A divorced father with joint custody of his tween-age daughter took a business trip overseas. It included stops in two countries with serious COVID-19 outbreaks. Upon his return, he asked his ex-wife to see his child immediately, based on their court-ordered visitation agreement.
But the child’s mother, concerned about the foreign excursion, pushed back on an in-person visit. She turned to family law attorney Claudia Work for help.
“My advice was to ask the father to voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days, and then offer makeup visitation time. It was made clear that this is not to deprive him of parenting time but to make sure that the child was safe,” said Work, who practices with Campbell Law Group of Arizona.
Co-parenting in the time of COVID-19 has just become a whole new obstacle course. To help, the Arizona Supreme Court recently weighed in with a set of guidelines for co-parenting arrangements. The court’s “Family Court Guidelines for Parenting Time of Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic” urges parents to follow their existing visitation plans as much as safety measures allow. It emphasizes that the pandemic is not a reason to change or deny co-parenting time — as long as precautions are taken to prevent spread of the virus.
Attorneys like Work praised the guidelines for providing direction.
“There has been so much confusion,” Work said. “This order makes life easier by being able to point to a global court policy that clearly conveys to all my clients what they are expected to be doing. Every parent in Arizona is supposed to be co-parenting rationally during this pandemic.”
The guidelines clarify issues such as:
- Co-parenting during school closings should follow school-year agreements. Having children home from school does not mean a switch to summer or vacation visitation schedules. But arrangements for regularly scheduled breaks from school are still valid.
- Parenting time needing supervision must be worked out to meet safely with the supervisor present. Supervised visits move to online videoconferencing venues.
- Parenting time required to be in public places must occur in permitted locations under rules for social distancing and COVID-19 safety practices. Otherwise, video conferences and calls are a potential solution.
- For picking up and dropping off children, parents must find ways in line with federal and state safety requirements to limit the transmission of the virus. Low-traffic sites are recommended. If there are safety issues with a parent, the guidelines suggest that exchanges occur in a neutral location such as a fire or police station.
- If a child must travel to see a parent, consider ground transportation over airline trips. But parents must follow all government orders restricting travel.
- Parents should consider suspending in-person visits if anyone in their household is diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19, or if the parent has traveled internationally within the last two weeks.
What if one parent’s visitation time cannot happen for safety reasons or because of government orders? That parent should have extensive access to children by videoconference or telephone, the guidelines indicate. Makeup time is encouraged when possible.
Parents are navigating tricky scenarios brought on by the pandemic. For example, attorney Work cited the case of a father who sought to restrict his children’s visits with his ex-wife, a nurse, even though she does not treat COVID-19 patients. Family law attorneys have received numerous complaints that one parent isn’t following self-isolation or sanitization measures as seriously as the other is.
But for the most part, the best interests of the children seem to be prevailing, Work said.
“Most parents in custody arrangements are being pretty reasonable,” she said. “A lot of parents are voluntarily stepping up about waiving or reducing their time to keep their children and family safe.”
The new guidelines direct parents to try to work out any issues first and even voluntarily file a revision to their plan, reserving court time for unresolvable matters.
Work offers advice on what NOT to do: “You cannot not go rogue, make changes and expect the court will forgive you at the end,” she said. “If you can’t reach an agreement to modify a visitation plan on a temporary basis together, then you’re going to have to file a motion with the court to get it changed.”