The Coronavirus pandemic poses huge challenges for all of us. Separated parents working out how best to co-parent their children during this time will have particularly complex arrangements to manage.
The government has clarified that where children move between two homes, this will be considered “essential travel” and therefore permitted during the lockdown. However, as guidance from the President of the Family Division has made clear, this is not the same as saying that children in this situation must be moved between their homes during the pandemic.
It will be for the parents to decide what the most sensible course of action is in all of the circumstances. For example, if one household contains a vulnerable member, such as a grandparent or someone with a pre-existing health condition, having a child coming and going from that household may not be sensible. And of course, if any member of a household has symptoms, then the NHS advice on self-isolation must be followed.
Where children are continuing to move between homes, there are a number of issues for parents to consider. For example, a child could end up having to go into isolation in either home, if either they or their parent develops symptoms whilst the child or children are with them. It is therefore worth considering whether each parent’s home is equipped to have the children live there for long periods, in terms of clothing, toys, IT facilities and other needs, and what changes may need to be made to prepare for this. If a parent has any safeguarding concerns about a child spending long periods with one parent, then contact arrangements may need to be adjusted to minimise or extinguish the possibility of a child having to self-isolate in that parent’s home.
Where children cannot safely move between homes to spend time with a parent or other family members as they otherwise would, then it is important for other forms of contact to take place. This can include telephone or video-calling, as well as, for older children, playing online games together, or having a “watch party” where they watch a film at the same time and share reactions.
As lockdown begins to ease, there will be more decisions ahead: parents may disagree as to whether a child should return to school, when contact with extended family or other people outside their household should resume and how, and on arrangements for the summer holidays with many previously arranged plans being disrupted.
These are extremely difficult decisions for parents to have to make, and in many cases there will be a range of appropriate choices. Where parents do not get along, and there is a lack of trust, reaching agreeing a decision will be even more difficult. Ultimately, the parent with whom the child is currently based will have much of the decision-making power for the time being – but they should bear in mind that how they approached this decision may come to be considered by a court if there are future proceedings relating to arrangements for the children.
If necessary, emergency applications to court can be made. This will be particularly appropriate where contact has been halted and no video-contact is being offered, and where there are no genuine health reasons for a parent not agreeing any face-to-face contact.
In some cases where parents are unable to reach a decision, mediation may be a useful option for talking through the issues and concerns. A mediator will not make decisions for you, but will facilitate dialogue and help you reach consensus. Many mediators are currently conducting mediation through video-calls.
Finally, this will be an unnerving time for children, as it is for adults. The British Psychological Society have produced guidance on how to talk to children about Coronavirus, accessible here. Cafcass, the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, has also produced helpful guidance available here.
If you have any questions or concerns, please be in touch one of our family team or head of department Henry Hood on Henry.Hood@hunterslaw.com