As the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, rages around the world, the message we are constantly confronted with is "stay at home to avoid the spread".
But what does this mean for separated families?
When parents are separated, usually this means children are going between two different households. During a pandemic, this potentially increases the risk of the virus spreading from one household to the other via the children.
This situation has left a lot of parents asking if these contact arrangements should continue, a question without a straightforward answer.
Firstly, this is a new situation from a legal perspective. The last major global pandemic was the influenza pandemic of 1918/1919. Our current family law system was predominantly established around the 1970s. It is safe to say, therefore, that we really don't have much precedence to work with.
Secondly, it is not only the virus that has caused potential problems for separated families. The social disruptions have also changed the basis upon which a lot of agreements were made. Children are now at home instead of being in school or daycare, some parents are working from home, others are not working at all, and others still are needing to work more.
For this reason, there is no clear answer about what happens now with parenting arrangements.
Some common concerns I have heard are:
One parent needs to self-isolate due to a pre-existing medical condition which may put them at greater risk if they were to contract the virus, but the other parent, or someone in that household, is not able to or willing to self-isolate as well.
One parent, or someone else in that parent's household, is an essential worker and is at greater risk of contracting the virus.
One of the children has a medical condition that puts them at greater risk from the virus.
Somebody is being tested for Covid-19, does this mean everybody needs to self-isolate?
One or both of the parents live with elderly grandparents or other relatives.
The non-resident parent is no longer working and has more time than the other parent to look after the children while they are home from school.
The parents cannot agree on whether or not children should be returning to school for term 2
There are no easy answers to any of these situations.
We must, therefore, fall back on the guiding principle in our family law system, which is that the best interests of the child are a paramount consideration.
This means that parents should strive to remain child-focused and always ask themselves what is best for their child or children in any given situation. They should try to have a rational discussion about their concerns and try to find ways to ensure that contact can continue as much as possible. In so far as possible, parents should also try to cooperate to minimise risk to all members of their respective households so that there need not be interruptions to contact arrangements. Where necessary, they should seek medical advice and cooperate in following that advice.
If parenting arrangements need to be adjusted, how that can be done really depends on what sort of arrangement is currently in place.
If the agreement is formalised, it may be best for a new agreement, such as a parenting plan, to be prepared and signed. I will be posting shortly about how to change a parenting plan for those who feel comfortable doing that themselves. This can also be done through mediation and I can offer a range of flexible appointment options to help make those changes with parents if they prefer.
If the arrangements had previously been informal and parents wish to keep them that way, it is still best to have something in writing confirming the changes to the arrangements, such as an email or SMS.
Finally, any parent seeking to suspend contact unilaterally should be seeking legal advice first. This is a very serious step to take and should only be considered in extreme circumstances.
With a little common sense, hopefully we can navigate through this new reality together.