How Does COVID-19 & “Shelter In Place” Affect My Custody Order?

We’re several weeks into the Governor’s Shelter in Place Order.  Our new normal is working from our kitchen tables, homeschooling our kiddos, and doing our best to stay safe and sane at home.  Schools are now closed for the remainder of this school year, and we’re trying to figure out how to explain this to our youngsters who didn’t get to say goodbye to their teachers.  To say this is a trying time is an understatement.

While our current stay at home order is set to expire April 30, 2020, many believe this order will be extended into May.  So, it’s no surprise that for the last month, we’ve been getting a LOT of questions from current and past clients about how COVID-19 will affect their parenting plans.  These questions only increased once news of the Miami ER Doctor who lost temporary custody of her child started circulating last week. The question trends we’re seeing are:

  1.  Does Shelter in Place mean I can’t send my children to their other parent?
  2. Should my ex and I be talking about temporarily modifying our schedule because of COVID-19?
  3. My ex works outside the home as an essential employee, and I’m not comfortable sending my child.  What do I do?
  4. My ex is refusing to send my child for transportation exchanges.  What are my options?
  5. If someone shows signs of illness, what’s the best course of action?

With the Courts being closed for just about everything outside of emergencies, answering these questions can be difficult, as the events facing us are unprecedented.  However, this article will attempt to explain answers to some of the most common questions.

Does Shelter in Place mean I can’t send my children?

The simple answer is no.  Under Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Executive Order No. 8, transporting children for custody exchanges is considered essential travel (#14(e)).  Essential business remain open, and residents are still allowed to perform essential functions, provided they are adhering to social distancing recommendations.  Thus, parents should be following the terms of their court-ordered parenting time.

Should my ex and I be talking about temporarily modifying our schedule due to COVID-19?

The Court is always encouraging of parents making their own decisions about parenting and modifying their parenting schedules by agreement, as Court orders are intended to be used as “back up plans” in the event the parents cannot see eye to eye.  So, a lot of my discussions with clients lately have centered around how to facilitate changes to their schedule on a temporary basis. 

Whether one parent is off work, working outside the home, or trying to work full time remotely, caring for children right now at home is challenging for all families, but particularly separated families.  For separated parents, if they’re working outside the home, they are either faced with the option of letting the children stay with the other parent while they report to work, or they have to ask family members to care for the children.  The concern with the latter is they could be exposing the children and/or that outside family member to the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.  So, in the most ideal situations, parents are adjusting their parenting schedules so that the parent can still see the children when they’re not at work (i.e. one parent handles the weekdays, and one parent is taking the weekends/evenings).  Alternatively, some families have been making arrangements for “makeup parenting time” for the parent who is working outside the home, and the children are staying primarily with the parent who is at home.

The general point many parents should be considering right now is that decisions about parenting time should always be made with the children’s best interests in mind.  So, being flexible and focusing on how to keep the children and their families safe should be paramount to counting how many hours or overnights each of the parents have right now.

My Ex works outside the home as an essential employee, and I’m not comfortable sending my child.  What do I do?

The short answer is that parents are expected to follow Court orders, unless the parents agree to a different schedule.

As covered above, the Courts want to see people working together to parent their children during these unprecedented times, as the Court is not able to intervene in most cases right now.  But, the closure of the Courts does not mean that parents now can just start “playing Judge” and denying parenting time.

If you have concerns about sending your child because your ex works as an essential employee, or perhaps your ex simply isn’t adhering to the shelter in place recommendations for social distancing, you should always contact your attorney for individualized advice.  If your case involves emergency circumstances, the Court may be able to provide relief.

My Ex is refusing to send my child for transportation exchanges.  What are my options?

As explained above, because the Governor’s order defines custody exchanges as essential travel, your court order does have to be followed by both parents.   If your ex is not cooperative with discussions on the schedule, or you two simply cannot see eye to eye on when parenting time will occur, you can request police intervention to peacefully enforce your Court order. 

However, calling the police should be more of a “last resort” solution, as enforcement of Orders is largely a civil matter.  Additionally, Police presence can be traumatic for children.  In many instances, contacting your attorney first to see if the situation can be resolved without involving the Police or the Courts is most ideal.  Your attorney can then give you individualized advice based on your case and your set of circumstances.

If someone shows signs of illness, what’s the best course of action?

While above discuss questions regarding how to ensure parenting time still occurs, a common and important question is what happens when you, your ex, or you child shows signs of illness.

If you do believe you’re at risk for contracting COVID-19 because of your employment, or you’re feeling ill, it would be wise to contact the other parent to forego parenting time on a temporary basis.  While we understand that, as parents, it may be difficult not to see your children and/or to leave the children with the other parent for a prolonged period of time, it may be the best decision for your family.   It may also be wise to contact your attorney to discuss how to come up with an agreement for makeup time once you’re no longer ill and/or once you feel you’re no longer at increased risk.

If your ex admits he/she is sick, you should stay in constant communication with them about symptoms and also begin monitoring your own health, as well as your child’s.  The CDC recommends that people showing signs of illness contact their healthcare provider and potentially quarantine.  It may become necessary for parenting time to be modified during the time your ex or your child is ill, and thus contacting your attorney about possible next steps is also important.  Again, being flexible with your ex and communicating about options for rescheduling or making up parenting time could be an appropriate option.  Everyone’s health should be the primary concern, as the Court’s perspective is that a child’s best interest is paramount.

If you have specific questions about how COVID-19 may impact your custody agreement, contact us today.  These are unprecedented times, and it’s natural for parents to have concerns and questions about what to do for their families.  We understand these challenges and are here to help.

** Note: This posting is for educational purposes only to give you general information and an understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By reading this article, you understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and Strieker Law Firm, LLC.

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