to day lives will likely have an effect on their co-parenting issues, often for the worse. The hope is that parents can navigate this traumatic event for their child.
Custody disputes may flare up
Co-parenting with an ex whom you do not get along with, is difficult enough. Add to that mix the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak and the current shelter in place orders in Honolulu, and you potentially have a very messy, very stressful situation. Figuring out how court custody orders may or may not conflict with the shelter in place orders can result in further confusion and disputes (will the visitation exchanges violate the Mayor’s order?).
The disruption of the school calendar may raise questions over which parent is to have the child. Is this time period an extension of the spring break, giving one parent custody? Are the current weekdays “non-school days” as addressed in a custody order?
Unexpected situations may arise where one or both of the households has exposure to the virus or tests positive for COVID-19, or even more directly if a child tests positive. This may raise additional issues as to obtaining testing, and where a child is quarantining.
How to handle disputes?
So how does one navigate co-parenting during these unprecedented times? The Family Court’s often-repeated standard for child custody bears repeating again: “the best interests of the children.” This phrase first and foremost, should guide parents as they truly need to prioritize the best interests of their child above their custody positions, their anger at each other, and their own needs.
As the Coronavirus can strike anyone, parents should be mindful and reasonable. If COVID-19 is causing the other parent to suffer difficulties with the timesharing schedule or have financial hardship, a parent should remember that the tables could easily be turned. Reasonableness should also be used when the other parent is having difficulties exercising their custody time with the child – be generous, encouraging and facilitating videocall/FaceTime/Skype, or simple calls/texts, so that the child can maintain contact with them. Even if the parents are in conflict, a child will be concerned about the non-present parent’s safety and well-being, and even more so if they are not seeing them on a regular basis.
Sharing of information about children is important. This includes timesharing and work schedules, being kept up to date on the child’s health and activities while they are not in school, and information about the child’s health. Keeping potential COVID-19 exposure information from the other parent could hurt them, their family, their community, as well as the child.
No court hearings in the near term
There is no legal manual or playbook for what is happening now, as it is unprecedented in modern times in this country. Further, if there are disputes, the Family Court will not be on hand to referee that conflict in the near future, as almost all Family Court hearings will not be heard before April 30, 2020 (see this article discussing court hearings; here is the Judiciary’s COVID-19 information page), if not later. It may be the case that Hawaii’s Family Courts will issue guidance in and order to clarify how custody orders function under the shelter in place order and the school closures, but this has not happened as of this writing. Because of this, parents in dispute will be left to themselves to sort out problems. When the courts are eventually back in session, it would be hard to see them frowning on parents’ reasonable behavior during the crisis. Deal with each other reasonably and mindfully.
If you have an upcoming hearing or filing deadline, it is critical to confirm with your attorney or with the courts that your requirements are extended or postponed, so that you are not defaulted or penalized.