The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a lot of issues and challenges for parents who share placement of children. I have had a lot of questions come up.
- Do I have to exchange the children under these circumstances?
- What happens if we get sick and am quarantined?
- What happens with placement exchanges where the parents live in different areas, or even different states?
"Safer At Home" and Placement Exchanges
Section 15(e) of the “Safer at Home” order issued by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers gives a specific exception for placement exchanges. This means that travel for exchanging children pursuant to a court order is allowed.
There is not a specific exception for transportation of children to another parent’s house when there is no court order in effect. Based on this, it is not currently advised to be transporting children to another parent’s house for placement without a court order that requires this.
Other Factors to Consider in Custody During COVID-19
While the “Safer at Home” order specifically allows transportation to exchange children, this is not the end of the story. There are many factors that need to be considered when deciding whether the court order needs to be followed.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this is not a situation that anyone alive today, including judges and attorneys, has encountered before. So, the answer to whether the placement order should be followed is not clear-cut. There is not a custody and placement order in the world that is going to address exactly what is to happen during a public health crisis or a pandemic.
There also are not any historic cases that judges can look to as a guide for what past judges and courts have done in situations like this. This means that this is what’s called a “novel case,” so judges and courts must fashion whatever solution they think is best. The information the court would use is statements made at the hearing, as well as information and recommendations that are available to the public. It also likely will depend on your judge’s personal opinions regarding the pandemic and how court orders should be treated right now.
Asking the Courts
I would not advise going to court to answer these questions, for many reasons.
First, courts are conducting hearings such as these by telephone or video conferencing, which really is not the best way to conduct a hearing.
Second, because there really is no case history for judges to follow, you really do not know how the court will decide and the court will come up with its own solution that may not work well for your family.
Finally, I believe it is very unlikely that a court would hold in contempt a parent who is not following a placement order right now, especially if you follow the advice I am about to give below and try to work things out on your own the best that you can.
Working Out a Solution
My best advice to you right now is to be reasonable with each other and find a solution that is going to work the best for all of you, keeping in mind the protection of the public.
If a parent or anyone else in the house starts experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, talk to the other parent and try to reach an agreement together on how you are going to deal with this. If a doctor has ordered a quarantine, tell the other parent this, and perhaps give the doctor permission to speak with the other parent to answer any questions they may have.
From the court’s perspective, I believe it likely that a court would follow the doctor’s quarantine recommendation. They would therefor suspend the placement order temporarily so long as the quarantine is in effect.
Communicate About Your Placement Schedule
Even if no one is experiencing symptoms and no quarantine order is in effect, have a conversation about how and whether you are going to follow your placement schedule.
Base your decision on your own personal circumstances, i.e. how many people each parent comes in contact with on a daily basis, do you always meet in a public place and should that be changed for now, etc. Perhaps if one parent has a job at an “essential business,” especially in healthcare, and the other parent works mostly from home, maybe it is best that the children stay with the parent who works from home.
If one of you lives in a different state, you will have to follow the current order regarding travel in that state, and seriously consider whether that placement should occur especially if the other parent is living in state that is a current COVID-19 “hot zone.”
Alternative Means of Contact
I highly recommend, in any of the above scenarios, that the children be allowed to have contact with the other parent by electronic means, such as telephone, Facetime, etc. Video conversations are better than phone so I would recommend arranging that if at all possible. Children need that face-to-face time with the other parent and will certainly miss them.
I would also suggest that the parent who is not getting their placement with the children get make-up time either once the quarantine is over, or even once the pandemic is over.
The bottom line is, this is a difficult situation for all of us, including the court system. Do your best to make decisions that are safe for your family as well as the public. If you have any other specific questions, I highly recommend that you contact an attorney to help answer them. Good luck with everything and, above all, stay healthy!