Tips for co-parenting during the Covid-19 pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic poses huge challenges for separated parents, who will have particularly complex arrangements to manage and difficult decisions to make, and I set out below some practical tips for co-parenting during the pandemic:
Agree house rules that shall apply in both households in line with the present government restrictions. This is particularly important if one or both parents are particularly anxious about the children moving between homes.
These might include: regularly washing hands, limited screen time, going out for walk or bike ride as exercise once a day, avoiding the supermarket or playgrounds with the children, avoiding public transport when moving between homes (if it is a long journey perhaps agree to meet half way) and ensuring the children do not come into contact with other people when they are in each home (such as friends or other relatives that are not part of each parent’s household).
With older children, parents may also need to agree to monitor time on social media or video messaging platforms.
- Share information and a shared narrative:
Good communication between co-parents will be key during the pandemic.
Discuss and agree a shared narrative about the virus to explain the present situation and any changed arrangements in an age appropriate way. Invite the children to discuss the pandemic with you and encourage them to ask questions and talk to you about any worries they may have. The British Psychology Society have produced guidance on how to talk to children about the virus, accessible here.
As well as the everyday practicalities, co-parents will now also need to keep the other informed about their health (and that of others in their household) and also any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus. Try to agree in advance what steps each of you will take to protect the children in the event of one parent being exposed to or contracting the virus. Further, try to agree to share information and keep each other updated about any extended family members or key people in the children’s lives if they become unwell and agree what the children should be told about that.
If either parent suspects that any child is showing any symptoms of the virus whilst in their care, they should inform and discuss with the other parent. Try to discuss and agree what steps to take with the child best interests in mind. It may be that one parent is better placed or prepared to care for a sick child or can self-isolate with the children more easily than the other. It is important to be flexible during this time and remember that any change to existing arrangements will only be temporary.
This will be a particularly difficult time for co-parents, where anxiety levels and tensions are likely to be high, and children are likely to sense this more acutely in present circumstances when they are home all day. Try to ensure that any discussions about child arrangements or disputes with co-parents are had at a time or place where the children cannot overhear such discussions, as this can harm children emotionally and cause general insecurity or confusion.
Try to stick to the same routine as much as possible, both in terms of the usual child arrangement schedule and also each child’s daily or weekly routine to keep things as normal as possible for the children.
If the children are at school or nursery, make sure that both parents have online access to the school portal so that they can download the daily activities or classes and upload their work at the end of the day. Similarly, try to ensure that the both parents have details of any (virtual) parties, playdates or other extracurricular activities. It might help to have a shared calendar with appropriate links so that each parent is aware of each child’s new schedule. If the child is now spending less time with one parent, try to ensure that their indirect contact time with that parent is incorporated into their daily or weekly routine.
Be flexible and fair. There may have to be a temporary variation of the existing child arrangement schedule during the crisis if, for instance, one household has a period of self-isolation or the children or one of the parents contracts the virus. It may also not be possible for the children to spend time at one parent’s house if a vulnerable person (such as an elderly relative or someone with a pre-existing health condition) also lives there. Similarly, one parent may need to reduce their time with the children if they are a key worker or under pressure at work and cannot manage childcare and home schooling during their usual contact time. It may be that one parent is better placed to care for the children during the crisis due to the nature of their work or other circumstances. The key is to remember that any change is temporary.
If the children cannot see one parent at the usual time, for whatever reason, the other parent should try to facilitate as much contact as possible via video calls, photos and/or WhatsApp messages, etc. If possible, try to ensure that the device the children is using to speak to the other parent is fixed to a particular spot and think about organising an age appropriate activity during the video-call, such a quiz or book.
If one parent ends up having “extra” time with the children during the pandemic, consider agreeing that the other parent has “make-up time” after it is over as the children may want this if they have missed the other parent. Once the anti-body tests become widely available, and the either parent or the children are thought to have recovered from the virus, it may be safe for contact to resume again at that point if it has not done already.
Of course, where co-parents do not get along, or there is a lack of trust, it will not always be possible to reach an agreement with your co-parent. In many cases, there will be a range of appropriate choices making it hard to agree on a certain course of action. Even in cases where co-parents get on well, it may be difficult to reach an agreement if each parent has a different attitude towards the risks associated with the coronavirus. If you are not sure, you may wish to seek legal advice from a family lawyer.
There are also a number of online resources available to assist co-parents during this difficult time. For instance, Cafcass, the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, has also produced helpful guidance available here.
Based on the guidance issued by the President of the Family Division on 24th March 2020, it seems that the parent with whom the child is currently based will have much of the decision-making power for the time being, which might be frustrating for the other parent. It is still possible to make an application to court, but it is unlikely at present that the courts will consider applications for enforcement of Child Arrangement Orders to be urgent at this time and it may also be difficult to establish that the parent withholding contact does not have a reasonable excuse in the present circumstances. Parents should still be careful about how they approach these decisions during the crisis as any issues may be unpicked at a later date within the context of Children Act proceedings. Where there is a dispute about the right course of action, it may be helpful for both parents to keep a contact diary recording there reasons for withholding contact (or for other parent to record why the other acted unreasonably) within the context of the guidance at the time (which may well change again over the coming weeks) which can be referred to in any later proceedings.
In circumstances where a resolution may not be accessible quickly through the courts, it may be helpful for some parents to attend (virtual) Mediation with a mediator who is a qualified family lawyer who could facilitate discussions between you. A number of the solicitors in our family department are qualified Mediators.
If you have any questions or concerns, please be in touch with a member of our family team or Head of Department Henry Hood at Henry.Hood@hunterslaw.com