COVID-19: Keeping contact alive during isolation

Agreeing and maintaining child contact arrangements can often be complicated in normal circumstances, but with strict government advice in recent days curbing movement and the closure of schools, for many it could now seem almost impossible.

Here, Family Law expert Marika Franceschi illustrates possible scenarios and provides advice on managing the situation for separated parents.

Please note the following examples are fictional.

The Key Worker

Jen is a senior nurse assigned to a hospital “red zone”. She has a son, Ben (4), and is separated from his father, Alan. Typically, Ben sees his dad once a week and every second weekend. Alan lives alone and is currently working from home.

Jen has been advised to try and minimise her contact with Ben as she is a frontline worker and the hospital cannot afford to lose staff to periods of self-isolation. They are encouraging staff to stay in hospital accommodation, if possible, for a period of at least three weeks.

Jen is unsure what to do. Her parents look after Ben a lot, but her father is in a high risk category, so she can’t leave Ben with her parents. Alan needs to be able to work during the day in order to maintain his income as he is worried about the financial impact of COVID-19.

Options
  • Can Ben attend a local nursery providing care for children of key workers as Jen is his primary carer? This would allow Alan to focus on his work during the day, and he could care for Ben in the evening.
  • Can Alan alter his work pattern? He could make up the hours once Ben is asleep.
  • Can Jen’s mother move in to stay with Ben and Jen, whilst her father remains at home in self-isolation?
  • Could another close family member look after Ben while Jen is staying at the hospital?

If Ben is not staying with Alan during this period, it is important that his usual routine of contact with him is maintained as much as possible. The government advice is clear – children travelling between two households of separated parents is considered to be essential travel. Assuming no one in either household is high risk or is displaying/has been exposed to symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, there is unlikely to be any justification for stopping the contact.

With everything else being so unsettled, the general view is that maintaining as much normality for children during this time is likely to be in their best interests.

Whether Ben is staying with Alan or with another family member, it is also essential that he is able to maintain regular contact with his mum whom he is used to seeing every day. With such a young child, online video chat where they can physically see each other is likely to be the best.

The Multiple Household

Johnny has three children. Two (twins, 10) live with his ex-partner, Anne, and the other (3), lives with his ex-partner, Alison. Johnny lives with his flatmate, Craig, and he also has two children who are moving between two households.

The twins live in Glasgow with their mother and grandmother who is in the high risk category. Johnny depends on public transport to see them.

Craig’s children are moving between two homes as their mother is a carer for the elderly.

Johnny is used to regular contact with all of his children and the thought of not seeing them for a few weeks is worrying for them all.

Options
  • Can the twins’ grandmother stay somewhere else at the moment so she can self-isolate without the worry of infection from the children who might be moving around?
  • Can Johnny move in with Alison and his other child and base himself there temporarily where no one is in the high risk category but still observing isolation and social distancing?
  • Can contact arrangements be changed to blocks of 14 days, with isolation and social distancing rigorously observed during that period before moving back to the other household?

N.B. It would be helpful to obtain government guidance/advice from a medical professional on whether such an arrangement would be considered suitable prior to implementation.

Refusal of Contact

Marion and Andrew separated two years ago and have two children together, Ben and Ollie. Their relationship is fraught and they have been locked in a lengthy court battle regarding contact for more than a year. They are both now working from home, and live in the same town.

Marion lives on her own with the boys and Andrew lives with his new partner and their new baby. No one in either household is considered “high risk”.

Marion has told Andrew that contact between him and the boys should be stopped as it is not “essential” that they see each other and it is too dangerous for the boys to move between the households. Andrew has tried to discuss this directly with Marion but she has refused.

Options
  • Andrew could try sending Marion the government guidance, clearly stating that travel between households is allow, in order to reassure her.
  • Andrew’s solicitor could contact Marion’s solicitor to see if an agreement could be made on contact being reinstated as quickly as possible with minimal disruption for the boys.
  • Mediation via video link to try and resolve the issues without antagonising the situation with further litigation.
  • Andrew could seek an interim contact order from the court. At the present time, the courts are operating a restricted service, however, matters relating to residence or contact with children will be heard.

Key Points for All

  • Work together and put children first!
  • Wherever possible, try to maintain contact arrangements. If neither household contains high risk/vulnerable individuals and no one is displaying/has been exposed to symptoms, there is unlikely to be any justification to stop contact.
  • It is likely that anyone seeking to take advantage of the current situation to deny the other parent time with the children will be viewed negatively by the courts who are focused entirely on the child’s best interests.
  • Be innovative! Think up new ways to keep regular contact alive, particularly if there are gaps in contact due to high risk household members or key worker duties. We are all embracing video conferencing and apps such as Zoom to help us keep our communications as “real” as possible.
  • Video contact is likely to be better for all, but especially young children.
  • Remember those family members (on both sides) who are in complete isolation and think of the difference you can make to them by letting them share in watching children dancing/singing/colouring in/taking their first wobbly steps!
  • Many children are looked after full-time by grandparents, adult siblings or other carers. As these cases will depend on particular circumstances and whether court orders have already been granted in respect of their care, these scenarios have not been covered above. We would be pleased to answer specific queries as they arise.

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