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Parenting Arrangements and COVID-19

Parenting Arrangements and COVID-19

COVID-19 poses distinct challenges for families who share parenting time between two households. Many parents wonder if transitioning a child back and forth between homes is a safe practice during a pandemic.

In these unusual times, most co-parenting arrangements can and should continue. Parents should not assume that an existing parenting schedule is automatically “paused” because of COVID-19.

Best Practices

In recent weeks, separated parents have turned to the courts for guidance during COVID-19. An emerging body of case law has clarified that shared parenting can continue, provided both households take common-sense precautions and follow public health guidelines to reduce the risk of transmission.

Parenting schedules in these extraordinary times must balance the best interests of the child with the need to minimize COVID-19 transmission in the community.

In N.J.B. v S.F., 2020 BCPC 53, the Court cited Dr. Michael Elterman’s recommendations for parenting during COVID-19. These guidelines include:

  • disclosing contact with an infected party to the other parent;
  • postponing parenting time when a parent is ill; and
  • not bringing the child in to a home with older family members or immuno-compromised individuals.

Dr. Elterman also cautions against “play dates” and warns that children should not be taken to family or social gatherings. Parenting time that normally occurs in a public place like a community centre or a mall should be suspended in line with public health measures. Parents who usually have supervised parenting time might arrange a three-way video call with the child and supervisor.

Existing Arrangements or Court Orders

In most cases, parents should follow the terms of an existing agreement or court order.

Recent decisions indicate that a parent must demonstrate a serious, specific concern about the other parent’s failure to follow COVID-19 protocols before a court will alter a parenting schedule. Vague concerns about risk of transmission are insufficient to suspend parenting time.

In Ribeiro v Wright, 2020 ONSC 1829 , the Court emphasized the need for cooperative decision-making between parents in the face of COVID-19:

[23]    Judges won’t need convincing that COVID-19 is extremely serious, and that meaningful precautions are required to protect children and families. We know there’s a problem. What we’re looking for is realistic solutions. We will be looking to see if parents have made good faith efforts to communicate; to show mutual respect; and to come up with creative and realistic proposals which demonstrate both parental insight and COVID-19 awareness.

[27]     Every member of this community is struggling with similar, overwhelming COVID-19 issues multiple times each day.

  1. The disruption of our lives is anxiety producing for everyone.
  2. It is even more confusing for children who may have a difficult time understanding.
  3. In scary times, children need all of the adults in their lives to behave in a cooperative, responsible and mature manner.
  4. Vulnerable children need reassurance that everything is going to be ok.  It’s up to the adults to provide that reassurance.
  5. Right now, families need more cooperation.  And less litigation.

[30]     None of us have ever experienced anything like this. We are all going to have to try a bit harder – for the sake of our children.

Parents Working on Front Lines

Concerns about exposure are heightened when a parent works with the public during the pandemic. Essential service-providers will face particularly difficult parenting decisions.

The Court considered this issue in S.R. v M.G., 2020 BCPC 57.  In that case, the mother and father shared parenting time for their young son. The mother worked as a nurse at a hospital and had treated a patient with COVID-19.  The parents sought the court’s direction on parenting arrangements after the mother’s two-week self-isolation was complete.

The mother assured the Court that she followed every precaution recommended to nurses, including leaving her work clothing at work, showering upon return home, and using bleach to clean door handles. Despite those precautions, she acknowledged she worked in an environment with constant risk of exposure.

The Court summarized a “constellation of factors” to consider in assessing a child’s best interests in such situations. These include whether the child is at an elevated risk of suffering the more severe consequences of the virus; whether any members of either household at an elevated risk; each parent’s risk of exposure; and each parent’s risk mitigation strategies.

The Court also noted that all relevant factors under s.37 of the Family Law Act must guide parenting arrangements. These include the child’s health and emotional well-being, the child’s relationship with each parent, and the child’s need for stability.

In the circumstances of this case, the Court determined the mother should continue her parenting time. While there was a risk the mother could contract the virus at work, she was taking all reasonable measures to reduce that risk. The mother was also the child’s primary caregiver. The child would benefit from direct contact with his mother while COVID-19 otherwise disrupted his routines. The court ordered a parenting schedule that extended the consecutive days the child spent with each parent. This approach minimized the risk of transmission between homes.

Parents Living in Different Communities

Parents who live in small or remote communities may face different considerations where health authorities have recommended restricted travel. However, COVID-19 does not necessarily prevent co-parenting simply because the parents reside in different towns.

In V.C.S. v T.S., 2020 BCPC 60 the Court ordered a mother in Pitt Meadows to return the children to their father in Prince George at the end of spring break. The mother expressed concerns that COVID-19 made it unsafe for the children to travel. In particular, she raised concerns that the children could be exposed to COVID-19 when they ate and used public washrooms during the eight-hour drive between the two cities.

The Court ordered that the children be immediately returned to the father’s care in Prince George. The Court found that transporting children to their primary place of residence equals “essential travel.” The Court also noted that children travelling in their parent’s vehicle would not be exposed to the public, and that common-sense precautions about eating and using public washrooms would keep the children reasonably safe in transit.

Parenting from Afar

The decisions outlined above illustrate how parents might facilitate shared parenting time while respecting COVID-19 protocols. However, there will be instances where COVID-19 changes parenting schedules. A parent who is ill or has recently travelled abroad should not exercise parenting time with a child.

If a parent must self-isolate due to the virus, the parent should still maintain regular, frequent interactions with the child through telephone or video calls. Parents and children can read stories, play games, or watch movies together using video conferencing platforms. Parents who cannot care for a child in person during the pandemic can explain that they are staying away to keep the child healthy and safe.

Legal Advice

RLR Lawyers continue to offer legal services and family law consultations by telephone or Zoom during COVID-19. For parents seeking a quick, efficient resolution of a family law issue, Stephen McPhee, K.C. is also offering abbreviated mediation and arbitration at a reduced hourly rate during these challenging times. See our post “Reduced Rate Family Law Arbitration Services During COVID-19” for more on this topic.

This article is provided for general information purposes only. It does not constitute legal or professional advice. Readers are advised to seek legal advice regarding their specific circumstances or legal issues.

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