CO-PARENTING IN THE TIME OF A PANDEMIC
With the Courts largely closed, what can parties do if they are unable to reach an agreement regarding a needed change to the parenting plan?
Although the Courts are largely not open to address disagreements regarding the parenting plan, there are still services available to assist parent’s in resolving these disagreements. Mediators, co-parenting counselors and collaborative divorce professionals continue to work and remain a willing and available resource for parents in conflict. The professionals at Brown, Paindiris & Scott provide a range of services including in person meetings, in person mediation sessions done in accordance with current laws and regulations regarding social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic response, and the use of virtual meetings or on-line mediation sessions over Zoom or other similar platforms. These platforms allow everyone to see and hear each other during the mediation or settlement sessions, allow the sharing of relevant documents, and allow virtual breakout rooms where a party and his or her respective counsel can talk virtually without the other party or their counsel hearing. Technology now allows mediators and collaborative professionals to offer most in-person services via a virtual platform.
As of the last full week in April, Connecticut courts have commenced processing modification requests done by agreement. Therefore, a court can process the modification once a mediator or other professional has assisted you and the other parent in reaching an agreement. Connecticut courts remain closed for the litigation of parenting conflicts such as these and so it is incumbent on you as a parent to take action to reach an agreement that ensures your children’s wellbeing.
Every separated or divorced parent needs to know and follow their court-ordered Parenting Plan
A basic starting principle during the pandemic is that both parties should follow the existing court orders. All parents should review their Parenting Plans and know their rights and obligations set forth in the Plan. Once a parent has reviewed the Parenting Plan, the best advice is to make certain you follow the existing court orders as closely as possible. Judges and courts will not look favorably upon parents violating the court’s orders or using the pandemic as an excuse to make unilateral changes to their parenting plans during this time of crisis. Although there are no published decisions by a Connecticut court, other states have addressed the impact of the pandemic on existing court orders. California courts for example have issued orders stating that the existence of the COVID-19 crisis is not alone a sufficient basis for a modification of an existing parenting plan. Any request based on fear or concern on the part of a party, without supporting facts, will not constitute a basis for modification. Likewise, the existence of the COVID-19 crisis is, alone, not a sufficient reason to deny parenting time. Connecticut courts are likely to adopt a similar mindset.
Parents should be mindful that when making or modifying a Parenting Plan under Connecticut law, the court is required to consider (among other factors) each parent’s willingness and ability to facilitate and encourage the continued relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders. As such, parents should be wary of denying the other parent his or her scheduled parenting time.
A violation of the court orders or a unilateral change made to the Parenting Plan may result in the other parent filing a Motion for Contempt. The court hearing the contempt motion has the power to award a wide range of remedies including ordering make-up parenting time to the parent who was denied time, awarding attorney’s fees to the party bringing the Motion and even changing the custody orders or reducing parenting time of the parent who violated the parenting plan.
When the Parenting Plan seemingly conflicts with State or Local Orders, parents should address the perceived conflict before it becomes an issue of contempt.
Disagreements arise when the parenting plan is perceived as conflicting with state or local orders and/or guidelines. For example, what if one parent is diagnosed with COVID 19? What if a parent is a health care worker at a hospital or other COVID 19 recovery facility? Do these situations warrant parents losing their parenting time? In such situations, it is best for co-parents to work through their disputes. Parents should not simply take unilateral action, even if they believe themselves to be in the right. Parents should be open with the other parent regarding his or her concerns or perceived conflicts between the existing Parenting Plan and State or Local orders regarding the pandemic.
Agreeing on the underlying facts is helpful to reaching a resolution to the custodial matter. Parents should rely on facts and data from trusted sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, government publications and sites, or major national or local news outlets. Educate the other parent if that parent is unaware. Do not overreact to stories on social media. If a social media post or story causes you concern, always seek to confirm it through reliable sources. Remember, in most cases, both parents want the same end – the wellbeing of their children and the protection of both parents’ relationships with the children. As such, so long as the parents agree on the facts, many parents can reach an agreement regarding changes needed to a Parenting Plan in order to protect the well-being of their children.
During the pandemic, it may be prudent for the children’s health for parents to agree to temporarily shift parenting times in order to reduce or eliminate the number of exchanges. Parents seeking to change the parenting schedule should offer makeup time for any parenting time the other parent has lost or will lose due to the COVID-19 crisis. Be liberal with makeup time. Parents who temporarily use time can use numerous technological tools to enable them to maintain contact with the children even during times that physical contact may not be safe (FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, etc.).