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.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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Of course, wrecks aside, buying a used car might end up costing more in the long run after needing repairs, breaking down and just a general slew of unexpected surprises. But hey, at least we can all look back and laugh.

My first car, for example, was a hand-me-down Toyota of some sort from my mother. I don’t recall the specific model, but I definitely remember getting into a fender bender within the first week of having it. She had forgotten to get the brakes fixed … isn’t that a fun story?

Jimmy Fallon recently asked his “Tonight Show” audience on Twitter to share their own worst car experiences. Some of them make my brake fiasco look like cakewalk (or cakedrive, in this case). Either way, these responses might make us all feel a little less alone. Or at the very least, give us a chuckle.

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There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

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