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Child Custody Problems Caused by COVID-19? What You Need to Know

With coronavirus cases continuing to rise with no clear end in sight, many parents are struggling with how to co-parent during a global pandemic. If your child custody arrangement has been disrupted due to COVID-19, read on for important information concerning your case and information on when you may want to consider a child custody order modification.

Potential Problems Due to the Societal Interruptions Caused by COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to several societal interruptions and disruptions to child custody arrangements, including:

  • Illness: With total cases in the United States approaching 3 million or 50,000 new cases a day as of the date of publication, many families have been affected and infected. One or both parents may be ill. The child may be ill. There may be others in the household who have contracted this serious illness. A parent who works in the medical field or is otherwise at high risk may be a concern for the other parent.
  • Unemployment: In June 2020, national unemployment rates were at about 1% but Oregon’s state unemployment rate was substantially higher at 14.2%. Less money in households may create even greater conflict between divided homes, as well as make it difficult to exercise visitation.
  • Employment: While some people are worried about unemployment, others are grappling with how to work in a changed atmosphere. Many parents are struggling and having to work extra hours away from home while others were working from home and attempting to home-school their children at the same time. New work obligations and challenges may make it difficult to maintain the same child custody arrangement.
  • Stay-at-home order: Oregon residents who were instructed to stay at home in order to save lives may not have known how their child custody case was affected by this order.
  • Travel: Travel bans throughout various states and countries may have curtailed plans for summer breaks and other family travel.

Courts also closed to protect staff amid the pandemic, so families who were struggling to make sense of an unprecedented situation may not have been able to receive the guidance they needed during these challenging times.

Ongoing Adherence to Child Custody Orders and Parenting Plans

Even amid the stay-at-home order, existing child custody orders remain in effect until they are modified. Travel for court-ordered visitation is still permitted and is considered “essential” travel. Parents are encouraged to adhere to their existing parenting plan.

Guidance by Statewide Family Law Panel

For families who need more information about how COVID-19 has affected child custody arrangements and what they can do, there is guidance from a statewide family law panel. The panel’s recommendations for parents who share custody or have parenting plans in place include:

  • Provide consistency and stability to your children by trying to adhere to the parenting plan as closely as possible
  • Focus on your child’s best interests
  • Parenting time continues as though school is still in effect during the school year
  • Do not deny parenting time because of COVID-19
  • Follow the guidance of local, state, and federal health authorities
  • Work together to determine an alternative plan if parenting time is usually supervised by the supervisor is unavailable due to COVID-19
  • Avoid unnecessary travel
  • Limit contact during exchanges
  • Communicate about precautions you are taking to help minimize the spread of the virus
  • Be flexible regarding makeup time caused by the COVID-19 crisis

While these are recommendations and not orders by the court, the panel does advise local courts on parenting arrangements, so following these guidelines may help you if a legal case is later filed.

Child Custody Modifications

If you were already in the midst of requesting a child custody modification before the pandemic occurred or if you believe that it is now in your child’s best interests to have the child custody order changed, you can file a petition to modify the existing order.

To receive a modification, you and the other parent must either agree, or you must be able to show that there was a substantial change of circumstances since the last custody order was put in place. You cannot deny parenting time to the other parent simply because the other parent is not willing to discuss precautionary measures that they are taking to prevent the spread of the virus. However, you may be able to file for a modification of the custody order that may limit parenting time or require the parent to follow certain preventative measures.

Any modification must be in the child’s best interests. The court will consider several factors when determining if a change is in the child’s best interests, including:

  • The child’s relationship with each parent and other family members
  • The marital status, past conduct, social environment, lifestyle and income of each parent if these factors cause emotional or physical harm to the child
  • Each parent’s interests regarding the child
  • The desirability of continuing an existing relationship between the parent and child
  • Which parent has historically served as the primary caregiver of the child and that parent’s fitness
  • The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage a continuing relationship between the other parent and the child
  • The child’s wishes, especially when the child is of an age and maturity to explain his or her preferences

Legal Assistance in Dealing with Child Custody Disputes During COVID-19

This is a scary and challenging time for many families. If you are concerned about COVID’s impact on your child and your family, you can consult with a knowledgeable Oregon family law attorney who can advise you of your legal rights and options. He or she can explain whether seeking child custody modification is the best option, or if your needs and your child’s needs would be better served with an alternative process such as mediation or negotiation.