The information in this article is correct at the time of publication. Stay up to date with guidance here.
Many of us now live in families where the custody of a child or children is shared between separated parents. In normal life, this division of responsibility has an agreed structure but the coronavirus pandemic is changing everything, with work situations, social distancing and self-isolation making previous arrangements unpredictable.
When UK lockdown rules were announced, the government said that children should not move between two different households, but it rapidly backtracked from this. The guidance as it stands is: ‘Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.’
Here’s a guide on how to navigate co-parenting in the coming weeks, from the practicalities of how to move children around to keeping everyone emotionally healthy…
The practical side
Avoid public transport where possible
When it comes to transporting a child between homes, the same advice applies as it does in everyday life – avoid non-essential use of public transport when possible. So if you can find an alternative, then you should – walking, cycling or a car if you have one. If you have to use public transport, sit away from others and wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
It is also strongly advised that people over 70, anyone with an underlying health condition and pregnant women use less public transport, so take that into account when choosing who can accompany a child if they have to travel on public transport. People with serious underlying health conditions have the additional guidance of not leaving the house at all and will receive further guidance by March 29.
Stick to self-isolation guidelines
Again, government guidance needs to be followed, even if it’s your co-parent’s turn to have your child. If anyone in your house develops symptoms, including children, that person must remain indoors for seven days. The rest of the household should remain indoors for 14 days. If anyone develops symptoms during that 14 days, they must remain at home for seven days from when symptoms start.
The government has not clarified this, but if your co-parent has symptoms of coronavirus, you should not send your child to their house. Equally, if a vulnerable person lives in a household, their welfare should be taken into consideration when deciding if a child should visit.
The emotional side
Preserving your child’s mental wellbeing is a top priority. Here are some tips from Relate family counsellor, Peter Saddington…
• Within the government guidelines, try to keep as much of a child’s normal custody routine as possible. Children gain different things from each parent and not seeing one of them can be very hard. If they can’t see your co-parent at the usual time, facilitate as much contact as you can via phone calls, video chats and emails. Short but regular bursts are often what children cope with best. And remember that the younger generation are generally more used to communicating virtually, so they will adapt faster than you may think.
• Keep your child in the picture at all times. For children under 11, keep explanations about changes of arrangement fairly black and white – what’s going to happen and why. For older children, you can give more detail on the ins and outs.
• Allow them to talk about any worries they have and make it clear that they can talk about your co-parent. It’s important that children feel able to open up without fear of you getting angry or upset.
• If you’re struggling with feelings of hurt or anger around your co-parent, try to think about it from your children’s perspective – what would they want from you right now? Or think about them in 15 years time, looking back on this pandemic. How would you want them to remember how they felt?
• At a time when things can change very quickly, try not to make any firm promises about the future, even a few days ahead. Tell your child, for example, that this weekend is dad’s weekend, but we won’t know for sure until Friday whether you can see him in person or over FaceTime.
• Try not to take it personally if you temporarily end up with a greater share of childcare – much of this is being directed by the government rather than your co-parent.
• All separated families have experienced changed arrangements during holiday, so remember that you’ve managed before. This is temporary and you will come out the other side.
• Look after yourself by seeking support when you need it. You’re likely to be holding on to a lot at the moment, and looking after your own emotional health is important so that you can model healthy responses to your child.
The nitty gritty
Lorraine Harvey, family lawyer at Slater and Gordon, gives her advice on custody sharing and how to keep the peace in this unprecedented situation…
Should I keep a record of how much time has been spent in each household or avoid keeping a tally?
"Every family situation is different but I would suggest you avoid keeping a tally if you can. It may be that one parent could ask for additional time with their child later on, when the restrictions have been lifted and all this settles down. Just be fair and accept that when all this is over, your child may want to spend extra time with their other parent."
What should I do if my co-parent can't take my child at their agreed time because of work/illness?
"Try to be flexible. These are unprecedented times and there has to be a degree of give and take.
"For some people, lack of contact will be unavoidable. For example, many separated parents have second families and if someone in that household is exhibiting coronavirus symptoms or is classed as vulnerable and therefore high risk, there is no question that face-to-face contact should be stopped temporarily for the safety of all involved.
"That will obviously be upsetting and disruptive, but hopefully this will only be necessary for the short term and people will make greater use of technology as a means of keeping in touch."
What should I do if my co-parent withholds agreed access, saying that it's down to self-isolation?
"There needs to be an element of trust in times like these. I’d suggest that most of the time you are going to just have to take their word for it. Most of us have access to a smartphone so do your best to stay in touch that way.
"If communication breaks down completely, you can still make an application to the court, but you should be aware that only the most urgent cases are being dealt with over the phone at the present time."
Any other advice?
"Children’s wellbeing should be paramount, as always. Do what you can to keep them happy. We know routine is important for children and with so many other changes – the closure of schools, not being able to see their friends or certain family members – we would urge parents to keep things as normal as possible."
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