The COVID-19 Global Pandemic has created unique challenges for all of us with significant impact to those divorced or separated parents attempting to follow their Parenting Plan or time-sharing schedules. This pandemic has caused so much confusion when making the decision whether to follow the parenting plan as written, or make some concessions and changes, especially in light of the shelter at home orders that do not specifically address visitation exchanges.
Unfortunately, there are some parents that are attempting to utilize the provisions set forth in our local stay at home orders to permit the withholding of their children during this Pandemic, in direct violation of their Parenting Plans. There is no authority to support such a position in the Metropolitan Atlanta area.
Because many of the governmental stay at home orders that have recently gone into effect both nationally and internationally have failed to specifically address whether or not an exception is included for children to be transported between the residences of their separated parents during the Pandemic, parents are left confused and fearful that they may not see their children for an indefinite period of time; or conversely, perhaps they will be forced to be the sole caretaker for their children for an unidentified period of time.
To ease this confusion, many of our Superior Court judges have issued clarification orders which clarify that the shelter at home orders do not prohibit custody exchanges, and that all custody orders are to be followed throughout any governmental shelter in place orders.
At this time, we are advising all of our clients to make every effort to utilize this unprecedented pandemic to bridge some of the distance between them and their co-parent, despite what may have been years of conflict and perhaps, contentious litigation. This is an extremely challenging time for every family, even those families living under one roof. Try to be mindful of what is best for your kids throughout what is likely a very scary and overwhelming time for them. Continuing to institute as much routine and stability, including mealtimes, academics and play, along with adhering to the visitation schedule that you children have come to anticipate, as much as possible, is best and most comforting to their young minds. Be flexible. Be accommodating. If you legitimately believe that exchanging your children with your co-parent will be to the child's detriment, perhaps because your co-parent refuses to adhere to, or is unable to adhere to the recommendations of the CDC, then try to be creative to ensure continuous remote access. But before you withhold parenting time, you MUST have proof of the failure to abide by the CDC recommendations. You CAN NOT withhold visitation simply because you believe your home is safer. Failing to abide by the order will likely subject you to contempt when the smoke clears.
If you have a long-distance parenting plan, where it's unsafe to travel or one of the involved states has a mandatory quarantine period for visitors, you may have to be creative and think outside of the box to ensure continuous access to the child. Set up frequent, regular and ongoing opportunities for your child and co-parent to communicate via FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, or any other videoconferencing program.
In short, absent specific written governmental prohibitions, if you have a Parenting Plan or a Court Order in place, follow it! If you have an informal visitation schedule, continue to follow it. Keep doing what is best for your children. If you have a good co-parent on the other side, allow them to continue to be a good co-parent during this pandemic. If you have legitimate and justifiable fears that your co-parent will not follow the social-distancing and protective practices recommended by governmental bodies and accordingly may risk exposure to the children, then we recommend contacting an experienced family law attorney so that your personal situation can be properly assessed, before you unilaterally disregard the terms of your agreement or prior court order and risk contempt penalties for the same.
On the flip side, if you have been denied visitation during this epidemic, you should consult an experienced family law attorney to discuss what your options are and how we can get you back with your children.
Here, at Atlanta Family Law Group, we specialize in high conflict divorce and child custody cases. Contact us at (404) 963-9452 to schedule an appointment to discuss how we can help you come up with a co-parenting agreement to get you through these trying times.