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Going viral: COVID-19 and your custody order

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“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Over the last several days, families throughout Pennsylvania, many already too familiar with struggling, have begun facing the new challenge of suddenly being required to work from home. Thanks to closed schools, many children are either at home while their harried parents try to care for them while also focusing on their work, or they are in hastily-arranged extended childcare for a premium price. Restaurants and other public spaces are closed, supermarkets are bare-shelved madhouses, and money is tighter than ever. Confusion and fear are everywhere. Last week, we were reading about this in the news… but today, we are the news.

If you are a separated parent of young children in Pennsylvania, you have even more to handle. You may have a court order for custody, but the court that would enforce it is probably already in emergency shutdown. We are constantly being told to travel only when we must, to limit person-to-person contacts and to stay home as much as possible. Your co-parent may already have decided, for no reason you can understand, that you are so badly infected that your child will disintegrate the moment you say hello. I have spoken with parents and fellow attorneys about how COVID-19 affects custody orders. While there is no single answer or piece of guidance that will apply to every situation, there are some points that I will encourage all parents with custody concerns to consider.

First, unless you receive an official court order with a judge’s signature on it stating otherwise, your custody order remains valid and enforceable, and you will be held accountable for violations. I always tell my clients that if they are physically able to follow the court order, they must do so. While there may be many reasons to do otherwise that feel valid (or even compelling) in the moment, the safest and best course of action almost every time is to follow it as written and to address the deeper issues later. Even now, in circumstances which are unpredictable and subject to sudden changes that are out of any person’s control, child custody issues are best handled directly by the parents themselves, outside of court. The more you and your co-parent can communicate respectfully and find ways to work together effectively for your child’s benefit, the more likely that even if you cannot avoid court involvement altogether, you will have avoided making a bad situation worse. Judges do not view it favorably when parents substitute their own judgment for that of the court.

You can start avoiding trouble right now, by opening up a dialogue with your co-parent to discuss your respective concerns. If you are ill or fear you might have been exposed to the virus, tell your co-parent. The same goes for your child. If you are not ill or at any known risk of illness, assure your co-parent that you are not ill, and that you will observe all reasonable precautions to keep your child healthy and safe. Contact your child’s pediatrician or your family doctor as needed to learn what precautions to take and what to look for, and where to go for testing or help if your child shows symptoms. Inquire whether there are any additional recommended precautions for scheduled custody exchanges. Either involve your co-parent in this discussion so that his or her own concerns might be addressed to minimize argument later on, or share freely with him or her what you learned. Even if you have sole legal custody, you must keep the other parent fully informed. It will be much easier to make any necessary adjustments to your custody schedule if both of you know that a medical professional has recommended it.

After gaining understanding of the medical risks and concerns, the two of you should discuss the current custody arrangement, and whether changes should be made at least on a temporary basis. Maybe a different exchange time would work better for one parent’s work schedule, or perhaps alternative (or back-up) child-care arrangements need to be made because your usual provider either is ill, or is immune-compromised and cannot risk exposure to COVID-19. Perhaps instead of meeting at a public halfway-point for scheduled exchanges, each parent drives the full distance to the other party’s residence to pick up the children. Perhaps a temporary week on/week off arrangement is preferable over your usual schedule that requires two or three exchanges each week.

It may be that you and the other parent will decide that custody exchanges of any kind are too much of a risk for the time being. This could be the case if you, your co-parent, your child or someone else who resides with one of you is considered high-risk. If you decide this – together, that is – make sure that you agree to keep each other informed and involved as much as possible, including more flexible with phone calls or Facetime chats. At all times, treat your child’s relationship with his or her other parent as something valuable and important.

These suggestions are harder to implement if you and your co-parent have a history of mistrust, hostility or other challenges communicating and working together. If you find that you are not able to reach agreement with your co-parent, you should contact your Pennsylvania family law attorney immediately to discuss your concerns and get advice. There is plenty of information available online, but no article can give you everything you need. Your child custody lawyer, in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, can review your situation and offer you personalized insight and options that you may never have seen for yourself. Your lawyer can also help you understand what court options may still remain available during the course of the shutdown.

The sudden spread of COVID-19, and the resulting closures and additional burdens, have forced families throughout Pennsylvania to make immediate decisions and difficult changes. In this moment characterized by anxiety and chaos, you will make things easier both for yourself and for your children, to take the time to talk openly and sincerely with your co-parent to find ways to be flexible and cooperative with each other, for the sake of your children.

UPDATE 3/23/20: Governor Wolf has issued a stay-at-home order for multiple counties including Allegheny County, that will take effect at 8:00 p.m. today.  You can read the official announcement here.  One exception to the restriction is “Travel required by… court order.”  Subject to further developments and governmental determinations, we believe that the stay-at-home order for the greater Pittsburgh area due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic does NOT supersede court-ordered child custody exchanges.  A parent traveling for a custody transfer during the pandemic should have a copy of the child custody Order of Court ready to show to a police officer, if he or she is stopped.  Please note that this is general information only, and that you should direct specific questions to your local child custody lawyer.

UPDATE 3/24/20: Allegheny County Family Division has issued an Administrative Order that Allegheny County Orders of Court for custody of children remain in effect, and are unaffected by the stay-at-home order “with due consideration for the safety of the child.”

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If you need the help of an experienced family law attorney for your shared legal custody case in Penn Hills, Edgewood or Monroeville, call our office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh area child custody enforcement lawyer and to learn how to get the most out of your child best interests disputePlease do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential.  We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.

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