Janice Spence, Head of Matrimonial and Family, looks at how the Government’s direction to stay at home during the COVID outbreak might affect your arranged contact with your child
We are all now fully aware of the threat that Covid 19 poses to us all.
Everyone at DMC is following the ‘Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others’ issued by the government on 23 March (‘the Stay at Home Rules’) and we have closed our offices to protect our team, our clients and our community. We’re still helping our clients remotely, through the same channels, and I’ve decided to look at one of the most commonly asked questions below.
What does the Stay at Home Rules mean for my Contact?
First of all, the Stay at Home Rules makes the position clear: we’re all aware now that we should only leave our home for
- essential shopping,
- daily exercise,
- medical need or,
- attending essential work.
The Stay at Home Rules did, however, create an exception for contact arrangements. It says:
“Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”
Therefore, children may be moved between homes. However, this exception does not automatically mean that children must be moved. Everyone should agree that it is safe to do so and apply common sense in reaching that decision.
When discussing whether contact or shared residence can continue as usual both parents will need to need to carefully consider:
- if it is safe for the child to travel between homes?
- Is there a risk of exposure to COVID 19 (to the other household as well as to the child?)
- Is there anyone displaying symptoms of infection?
- Are there vulnerable individuals or person over 70 in the other home?
- How will you travel there? Can you avoid using public transport?
- Can you affect a safe hand-over, 2 metres away?
- What effect would it have on the child if it were to miss out on time with their other parent during these stressful times?
A Common Sense Approach
These unprecedented times will be a real test for co-parenting. You need to adopt a collaborative approach in the best interests of your children. Good communication and teamwork between co-parents will be of vital importance once contact or shared residence is interrupted.
It is important to keep in mind:
- There has been disruption to your child’s usual school or nursery routines. Your children will be missing their friends; they will be bored and perhaps a little frightened. Further disruption to contact or residence routines will only heighten any stress or anxiety your child may already be feeling;
- You should explain, using appropriate terms, why contact must be varied. This will help reduce or alleviate your child’s feelings of disappointment or resentment.
- You should reassure your child that the cancellation of the contact was not due to fault on the part of either parent;
- Remember that you have little ears around the house. Be careful not to air any friction or disputes with your partner in front of your child. Again, reduce and avoid additional stress wherever possible.
- Try, where possible, to present a united front. Both parents should explain that they are working to keep the family safe.
- Agree additional time for when things get back to normal.
If the child can’t enjoy contact, or the parents believe that it is safer for them to stay in one home, for the time being, it is important to find practical solutions to prevent children, or parents, from feeling isolated, let down or stressed by these enforced changes.
Put alternative arrangements in place to maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent -it’s only fair. Use free apps to stay in touch remotely. Consider using Face-Time, WhatsApp, Face-Time, Skype, Zoom, House Party or Netflix Party to talk together, read together, watch TV together or even exercise together. Joe Wickes is doing a great job!
What if I can’t get contact?
It may be that one parent believes that it is safe to travel between homes and the other does not. Either parent may exercise their parental responsibility to decide that it is unsafe for contact to continue. With the ‘everyday’ courts closed there is currently no means to refer contact or residence matters back to court if there is a disagreement.
However, parents should be aware that the Family Court could be asked to consider this decision at a later stage. The Court will look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the context of the Government’s advice, whilst taking into account the specific circumstances of each family.
If a child does not get to spend time with the other parent, the Court will expect alternative arrangements to be put in place and for those arrangements to be kept under review. It is not acceptable for one parent to simply cancel all forms of contact, using COVID 19 as an excuse.
Accommodate the spirit of any lost contact arrangements through revised, creative proposals. Reassure your child. Keep talking.
In the meantime, please stay safe.