Navigating government restrictions, school shutdowns, and illness during the coronavirus pandemic
Amidst the many drastic changes COVID-19 is forcing upon our everyday lives, the Family Law Courts have recognised the difficulties some families now face in adhering to their existing parenting arrangements or Orders. This has left many parents unsure of their rights and obligations throughout this pandemic.
As always, the primary concern of parents should be that of a child’s health and wellbeing. We’ve outlined the recommendations made by the Family Court’s Chief Justice and summarised our own guidance in navigating changing family circumstances.
Where restrictions contradict specifications in your parenting arrangement
In some instances, an established agreement or Order of the Court may include obligations on a parent which directly contradict the COVID-19 restrictions set out by the state and federal governments.
An example could include an arrangement in which the drop off/pick up location is specified as the child’s school, many of which are currently closed across the country.
The closure of schools and parents working from home
With many schools and after-hours care centres closed, families are experiencing a drastic change in routine and family dynamic. If one or both parents are able/forced to work from home, we suggest sitting down with both your former partner and your child/ren (separately if needed) in order to create a new family routine which allows for the continuance of both work commitments and schooling commitments, as well as valuable downtime between parent and child/ren.
If one or both parents have been deemed ‘essential workers’ and are required to leave the home for work, alternative arrangements may need to be made, perhaps with the assistance of friends and family. This is to ensure both you and your former partner are able to fulfil work obligations whilst children are unable to physically attend school.
Independent legal advice should be sought about the best way to record and document any agreement reached to deal with the changes arising from the pandemic relevant to your parenting arrangements.
When a parent falls ill
At some point, members of either household may find themselves having contracted the virus, or fearful of having contracted the virus due to close proximity with someone who has tested positive or recently been overseas. This will present challenges when children are moving between homes.
Furthermore, a parent may be concerned about their child/ren living within a household in which social distancing and biosafety recommendations are not being adhered to.
If you are concerned about your child’s health or safety, you should consider first raising any concerns you have with the other parent and seek to agree on a resolution that meets the child/ren’s needs and best promotes their wellbeing. If this is not practical or agreement cannot be reached between the parents, you should consider seeking independent legal advice regarding your specific situation as there are a range of options to assist in resolves issues like this.
We have some guidance from the Courts, with the Statement from the Honourable Will Alstergren regarding Parenting Orders and COVID-19 released recently. This provides useful information for families during this difficult period.
If the arrangements you have in place with the other parent are simply unworkable in light of the pandemic then, as a first step, consider reaching an agreement with the other parent to modify any arrangements where necessary. In doing so, it’s important to remember that whilst the specifics of existing arrangements and Orders may not be logistically possible, the purpose and spirit of the order should remain unchanged and the primary priority should always be the health and safety of the child/ren involved.
If you are able to come to a mutually agreed solution, be sure to make the agreement in writing, whether over a formal letter, email or text. With the assistance of a Family Law specialist, any variations to parenting arrangements can be recorded in a way that will least likely cause issues later. If seeking to vary any orders of the Court, we recommend that you obtain advice about your specific situation.
If you are unable to come to a mutually agreeable solution, or contact with your former partner is not possible, you should consider seeking the assistance of a Family Law specialist or Family Mediation specialist.
Finding a new norm
Amidst the broader changes caused by the pandemic, it can be difficult for many families to maintain routine and normalcy. This can be particularly difficult for children of separated parents to keep to the routine they had in place with a parent previously when the restrictions make it impossible for them to continue.
The use of video calling and social media, facilitated by a parent as appropriate, are excellent tools for allowing a child to keep in contact with a parent whom they can no longer spend time with in person. Such activities can be built into a larger daily routine or schedule which gives back some of the structure lost without the routine of school and other activities (such as after-school sport).
By using these other methods of communication more frequently, this may assist in ensuring the bond and connection between a child and parent continues during any period where face-to-face contact cannot occur.
If you are still unsure about your parental rights and responsibilities, or the effect that COVID-19 may have on your existing parenting arrangement or orders, contact us to discuss your situation and how best to promote your child’s best interests whilst ensuring that you continue to meet your obligations.
Shannon Daykin is an Accredited Family Law Specialist and Director of Daykin Family Law, offering telephone and video conferencing consultations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and in-person appointments where necessary.