Initial instructions from the government, saying that we should stay at home and away from others, did cause confusion, but this has since been clarified. Guidance has now been provided that says: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”
However, some parents are still unsure what they should do in order to ensure that their children stay safe whilst being able to spend time with both parents.
Can my children still visit both parents’ during the coronavirus lockdown?
The answer is ‘yes’, providing you, everyone else in your household, the other parent and everyone else in their household are not showing any signs of having the virus.
You do need to consider your children’s movements between family homes carefully. For example, if any of your children develop virus symptoms, they should not travel between both parents’ homes, nor should your other children. You should follow the government guidelines regarding self isolation. Equally, if a child is classed as vulnerable and has to self-isolate, it is important to think about their health first and keep them in one place.
Such decisions during these unprecedented times will be very difficult for separated parents, but it is vital that children are kept safe. This may mean that one parent doesn’t have physical contact with their children for many weeks or months. It is important that during such times, children are able to have indirect contact such as through Facetime, Skype, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and Zoom, or by phone.
What if I don’t think it is safe for my children to visit their other parent?
If someone in one household is showing signs of the virus, you will need to discuss this with the other parent and, whilst of course it may prove difficult, arrangements will need to be made. The children should stay in the household where there are no signs until the other household is clear. The current recommended self-isolation period if you have any of the symptoms of coronavirus is seven days. Anyone who lives with a person who has the symptoms of coronavirus must self-isolate for 14 days from the first day they showed the symptoms. You can find out more about self-isolation and get advice from the government here.
What sort of arrangements can we make for our children during coronavirus?
In all cases of separation divorce, children’s welfare is paramount, and contact with both parents is known to be hugely beneficial to children.
You may already have arrangements in place, perhaps within a parenting plan, written agreement or court order to share the care of your children, such as:
- Who has day to day care
- When your children stay with their other parent and for how long
- When your children might stay with other people
- Schooling, sports days and other events
- Who makes decisions regarding various issues and when a joint decision is necessary
- School holidays
- Taking your children away on holiday
- Arrangements for birthdays and other occasions
- Drop-offs and pick-ups – e.g. at school, clubs or friends
- Shared costs
- What happens in an emergency
However, all of these arrangements may need to change during coronavirus/COVID-19 and as parents, you are likely to need to be as flexible as possible regarding the various arrangements. Communication will be key to helping to ensure that your children can spend time with both parents in a safe environment.
As we know, schools are closed at the moment, apart from for the children of key workers (outside normal school holidays). This will create a major challenge for separated parents. Some are likely to be working from home, whilst some are not. You may need to change existing arrangements so that your children can be cared for and still be able to see both parents. Arrangements that you have in place for the school holidays are likely to need changing. Try to discuss your concerns about these changes and make reassurances to each other that things will go back to normal when restrictions are removed.
What if I have a child arrangements order?
If you already have a child arrangements order in place, it’s best to try to stick to the terms within it, unless there is any risk to your children in doing so. Of course, this may be difficult at this time, especially if one of you is a key worker and are being asked to work unusually long hours. Here, alternative arrangements will be necessary if possible.
If you are distanced from your children’s other parent, discussing and making these arrangements is likely to be difficult. The Family Court has advised that parents should try to work together to make arrangements for their children and that they are free to use their parental responsibility to vary the child arrangements order where necessary (keeping a record of the agreement where possible). Where parents cannot agree about their children’s care, the Family Court says that if one parent is worried that complying with the child arrangements order would contravene public health advice, that parent can exercise their parental responsibility to change the child arrangements order. You can find this advice and further information from the Family Court here.
Remember in circumstances where a court order cannot be complied with due to a period of self-isolation, you should take all reasonable steps to enable the children’s relationship with their parent to continue, such as with Facetime, WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype or telephone calls.
On Thursday 16th April, the government announced that the coronavirus lockdown will last for at least another three weeks. It is likely that it will continue, in some way, for longer. We hope that you are able to make arrangements for your children safely, but we are here if you need it. Contact our family law experts now. We are all working remotely and can be contacted using our normal telephone numbers (including our direct dial telephone numbers) and email addresses. You can also find out more about children and divorce or separation on our web pages.
Author: Nicola Cancellara, family law solicitor