By Sarah Houston
This is without doubt truly unprecedented times for everyone. We find ourselves in the grip of a global pandemic, without any degree of certainty as to how long it may persist.
The situation is rapidly evolving and we are being subjected to wide ranging travel restrictions and social distancing, while experiencing concerns for our own and our loved ones’ health. In these situations, people can experience a wide range of thoughts, feelings and reactions. The impact upon not only our physical, but also our mental health, is (as yet) undefined, although widely acknowledged to be of huge concern.
What's more, schools have now closed and this presents even further challenges for all parents, not least those who are separated. The pressure of needing to accommodate children outside school, between two homes, is likely to be extremely challenging. Following the Prime Minister’s latest briefing last night (23 March 2020), it is now understood that in light of the further imposed restrictions, children of separated families can move between parents’ homes - but it should be as limited as possible.
The following guidance is, therefore, intended to support those parents who are separated or divorced.
The government’s advice to date, continues to be that, to minimise the risk of the spread of the virus, frequent and thorough handwashing is necessary. We are also advised to adhere to responsible social distancing. Effective co-parenting means ensuring consistency in messaging between households. Children thrive on routine. Parents modelling best practice habits from both homes, will ensure children are protected by a consistent message.
Consider your children’s anxieties
The pandemic will continue to present a serious health challenge. Children will have absorbed a great deal of information through their schools, networks and media. They are not necessarily able to process or rationalise this outpouring of information in a way which helps them, unless we assist them in processing it. Therefore, it is important to take the time, to sit with your child and listen to their anxieties and worries, in both households. Even though older children may feel better prepared to process and rationalise the situation, they too may be feeling unsettled and experiencing extreme anxiety, having had their exams cancelled or plans with wider social events.
Court orders or agreements
If your parenting matters or contact are regulated by agreement or court order, you must still ensure that the terms of any Order or agreement, are being observed. If it becomes clear that arrangements cannot be met (as a result of self-isolation, travel restrictions or because schools have closed), then it may be necessary to try and find solutions in the short term, to address these challenges. You should try and provide the other parent with sufficient notice of any change and explanation, so that they can make provision accordingly. If you have concerns in this regard, you are advised to consult a specialist family lawyer.
Given the latest Government updates, where both parents may now find themselves working from home, (unless they are key workers), both parents will need to decide between one another, how feasible it is to have the children in their care and how this care is apportioned, bearing in mind that it is expected that children of separated families can move between parents’ homes – albeit this should be as limited as possible. Flexibility is recommended, to address the rapidly-evolving situation.
Compassion and understanding
Being calm in times of stress is particularly difficult. Remember, your children are learning from you. We are teaching them how to be reliant, so they will look to us for guidance. Parents are most likely to reduce conflict if they can both work together to be patient, open and honest with one another in attempting to co-parent during times of stress. Compromise is key in the best interests of children.
Despite emergency measures being implemented to address how the Courts will continue to conduct family law matters, the Court system remains strained regardless of the pandemic. The Courts increasingly have limited availability. Dispute resolution services may be harder to access and, therefore, common sense, combined with engagement and good communication, may be an assured path to problem solving.
Worryingly, many may experience reductions to income and may even lose their jobs in the coming weeks and months. As such, financial concern may impact both homes. This, in turn, may influence what can be paid by way of child support or maintenance. Again, you may wish to take advice from a specialist family lawyer on how this may impact you.
It is clear that the situation with respect to COVID-19 is not going to resolve overnight. We will need to adapt to the way we work, socialise and communicate in order to co-parent effectively.
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