The Oregon State Family Law Advisory Committee (SFLAC) is a 16-member panel of judges, trial court administrators, mediators and evaluators, attorneys, family court service providers, and representatives from various state agencies. SFLAC recently issues recommendations for parents who share custody and/or parenting time during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures. The release provided as follows:
"The goal of these recommendations is to encourage the parties to follow their parenting plan as closely as possible, as doing so will ensure a level of consistency and stability that is in the children’s best interests. These recommendations recognize Oregon’s policy of: assuring minor children frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the children’s best interests; encouraging such parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of raising their children; encouraging parents to develop their own parenting plan and grant them discretion in developing such a plan; and considering the best interests of the children and safety of the parties in developing a parenting plan. ORS 107.101.
RECOMMENDED COURT CLARIFICATION: Unless the parties agree otherwise:
1. Definition of Spring Break, Summer Break/Vacation or Holidays: While the schools are closed, parenting time shall continue as if the children are still attending school in accordance with the school calendar of the relevant district. ‘Spring break,’ ‘summer break/vacation’ or other designated holidays, means the regularly calendared breaks/vacations or holidays in the school district where the children are attending school (or would attend school if they were school aged). The closure of the school for public health purposes will not be considered an extension of any break/vacation/holiday period or weekend. 2. Denial of Parenting Time: COVID-19 is not a reason to deny parenting time. Unless otherwise ordered by the court, parents are considered fit to care for their children and make decisions regarding the day-to-day aspects of parenting while the children are in their care. This day-to-day care includes following the Oregon Health Authority and your County Public Health directives regarding social distancing and sanitation-related measures (such as frequent handwashing).
3. Parenting Time in Public Places: Governor Brown has forbidden all nonessential gatherings, regardless of size. If the parenting plan states that parenting time will occur in a public place, parenting time should continue at locations that are permitted under the health and safety guidelines for the state, such as a large park or nature hike. Public places where people routinely touch common contact surfaces (such as parks and play equipment) should be avoided. However, activities where parents and children can Page 2 of 2 maintain social distancing and avoid such surfaces are encouraged. If that is not possible, then the parenting time should be conducted virtually via videoconferencing or by telephone.
4. Supervised Parenting Time: If parenting time is ordered to be supervised, and the supervisor is unavailable due to COVID-19-related issues or government orders, the parties should work collaboratively to ensure parenting time continues to occur in a manner that promotes their children’s safety and wellbeing, such as finding an alternative supervisor. If that is not possible, then the parenting time should be conducted virtually via videoconferencing or by telephone.
5. Governor’s Executive Orders regarding Travel: The Governor has issued executive orders that restrict travel except for essential activities, which generally include caring for minors, dependents and/or family members. Therefore, unless otherwise directed by the Governor or other executive order, the parties should continue to follow the parenting plan as written while such orders are in effect.
6. Exchanges: During the exchange of the children, all parties should follow the CDC guidelines for limiting the spread of the virus, which may mean choosing an alternate location for the exchanges that has less people congregating and less touching of public items (changing from the restaurant to the grocery store parking lot for example).
7. Safety-Related Issues: Our first responders must remain available for true emergencies and for support related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Please do not call them for parenting-related disputes but rather only in the circumstances of real, immediate, and significant safety-related reasons.
8. Transparency: Unless the parties are restrained from communicating, parents are encouraged to communicate about precautions they are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19. A parent is not permitted to deny parenting time based upon the other parent’s unwillingness to discuss their precautionary measures taken, or belief that the other parent’s precautions are insufficient.
9. Makeup Parenting Time: If parenting time is missed due to COVID-19-related issues or government orders, parents are encouraged to work collaboratively to schedule makeup parenting time that promotes their children’s safety and wellbeing. Local courts are strongly encouraged to order makeup parenting time, when appropriate."
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers issued 7 guidelines for parents navigating their way through the uncertainty caused by COVID-19. These are helpful reminders for individuals trying to stay safe while continuing to co-parent.
From the leaders of groups that deal with families in crisis:
1. BE HEALTHY
Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.
2. BE MINDFUL
Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate.
3. BE COMPLIANT with court orders and custody agreements.
As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions, there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
4. BE CREATIVE
At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums, and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.
5. BE TRANSPARENT
Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly, both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.
6. BE GENEROUS
Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.
7. BE UNDERSTANDING
There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.
Adversity can become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child. For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories. It’s important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe.