Assuring that both parents post-divorce receive quality time with their children can be challenging for families under the best of circumstances. How does COVID-19 impact the implementation of the holiday parenting plan?
Typically, parenting plans alternate holidays or split holidays. So, for example, Thanksgiving may alternate every other year, or parents divide winter break (and even Christmas Day) so that each parent has time with the children.
The coronavirus surge upends or at least complicates both types of plans.
Let’s take a look first at an alternating holiday like Thanksgiving. If the parent with Thanksgiving this year chooses to have a large family gathering with people outside of their bubble, including family from out of town who will not have had time to quarantine in advance, that gathering increases the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus. If the other parent is at risk or has family who is at risk, having the child attend the Thanksgiving as scheduled and return to the other parent could put that parent at risk of exposure. To fully protect that parent, the children would have to miss custody time. As a result, the parents would have to agree to make up time, which could be difficult. Could the at-risk parent try and prevent the other parent’s gathering? Possibly, depending upon the parenting plan and the circumstances. The parent could argue the gathering poses too great a risk and ask the children to spend Thanksgiving with the at-risk parent instead. The parents could work with the mediator in their parenting plan to find a resolution.
What is the right thing to do in such a case?
A mediator or judge would look at the degree of risk for the family. If the plans involve travel from out of town and the guests are in an area of surge, and the children will have lots of close contact, it certainly increases the risk of transmission. But whether it rises to a level that requires removing the children from that celebration is a difficult call. If the mediator or judge did agree to do so, they would rely on the CDC guidelines that discourage these types of gatherings now, and the regulations in place in the county at issue (for example, St. Louis County issued a Safer at Home Order that prohibits such a gathering).
Let’s consider another scenario.
Parents under the plan get to split the winter break. One parent plans a trip out of state. The other parent, with at-risk family, will receive the children immediately upon return from the trip. Because of the risk of exposure, the at-risk parent objects to the travel plans. What is the way to resolve this situation?
Again, parents must look to mediation first under their parenting plan. Is travel during a coronavirus surge a good idea? Is the risk of getting the virus so great that the parent wanting the trip is acting irresponsibly? It will be a case-by-case decision. Travel will impose risks, but it is possible the parent planning the trip has taken precautions to minimize risk. It may be that switching the time of custody so that the children quarantine on return with the traveling parent will not interfere with the time due to the at-risk parent. That opens the way to a possible solution.
If the children are at risk, of course, the courts will take a harsher stance on putting them in a position of exposure.
The courts have not taken a single stance on the issue of risk assessment and children. The courts understand different counties have different approaches, and that everyone seems to have some form of COVID fatigue. But ultimately the choice must turn on what is best for the children, and that requires a family-specific evaluation.
Parents are encouraged to work together on this issue, to remain sensitive to the risks posed by the coronavirus in general and for family members in particular, and try and reach a consensus.
The holidays will be different this year. Parents should remember that safety and health should come first, and that time can be made up if needed to assure that an at-risk person does not get sick or die.
If you have questions about handling the holiday parenting plan during COVID-19, contact us – we can help.