by Livia D. Barndollar and Jill D. Bicks
“HELP – Parenting Emergency!” Almost daily since the pandemic began, this subject line has appeared in our inboxes. The questions we have received from our clients have included:
- My ex won’t return the kids to me, what should I do?
- My co-parent is an essential employee going out into the community every day, and I live with my elderly parents. I don’t believe it’s safe to maintain our current parenting schedule. May I keep the children home with me?
- My ex has a significant other who has been spending the night at his home. I know he’s been social distancing but I can’t be sure about her. I don’t want the children going to his house.
These are extraordinary times. Right now in Connecticut, courts are open in a very limited capacity for “Priority 1” business functions only. Priority 1 business functions are defined by the Judicial Branch and include limited criminal, juvenile and family matters. Family matters that will be heard include relief from abuse and emergency custody issues. You should consult knowledgeable attorneys as to whether you can and if so, how to bring your matter before the courts during this time of diminished access. The rules are evolving.
So, what Family Matters can be heard in Connecticut courts right now? Emergencies, where, for example, a child is at imminent risk of physical or emotional harm or a co-parent is withholding access to a child, are being addressed by the court. If a parent wants to change a current parenting schedule due to the pandemic, the parent should be mindful that judges respect orders and parents should, as well. Unilateral changes by a parent to existing court orders could lead to a finding of contempt and punishment.
As an example, in recent days our firm filed an emergency custody motion on behalf of our client, a father, because the mother refused to return their child to him at the end of her parenting time. The court granted our emergency motion, ordered the mother to comply with the current court-ordered parenting schedule and set the matter down for hearing. At the hearing, the mother claimed, among other things, that school closure during the pandemic meant that the summer schedule should begin, and that she should be able to relocate with the child abroad, in a location where she felt it was safer. The court issued a ruling within a matter of days, reaffirmed the current court-ordered schedule, confirmed that school was still in session and, perhaps most importantly, stated the following:
Any effort by either party to use the current COVID 19 health crisis as an excuse to violate these or other court orders may be regarded as willful and may result in the granting of further ex-parte relief and/or findings of contempt.
Here’s the takeaway: Respect current court orders. If a new court order is warranted, a parent must first file a motion before acting unilaterally and, in that motion, set forth reasons for his/her position or goal that are objectively urgent and credible. The parent’s reasoning should be supported by admissible medical opinion or medical data. A consultation with a child’s pediatrician prior to filing for court intervention would be a wise practice.
What if your parenting issue is not a Priority 1 matter? Are there any other options? Yes, of course. The pandemic has upended all our lives, and schedules put in place for normal times might not work. The first step is for the parents to attempt to have a conversation with each other, preferably via phone or Zoom and not just by email or text. Start from the shared interest in keeping the children safe, healthy and connected to each parent during this unsettling time. You might be surprised that old patterns of poor communication have shifted to the good in light of these unprecedented events. We have seen it happen with our clients, much to their surprise.
So, you tried to have a reasonable conversation, but you and your co-parent still disagree. Reasonable people who love their children can have different opinions of what is best. What then? The next step, as we have been counseling our clients, is to seek the input of a mutually trusted professional – the child’s pediatrician, therapist, or school counselor might be good choices. The advice and guidance of a neutral who knows your child and your family can often help bridge differences and offer a mutually-agreeable way forward that neither co-parent had thought of. In particular, a medical professional can offer specific guidance on how to manage the risks of children travelling between your two homes. That strategy worked for our client who lives with elderly parents and has a former spouse who continues to do essential work in the community. After they had tried and failed to come to an agreement on their own, the parents met via Zoom with a therapist/co-parent counselor who helped them come to a temporary arrangement that provided appropriate safeguards for continuing contact between the child and the working parent that both parents could live with for now.
No such luck, there is no reasoning with your impossible ex. If you say “the sky is blue,” he or she will tell you “no, it’s raining here by me.” For these clients, Pullman & Comley’s family law team offers alternate dispute resolution options such as mediation, the collaborative process or “Virtual Court” with our retired judges. While matters of custody cannot be adjudicated outside of a courtroom, these non-litigation options accomplish timely, efficient, cost-effective and creative results, particularly where, as now, court intervention is not possible. In the collaborative process, each party has his or her own lawyer to assist in working out a solution, with the availability of a mental health professional to facilitate the discussions and provide expert guidance as to the children’s health needs. “Virtual Court” can provide the same decision-making expertise you would receive if you could access the court system.
We are here for you. Above all else, please know that you can call us at any time. We care and we can help.