Shelter-in-Place Provisions Don’t Change Court-Ordered Child Custody Rules

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How Coronavirus Impacts Child Custody

Has Child Custody Changed Since The Shelter-in-Place Orders?

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, many people have questions and concerns regarding self-quarantining, court-ordered possession, and access. Does the shelter-in-place order that’s in effect in Tarrant County mean that non-custodial parents can’t see their children? Is it considered a violation of social distancing initiatives to allow your children to leave home during a child custody exchange? 

Though the rule book on dealing with this virus is being written on the fly, as it stands today, these quarantining measures should not hinder court-ordered possession and access times. Many parenting plans include a visitation on Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and that should still continue. Shelter-in-place orders will not affect visitation during the summer vacation. While current measures prohibit non-essential travel, you can travel with children for the purposes of custody exchange.

What this means is that if you and the other parent do not have an agreement to modify the possession and access of one parent, the withholding parent could be in violation of the court order and potentially held in contempt. Punishment of contempt could include monetary fines, make-up time for the victimized parent, or even jail time for the withholding parent.

Can Children Fall Sick With COVID-19?

Generally, medical experts believe that most children have fewer health risks than older adults who contract COVID-19. However, some children can still develop serious complications. This could happen if they have a pre-existing medical condition that puts them at high risk of COVID-19 complications. You may want to modify your child custody and visitation arrangement if you or your co-parent believe that one of you has had COVID-19 exposure or has a high risk of exposure.

What if Your Child’s Other Parent is Withholding Visits?

The courts can modify custody orders in certain cases. For example, one parent suspects the other of failing to abide by the shelter-in-place rules by going out, having friends over, or some other behavior that would put the children at risk. Parents should discuss their expectations with each other. Communication is important due to the ever-changing rules in place to address the spread of this pandemic. 

Proposing Temporary Changes To Child Custody And Visitation Orders

You may believe that having your child go over to the home of your co-parent may not be safe for your child. This could depend on the circumstances that put your co-parent at high risk of contracting the virus. For example, the other parent might not be practicing adequate social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic when your child is immunocompromised.

You may also believe that having your child go back and forth between homes is simply not in their best interests. It may also not be in the interests of the health of other family members. Sometimes this can be because one of you is working in an industry with a high risk of COVID-19 exposure such as in a hospital or as a first responder. This can put your child in danger if he or she lives in your home. Other times you may be living in an apartment building or in close proximity to other positive coronavirus cases.

Divorced or separated parents can work out new arrangements and propose temporary changes to their custody agreement as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. These changes may include:

  • Temporary postponement of in-person visits to a later time when the crisis is over
  • Temporary suspension of shared physical custody
  • Virtual visitation through video calls or phone calls
  • Supervised visitation
  • Maintaining contact via text messages, emails or letters

Factors That May Allow Parents To Apply For Changes To Orders

Divorced parents may have a case to apply to the court for a temporary modification to a custody order. However, you will typically need to show imminent danger or evidence of an emergency situation to get a hearing date quickly. Courts are backed up with divorce and other family law cases at this time. This can be due to the following factors:

  • Either parent has been exposed to COVID-19 or is showing symptoms
  • The child is immunocompromised and has a high risk of COVID-19 complications
  • Either parent works in an industry with high risk of exposure to COVID-19. They may work as frontline staff in the healthcare industry or as a first responder

However, if both parents cannot agree to modify visitation schedules or custody orders, you may need to seek legal advice from a family law attorney. You may still consult a family law attorney online or via a phone call. The courts still make Zoom hearings available among other virtual options to keep cases moving including divorce and family law cases.

Many states have also made information available with legal guidance on COVID-19 rules for child custody.

What Can You Do If Your Child Is In Immediate Danger?

You might have evidence to believe that the other parent is violating social distancing guidelines or stay-at-home orders. This could be from something your child told you or something you saw on social media. However, both parents might not agree to temporarily change the parenting agreement.

Cannot resolve the issues yourself and your ex does not want to negotiate changes? There is legal action that you can take to protect the health of your children. You can seek the help of your attorney to help persuade your ex to agree to modify the parenting agreement. However, if that doesn’t work, your attorney can apply to the judge for an emergency custody order. You must have evidence to show that the current parenting plan is not in your child’s best interests.

Can You Withhold Visits From The Other Parent?

You are at risk of being held in contempt of court if you do not allow your ex to have visitation in line with the schedule defined in the parenting plan and custody order. Seek legal advice from your attorney who can advise you on potential issues and possible solutions if you want to pause child visitation.

You must document evidence to prove to the family court that your concerns are valid. Write down the date and time of the visitation according to the visitation schedule. Record the events, the time when you called the police, and the number of the police report you made. Write down the things that made you concerned that handing over your child to the other parent would not be in your child’s best interests.

Record all communication, whether verbal or by text message. Get a copy of your child’s medical records that show they are at high risk of developing COVID-19 complications.

How Does Virtual Visitation Work?

Legislators in the state of Texas have created statutes that allow courts to include virtual visitation into child custody and visitation orders. These statues were in place even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual visitation typically comprises regular Zoom calls or phone calls to keep in contact. It cannot fully replace in-person time with your child. However, you can still help them with schoolwork and be a part of celebrations while keeping your child safe.

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown established custody agreements and routines into disarray which can also have implications on child support. However, parents may be able to apply to the judge to make modifications to child custody orders to protect the child’s health.

If you think the withholding of visitation is warranted, or if the other parent is withholding your visitation due to the current pandemic, contact the family law experts at Sean Lynch. We can help you navigate divorce and custody issues during these difficult and unique times. Contact us for a no-cost case review and we’ll explore your legal options in this new environment.


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