While the rapid spread of the coronavirus has destabilized everyone’s life in one way or another, it has dealt a particularly disruptive blow to certain groups — one such being parents. The closure of schools and child-care facilities has created challenges for scores of parents who must figure out how to keep their children safe while continuing to work, if they’re able to during a pandemic. But the current situation has posed an especially acute challenge to parents with custody agreements, many of whom are now urgently renegotiating the very logistics of their agreements, at a moment when emotions run high and time is scarce.
Below, two anonymous women currently navigating their custody arrangements, as well as a matrimonial lawyer, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
“I saw he wasn’t taking this seriously.”
Our parenting schedule goes like this: My ex gets my kids on the weekends, and I get them for school days, as well as part of every other weekend. In mid-March, before schools closed, I reached out to my ex and told him I wanted to get the kids out of the city. He said no.
That weekend, they were supposed to go to his house, and he said he intended to take public transportation, which I wasn’t comfortable with anymore. I saw he wasn’t taking this seriously, and when I asked him how he’d be avoiding crowds, and sent him articles asking to discuss COVID-19, he would ignore it. So, I emailed him and told him that I left, and that I took the kids two hours away to somewhere I go regularly. He threatened to call an attorney, and my impression is that the attorney told him that that’s not enforceable right now, as you can’t really get the courts involved at the moment. Now, he has rented a car and come for a visitation, which gives me a bit of anxiety, as we don’t have a dialogue about what precautions he’s taking.
But the other thing that’s hard is that I get time and financial support by him taking the kids every other weekend, and those are meals I don’t have to pay for; also, that’s time I have to do work. So now that I have the kids 24/7, I’m doing all the food, and there’s a part of me that wants him to throw me a little bit more money. We needed composition books. I’d like to order a couple of puzzles! And it’s all on me.
“Our agreement didn’t exactly have a contingency plan.”
I’ve been divorced for nearly five years, and my ex and I have an 11-year-old daughter together. We have joint custody when it comes to decision-making about health and religion, but I’m the primary residential parent. Our schedule isn’t typical: I have her eight months of the year and he has her the other four, which has a lot to do with my ex’s work. He’s a locomotive engineer and is constantly traveling between multiple states, and is usually only home for 36 to 48 hours at a time. Meanwhile, I’m a librarian and a professor at a university. My jobs allow me to work from home.
We had a phone conversation the other day broadly about what was going on with the coronavirus, but we didn’t talk about how that would affect our custody, so that’s up in the air for me right now. I would prefer for my daughter to stay with me until things settle down, but that’s really not fair to either of them. I want them to spend time together, but I want her home with me. I know that I’m careful. I don’t know how seriously he’s taking this. He’s a Trump supporter, and it’s really hard for me to get a read on how much of the Trump Kool-Aid he’s drinking. Does he think this is a hoax? At this point, my state doesn’t have a shelter-in-place order. I wish we had mandates.
I don’t know what would make me feel safest. I keep wondering, if I have her and he doesn’t get to see her, when things go back to normal, whenever they do, does he get to make up all the days that he missed? I don’t think that’s something outlined in any parenting plan. Our agreement didn’t exactly have a contingency plan.
Jacqueline Newman, NYC-based matrimonial lawyer, of Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP, author of The New Rules of Divorce
The courts have basically closed for the purposes of any motions or court dates, so we’re left with very little recourse for anyone’s actions. I have a ton of cases right now where we have clients who are rightfully or wrongfully taking positions where they don’t want to adhere to custody agreements because they fear that the other spouse has the coronavirus. Or, they’re concerned that the spouse isn’t going to adhere to shelter-in-place mandates. Even under normal circumstances, people parent differently, so that’s a huge concern. I feel helpless right now — and as an attorney, the helpless feeling is truly, truly awful.
I had a case where a couple’s kids were supposed to go out of the country with the father for spring break, and the mother, my client, was flipping out. At this point, we didn’t know what was going to happen with closing country borders, but the father insisted on going, which the courts wouldn’t have stopped at that point. I’m not a hysterical person, but I told her that if I were her, I would jump on the plane after them and follow them to their vacation locale, because I would not want to be across a border from my children.
All of this is scary for adults, but it’s really scary for children who don’t understand what’s going on, who are watching their parents be so panicked, and who all of the sudden aren’t going to school anymore. Children like routines, and right now their routines are completely disrupted. The fear that children must be feeling is so overwhelming, and then you add on top of that not seeing your parents? Children need as much support as possible, and they need their parents to get on the same page.
Conversely, I’ve had two cases where the parents were not getting along before of all this, and now they’re stepping up. I was nervous about one case in particular, in which I represented a woman whose spouse was not communicative at all. But now, they’re communicating better than they ever have before, and I bet we’re going to work out custody in a way that I don’t think would’ve happened otherwise. Fear can do a lot of different things to people, but at the end of the day, they want to provide support to their children.