Co-parenting in the coronavirus pandemic: A family law scholar’s advice

As millions of people around the world practice social distancing and self-quarantine, they are separating themselves from everyone but their immediate family members. However, for divorced or separated parents who share custody of their children, the definition of "immediate family" isn't obvious.

Already, family lawyers around the country are being inundated with calls from anxious parents worried about returning children to co-parents who are not willing to practice social distancing. They are contemplating keeping their child away from the other parent, in violation of a shared-custody agreement – but wonder how courts will react.


I have been a family law professor for almost 13 years. I have written numerous articles about custody and visitation. Until recently, I never even contemplated how these traditional family law concepts might change in response to a pandemic. Few custody and child-support court orders will have provisions covering how to share parenting in a pandemic – although they may become common in the future.

This is uncharted legal territory. The federal government, many states and even municipal governments around the country have declared states of emergency.

With many family courts closed, divorced or separated parents will have to make up arrangements as they go along. My strong advice is that parents should not try and equate the COVID-19 pandemic with other types of emergencies that may be covered in their custody agreements.

Instead, they should seek to work together – however difficult that may be – to provide for the best interests of their children, and to preserve a sense of fairness and equity, both emotionally and legally, however custody is shared.

Finding common ground

As workplaces shut down or convert employees to working from home, many parents may find opportunities to adjust schedules so the child can be cared for by one parent or the other, rather than bring in the care of sitters, nannies or members of the extended family.

Public health experts say it's best to limit social circles to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Parents should try to be a team in this situation, even if it is difficult. This is not the time to keep a minute accounting of how many overnights the other parent has had or to argue that the current school closures should be treated like summer vacation. Avoid gamesmanship.

Talk through concerns and be open to new arrangements. Reassure the other parent that any current reduction in their parenting time will be made up – eventually – and that in the meantime, they will have increased phone calls, video chats and other forms of non-physical contact.

I do recommend keeping records, including contacting the other parent in writing (by text or email), explaining what your concerns are about the current custody plan, and proposing a reasonable solution. It will be very helpful to encourage the other parent's thoughts and suggestions on the proposal. Any coronavirus custody arrangement should accommodate the concerns and interests of both parents.

It is stressful for everyone – parents and children alike – to live through this pandemic. Children don't need the added worry of parental fights. They badly need more stability and reassurance – especially about their contact and connection with those who love them the most.

Judges look out for the kids

It may not be easy to come to agreement. Every relationship – and ex-relationship – is different. Some couples may be used to sorting things out in court. That is less possible now than during normal times.

Most family courts are closed for everything but emergency matters, which almost certainly do not include custody disputes. Of course, after the crisis passes, the courts will reopen.

At that time, I have little doubt that judges will be pleased with parents who have worked together to identify their children's best interests, and taken steps to protect their health and safety. And I expect judges will be furious at parents who put their own interests before their children's, and refused to cooperate with a willing and reasonable parent.


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Disobeying a court order is a big unknown

If agreement is really impossible, the path gets much more precarious. Shared-custody agreements and orders were crafted when the present crisis was unimaginable, but violating them is risky – even if the reason sounds solid. Judges may reduce visitation and custody for parents who interfere with their ex-partner's custodial rights.

Parents who fear for their children's health may be willing to take their chances and hope that when this is all over, the family court will agree that their decision was reasonable. It is a big gamble – and regardless of the outcome is likely to involve significant legal expense and time fighting in court.


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Seeking help to settle disputes

There are alternatives to conflict and animosity, and waiting for courts to reopen and sort things out.

Many family court mediators remain available to help couples work out pandemic related custody issues. Although the specific circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic are unprecedented, parental disputes about children's health and safety are common. Mediators are well versed in these issues and can help families reach reasonable agreements.

Mediated agreements – even attempts at agreements – provide a contemporary and largely objective record of the parents' thoughts, circumstances and concerns. That record may help judges sort out who was being reasonable and accommodating in seeking custody changes, and who was not.

In the effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Americans are repeatedly reminded that the decisions they make today will have direct consequences on our individual and collective well-being in the future. This warning is not specifically directed at divorced or separated parents, but it is just as applicable.

The custody choices parents make in the next few weeks affect not only the immediate health and welfare of their children and families, but may also affect their future custody arrangements. Courts rarely look kindly on parents who put their needs before their children's. In the aftermath of a pandemic, it safe to assume this will be even more true.

The circumstances surrounding many custody disputes have changed drastically in the past week, but as always, the safest bet is cooperation.

Marcia Zug is Professor of Family Law, University of South Carolina

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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