COVID-19: Do my children’s living and contact arrangements stay the same?
Sarah Evans, Partner in Coodes Solicitors’ Family team, discusses the practicalities of children’s contact and living arrangements in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Parents are understandably concerned for the safety and wellbeing of their children during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those who are separated or divorced are also asking about the impact of COVID-19 on their children’s usual living and contact arrangements.
Useful guidance has been produced by both Cafcass and the President of the Family Division, The Rt Hon Sir Andrew Mcfarlane, on how to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances.
What if we have to self-isolate?
If you or your child experience symptoms of COVID-19, you must self-isolate for the required period of time. Direct contact with the child’s other parent cannot take place while in self-isolation. This is to prevent the other parent and everyone they are in contact with from becoming infected.
While self-isolating, the parent who the child lives with will therefore need to work out new ways to facilitate contact with the other parent.
Cafcass has given some helpful ideas. One suggestion is to set up a ‘watch party’, so children can watch a YouTube video, for example, with their parent and react in real time. Some parents may also wish to interact through online gaming with their children while in self-isolation, or via Skype, Facetime or one of the many other platforms. In the digital age, we are fortunate there are many ways of keeping in touch with those we cannot spend time with.
Should my child visit their other parent?
In all other circumstances, contact arrangements should carry on as normal where it is safe and reasonable for it to do so.
The Government has established an exception to the Stay at Home rule that the UK is currently abiding by. Current advice suggests that “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes” as they normally would.
The Rt Hon Sir Andrew Mcfarlane has made it clear that “it does not, however, mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other”.
In a best case scenario, parents will be able to discuss this and come to an agreement over their children’s arrangements. It is advisable to record this agreement in writing to ensure both parents are clear on what will be happening. This does not need to be in a formal document, an email or text message will generally suffice.
What if we have a Child Arrangements Order?
Where there is a Child Arrangements Order (CAO) in place, the advice remains the same. If it is safe and reasonable for contact to go ahead, then it ought to. If it is not, then parents should attempt to reach an alternative agreement between themselves, if they can.
If, for example, contact is likely to involve an excessive amount of travel in or outside this country, then it is unlikely for it to be reasonable to take place. Likewise, if a child has a particular medical vulnerability, and arrangements usually involve a length of travel using public transport, it is unlikely to be safe or reasonable at this current time.
If the parent who is expecting to have contact wishes to press ahead with an unsafe arrangement, despite this clear guidance, then it may be necessary to make an urgent application to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order to prohibit the removal of the children from the care of the applicant. The court can still deal with such applications at this time, albeit using either telephone or video conferencing rather than an attended hearing.
If it is not safe for the children’s usual contact arrangements to take place, then it is expected that alternative arrangements will be put in place.
Some key points to remember are:
- If you or your household experience symptoms, please isolate in line with the current guidance.
- If it is safe for the children’s usual living and contact arrangements to take place, then they should continue as normal.
- If it is not safe, then try to agree an alternative – Skype, Facetime, Zoom, online gaming or pre-recorded videos are all helpful alternatives to ensure that some level of contact is maintained.