The outbreak of COVID-19, commonly referred to as the Coronavirus, is impacting many different areas of our lives and communities, particularly parenting time (custody). The situation is changing daily, with updated recommendations and mandates from government agencies across the state and the country. Colorado schools are currently closed and may remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. As with any situation where there is a fair amount of uncertainty, there can also be increased anxiety, particularly concerning children and family members. As a result, many parents are unsure of what to do about their parenting time schedules and how their custody-arrangement should work in this new world. There are several questions that parents may have regarding parenting time during these times, such as:
- Should we continue to follow the regular parenting-time schedule?
- Because school is not in session, should those days be considered the same has holidays, teacher-work days, vacation, or even summer break?
- What should I do if someone in my home has been exposed to the virus?
- What should I do if someone in my home has tested positive for the virus?
- What should I do if the other parent has been exposed to the virus?
While there are no clear cut answers to these questions, there are some basic guidelines which can help you, your family, and your ex-spouse/ex-significant other, to navigate these issues. The first and foremost is that, as with any parenting time or custody issue, the primary focus should be on the best interest of the children. For a general discussion about parenting time in Colorado, take a look at our Guide to Divorce.
Do Parenting Time Schedules and Exchanges Continue Because of Coronavirus?
Colorado parenting plans are always modifiable abd both parents can always agree to change or modify the parenting schedule due to the Coronavirus. For parenting plans that have more transitions, such as a 2-2-3 schedule, parents may want to consider schedules with fewer transitions, such as a 5-2-2-5 or 7-7, but it is important to consider the age of the children when making such a decision. As with most parenting time issues, it is generally better for the parents and children if the parents can find a solution between themselves that works for their family. Even when there is a history of conflict, times such as these can provide an opportunity to parents to focus on what is important, their children, such as in this article from the New York Times
But what if you and the other parent cannot agree? Or what if one parent is refusing to return the children due to fear of the virus? These are the circumstances where navigating these issues becomes more complicated.
Generally speaking, parents should continue to follow the court-ordered parenting plan that is in place. However, if someone at the household has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive, or if someone in the household has tested positive for the virus, then it may be necessary to limit the parenting time exchanges until the risk of transferring the virus diminishes. Based on current information, this would likely be for a period of 14 days. During that time period, telephone and video-conferencing (i.e., Skype, Facetime, etc.) should be made available to the other parent. Additionally, make-up time over the summer, or once restrictions regarding social distancing have been limited, should be considered.
Information about Colorado’s “Stay at Home” or “Shelter in Place” Orders and Parenting Time
Mayor Hancock recently issued a “Stay at Home” order for Denver and the Tri-County Health Department has followed suit. Both areas are now in “Stay at Home” scenarios. The orders are very similar and both of them have travel exceptions for “Essential Travel.” The term “Essential Travel” under both orders provides an exception for “Travel required by law enforcement or court order.”
Governer Polis followed these counties by issuing a state-wide stay at home order on March 25 and 26. The state-wide executive order also includes a provision that exempts court-ordered travel and therefore exempts parenting plans. A parenting plan is a “court order” and Griffiths Law believes that the exemption for travel due to a “court order” would include a parenting plan. This means that you must continue following your parenting plan and follow the pickup, drop off, and related requirements in the plan.
- Take a look at Colorado’s STATE WIDE “Stay at Home” Order Here.
- Take a look at Denver’s “Stay at Home” Order Here.
- Take a look at the Tri-County “Stay at Home” Order Here. This includes Adams, Douglas, and Arapahoe counties.
Does Coronavirus Create an Emergency to Restrict Parenting Time?
Parents should be aware of the potential consequences in attempting to limit or restrict the other parent’s parenting time based on the Coronavirus. Courts are beginning to receive emergency motions to restrict parenting time under C.R.S. § 14-10-129(4) based on concerns related to the virus. Without more than a generalized concern about the virus, a parent could risk their own parenting time being restricted or risk receiving monetary sanctions (such as an award of attorney fees) if a judge does not find that there was a valid basis to restrict parenting time.
Because the Courts are currently operating on a limited basis, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to address non-emergency parenting time issues through the Courts without at least some level of delay. The circumstances surrounding the virus have created unique issues regarding parenting time that have never previously presented themselves. If you have questions regarding parenting time, or any other family issues, related to the Coronavirus, at Griffiths Law, we have the experience and expertise to help.
Known Health-Related Risks to Children from COVID19
What we know about COVID 19 is changing every day, but there is some good news. Children, although they are infected at the same rate as everyone else, are doing much better than adults. Here are some of the risks to children as we know them now during this pandemic:
- Being in a location where, because local government is not taking proper precautions, the medical facilities are likely to become overwhelmed with sick and dying people. In such areas, a broken leg or other serious medical condition need might not see any treatment because the local hospitals are overwhelmed.
- Living with a caretaker who could become overwhelmed – such as parents who are vulnerable to contracting the disease because they have compromised immune systems.
- Children who have compromised immune systems may be at risk – although, at this point, there is little information on that topic.
All of us need to be the calm voice of reason. My heart goes out to parents who are in long-distance relationships who may not be able to see their children – this is a SCARY time. But please do not make a bad situation worse by suggesting that this virus alone is a reason to suspend or limit parenting time without GOOD REASON. I.E., a child is a risk because they have a compromised immune system. If you are a parent with a long-distance parenting plan (a “relocation parenting plan”), you may want to consider contacting an attorney. If you must travel by plane to get to or from your children, parenting-time exchanges could be contentious. As of March 30, 2020, travel in the United States is down by about 90%.
Mental Health Issues Arising from Coronavirus and Shelter at Home Orders
Many are predicting that for those of us sheltering with close family, the biggest risk of this virus will be the deterioration of mental health as we become isolated and anxious. We should all be alert to signs of domestic violence, depression, and anxiety. Remember, you are not alone. We are a community. And, case in point, many mental health practitioners are offering tele-health at this time. This is a very tough time for anyone but particularly those with mental health issues, domestic violence, and alcoholism. There are articles all across the internet indicating that there may be an increase in domestic violence, child abuse, and relapse. If you need assistance in this troubled time, please do not hesitate to contact us. Griffiths Law has experience in all facets of domestic relations but can also help refer you to a mental health professional as we know most of the best ones in the community.
Jon Eric Stuebner is an Associate Attorney at Griffiths Law. Jon Eric’s practice focuses on domestic relations matters, including divorce, allocation of parental rights, post-decree disputes, and child support matters.
Ann Gushurst is Senior Counsel at Griffiths Law. Ann has been practicing exclusively in Family Law for most of her law career, and her current practice is a mixture of litigation, collaboration and mediation.