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Co-Parenting and Custody Concerns During COVID-19

Our office began receiving calls from clients related to custody within an hour of the shelter-in-place orders being issued in California, and we have been speaking with clients daily and filing emergency requests when necessary. All parents, and especially parents with custody orders, are facing unique challenges due to the current pandemic. Unfortunately, there is no specific guidance in California law or case history to guide us through this time. We have been forced to grapple with custody orders and agreements that simply do not conform with the ways that all of our lives have been upended.

We recently received some guidance on April 15, 2020 from the Family Law Division of the Alameda County Superior Court, which provided the following best practice recommendations for parents sharing custody and parenting time during the COVID-19 pandemic. 1. General Rules: COVID-19 is not a reason to deny parenting time. Unless otherwise ordered by the Court, parents are considered fit to care for their children and to make decisions regarding their care. These day-to-day decisions include following state and local directives regarding social distancing and hygiene-related issues. 2. School Closure: While schools are closed, parenting time should continue as if children are attending school according to their school’s calendar. School breaks, Spring break, Easter week and regularly scheduled vacations/holidays should continue as if school was still in session and parenting orders regarding those breaks shall remain in place. The closure of any school for public health reasons should not be considered an extension of any of those breaks. Custodial parents are expected to engage and involve their children in available distance learning opportunities. 3. Supervised Visitation: Supervised visitation orders, whether formal or informal, shall be enforced consistent with public health orders. If supervised visitation cannot occur, parties should seek supervised visitation through remote means such as videoconferencing or by telephone. Parties should inquire with supervised visitation agencies whether remote visitation is available. 4. Exchanges: Modification of exchange locations shall be by agreement of the parties. Parties who typically exchanged at schools or extracurricular locations should agree to alternative public settings. If no agreement occurs, the receiving parent should pick up the child curbside at the relinquishing parent’s home. If a restraining order is currently in place, then the entrance or lobby to the nearest police station of the relinquishing parent should be the exchange location. 5. Communication: Unless parents are restricted from communicating by court order, they are encouraged to communicate about measures to be taken to assure the health and safety of their children in light of the COVID-19 crisis. The failure to engage in such communication is not, however, the basis to deny parenting time to a parent unwilling to participate in that communication. 6. Best Practice: These guidelines are not the exclusive remedy to resolve all disputes that might arise during the COVID-19 crisis. However, before any ex parte request is brought to the Court, these guidelines should be considered. Now, more than ever, parents need to co-parent and genuinely consider what is in their child’s best interests. 7. Consequences: Unreasonable denial of a parent’s custodial time during the COVID-19 crisis may be strongly considered in any subsequent modification of custody and visitation requests. As with any informal guidance, the advice from the Court can raise more questions than it answers. It also may not apply in high-conflict situations, or where one parent is acting unreasonably. In those cases, it may be necessary to file an emergency request, which some of our clients have been forced to do. Please feel free to contact us for a video or telephone consultation if you feel that it is necessary or if you have urgent custody questions that we can answer.

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