Schools across the UK are now closed, to slow the spread of coronavirus. While the kids may be excited by the prospect of a break from school, it can be a minefield for parents, who often need to juggle working from home with caring for their children.
The situation is even more complicated if you are a divorced parent, sharing custody with your former partner. In light of social distancing, and potential self-isolation if you start showing symptoms, how do you decide where your child should stay? Can the other parent still see them, or do you need to adjust your arrangements?
Simon Mawdsley, Family Lawyer Senior Associate at legal firm Aaron & Partners, explains how the coronavirus outbreak could affect your custody arrangements.
How does social distancing work if parents share custody of a child?
In a shared care arrangement, social distancing can work. As long as the child and the parent the child is with are not self-isolating, and therefore the household is not self-isolating, contact can continue. For example, a very straightforward measure could be if you are collecting a child, you don’t go into the house - you wait outside, the child comes and gets in the car or meets you at the bottom of the path. So there are measures that can be put in place that prevent you coming into direct contact with the other parent or other members of the household. These rules remain in place in light of the new lockdown announced by Boris Johnson in an address to the nation on Monday.
Provided you don’t have the symptoms, or you’re not being asked to self-isolate, you can continue to spend time with your children. Don’t take your children to activity centres or cinemas or anywhere where there are lots of people, but you can still have contact in the home, or even outdoors as long as you’re in open spaces and you’re not in a park full of other children. It must also be part of your once a day exercise outdoors, as announced by the government in new lockdown measures.
Should cautious parents consider virtual means of communication, like Skype?
As long as it’s safe to do so, a child should be encouraged to spend time directly with both parents. But if, for whatever reason, direct contact can’t continue or if you’re a key worker, for example, then there are of course indirect measures that can take place and, for a temporary period of time, Skype and FaceTime can be used.
But in the first instance, everyone should be encouraged to continue with direct contact until such time as either self-isolation comes into place or if the government takes the steps to put a lockdown in place.
If there is a mandatory lockdown, and the child is usually shared equally between both parents, who looks after the child?
That is a very difficult question to answer. Fundamentally, it will have to come down hopefully to an agreement between the parents. It may be that it is more beneficial for the children to stay with one parent for a period of time over the other - for example, if one of the parents is a key worker, they may have a preference. Or if one of the parents is a teacher and they find themselves at home, then maybe they think the children should stay with them. As is always the case with children, we encourage agreement and flexibility. The courts don’t want to be getting involved in the day-to-day arrangements.
If one parent has to go into self-isolation because they start showing symptoms, what does that mean for the custody arrangement?
It would affect custody because the government guidance at the moment is if one parent goes into self-isolation, the whole household has to. Once you’re in a period of self-isolation, that would be an automatic bar to contact continuing. The children would have to stay within the self-isolated household. The other parent would have to contact them via video chat or social media.
How does the advice differ for parents of teenagers, as opposed to small children?
I think teenagers have a different relationship with their parents, that perhaps isn’t in the strict parameters of ‘you must spend this weekend with your dad, or that weekend with your mum’. There is more flexibility and, certainly, as children get older, I would say towards high school age and beyond, they tend to come to settled relationships with either parent that I think will naturally continue even in these times.
Teenagers are more set up for social media because it’s part of their day-to-day life now. There is a vast array of social media, and teenagers communicate with their parents very differently than younger children.
The difficulty will be for those younger children that rely on their parents to either collect them or to enable contact to take place. It’s that which is being encouraged to continue as long as it is safe to do so.