Information about COVID-19 and Co-Parenting

While it is not typically my practice to send emails to my clients en-masse, the fact that I am currently writing this to you from self isolation is evidence of just how much the world has changed in just the last few days. I am fortunate enough not to be experiencing illness as so many people are these days, but simply taking precautions by maintaining social distance!

What is clear from the correspondence I have had from many of you so far is that there is great uncertainty about parenting in general given our new reality, but how to handle co-parenting after separation creates particular concerns. As many of you are keenly aware, co-parenting after separation can be difficult at any time, but particularly now when parents are facing unprecedented challenges, it can be difficult to know what to do.

I am hoping that the below Question and Answer may assist in providing some general information on some of the questions being asked by many of my clients right now. However, everyone’s situation is unique and there may be certain circumstances present in your case that alter my recommendations. While I am not currently working from the office, both I and my clerk, Ana Mohammed, continue to be available to you via email to answer your questions and concerns. I am also happy to arrange a phone conference or a video conference if that better suits your needs.

In order to comply with the Government directives on social distancing, we are not meeting with clients in person in the office right now, but we continue to have two staff members in the office each day who are available to take your calls as well if you would like to speak with someone over the phone.

  1. Should parenting exchanges continue to occur right now?

    The general answer to this question is yes. Absent a parent or a child having special health considerations and/or extraordinary risk of exposure, it is unlikely that it would be seen as reasonable to unilaterally cut off the other parent’s time with the child completely, particularly considering that it is unclear how long this pandemic will last. In fact, parents who are seen to have done so are at a risk that their actions actually harm their position on parenting in the long term. If both parents are taking the steps suggested by Public Health to ensure a safe household and the child is at no more risk in one parent’s home than in the other, the expectation is likely to be that the normal parenting schedule should continue. However, it is wise to have a discussion with the other parent about the steps they are taking to socially distance and comply with Government directives, to discuss their work requirements (i.e. are they obligated to attend at work or are they working from home, are there significant risks in the nature of their employment etc.).

    If the parenting time in your situation is that of supervised parenting time, this will likely present unique challenges. It is unlikely that parenting will be able to occur in a supervised access facility and private supervision services may have limited availability right now. If this is the case in your situation, I would recommend you reach out to me directly.

  2. Does that mean we have to follow the exact days and times in our Court Order or Separation Agreement?

    Not necessarily. I would encourage all parents to have as much flexibility as is reasonably possible. This pandemic has presented challenges that most of us could not even fully contemplate. Some parents may be faced with having to work additional hours to assist with the crisis while others may be faced with working from home. The children being out of school for a prolonged period of time will create many (maybe many many many!) challenges. Alternatively, some parents may simply have more time to spend with their children than they would usually have available to them! It is inevitable that you may have to adapt the parenting schedule somewhat.

    However, as much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. While flexibility is important, you likely spent considerable amount of time and money determining the details of your interim or final parenting plan, it does not have to be completely overhauled when it is likely that some small changes will probably fill the gaps.

    It is always within your control to modify your Order or Agreement provided that both parties agree to any such changes. For some clients it will be important that that agreement is done in writing. However, please keep in mind that if both parties do not agree to modify parenting, unless extraordinary circumstances exist (and there is a very high threshold for that), the terms of the most current Order or Agreement remain in force and effect until they are formally changed.

  3. What happens if issues arise with the parenting plan in my Order or Agreement during this pandemic?

    As some of you may have heard, our family courts have extremely limited availability right now through to at least June 1st. The only exception to this is for urgent matters which will be held by way of a teleconference. It will only be the very most urgent maters that are heard via this criteria (ie. matters concerning restraining orders, child abduction etc.). As such, the great majority of my clients will have to work through any conflicts that may arise by way of informal dispute resolution. Pursuant to the Ontario Government’s most recent decree on what constitutes an essential business, our services have been deemed to be essential and I am available to assist you in trying to work through this conflict via negotiation, mediation or possibly arbitration, all of which can be done remotely. If you are unsure of whether your case is sufficiently urgent to be heard in the court right now, please do not hesitate to contact me for an assessment.

    If appropriate for your case, collaborative law is an excellent mechanism to work through any issues arising from separation. Given that it is a central tenant of the collaborative process to stay out of court, the court closures do not in any way affect your case and most of my colleagues in collaborative law are offering remote options such as group videoconferencing in order to continue to move files forward to resolution during this time. For more information on this excellent process choice, please see our local organization and the Ontario Association of Collaborative Professionals

  4. What are some parenting “best practices” that I can adopt during this time?

    As much open and honest communication as is possible and safe in your circumstances is key. It is vital that you provide forthright information to the other 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. Initiate conversations on this as much as is possible. Certainly both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.

    You may also wish to discuss with the other parent how much exposure your child is going to have to information regarding the pandemic i.e. via social media or the news. What is appropriate varies for each child and may be more of a consideration for some children than others. It can be very anxiety inducing for some children when it is clear to them that virtually all of the adults in their lives are exhibiting signs of stress. My 9 year old just yesterday asked me if the “world was coming to an end” which was a wake up call for myself on how much news to have on at home.

    If a parent is extraordinarily busy during this period or unavailable to the children during this time for reasons such as quarantine, encouraging closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child for a longer period can go a long way. Technology can assist through shared movies, games, FaceTime, Zoom or Skype.

    Don’t forget about the grandparents! During this time many children will be cut off from their older relatives. It can mean so much to initiate contact with your extended family as well as the extended family of the other parent.

  5. What about child support?

    There are many people in our community who are facing serious financial instability at this time and it is likely that a good number of child support agreements will be affected. In our family law, child support is typically changed in two circumstances: 1. On an annual review, most often using the income information for the prior year and 2. In the event of a “material change in circumstances”. Whether a lay off will be a sufficient reason for a change in child support will depend on how long that lay off lasts and what, if any supplementary supports are available as part of the Government relief plan. However, I believe that in our current circumstances a good number of cases are likely to face a change to the child support payable.

    Child support should not be changed instantly or unilaterally. If the Family Reasonability Office is involved with your case, they will continue to enforce the support payable under the current Order or Agreement until it is formally changed. If you are in need of a change in the child support you pay, please contact me directly.

I hope that the above has provided some useful information. If you have further questions or concerns please do not hesitate to reach out.

Wishing you and your family health and happiness.