Many of us live in families where the custody of a child or children is shared between separated parents.
Many of us will now be grappling with the new reality we find ourselves in and wondering how in practical terms, we keep contact going.
In the normal, pre-Coronavirus world, responsibilities for separated co-parents were structured by means of child arrangement order or by mutual agreement, which brings clarity and certainty around the situation.
However the pandemic has changed everything, with uncertain work situations, social distancing and self-isolation making previous arrangements unpredictable and potentially difficult to manage.
When the UK lockdown rules were announced in March, the government said that children should not move between two different households.
This was quickly clarified to confirm that this is permissible under the new guidance rules.
The current guidance remains: ‘Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.’
Clare Pilsworth, Partner in the Family law department at Tees, provides valuable help and advice on how we navigate our way through the current difficult circumstances and gives suggestions as to how contact can be kept going during the current government restrictions.
On 23 March, Boris Johnson announced three significant measures:
- People should stay at home, except for “very limited reasons”
- Non-essential shops are to close
- All gatherings of two or more in public are to stop
These have been relaxed in May and June so that:
- You can spend time outdoors, including private gardens and other outdoor spaces, in groups of up to six people from different households, following social distancing guidelines
- You should go to work if you cannot work from home and your business has not been required to close by law
- Children in early years (age 0-5), reception, year 1 and year 6 can return to childcare or school in line with the arrangements made by their school
- You can be tested as part of the test and trace programme, which will enable us to return to normal life as soon as possible, by helping to control transmission risks
From 13 June, you are able to:
- Form a ‘support bubble’ with one other household if you live alone or are a single parent with dependent children - in other words, you are in a household where there is only one adult
- Attend a place of worship for individual prayer
From 15 June:
- You will be able to visit more shops and additional outdoor attractions - drive-in cinemas and animal attractions like zoos, farms and safari parks
- Year 10 and 12 pupils in secondary schools and further education colleges will begin to receive some face to face support.
- You will have to wear a face covering on public transport
From 4 July:
- A number of businesses in the hospitality sector will be allowed to reopen (including restaurants, pubs, cinemas, theme parks, hairdressers, museums, galleries, hotels, B7Bs, campsites etc);
- You can form a support bubble with two households
From 6 July:
- Those who are shielding will be able to meet with up to 6 people outside, and have a support bubble with one household
In light of these measures, which remain far from the normal, many of our clients have been asking the question of how they can keep contact going with these restrictions. In this article, we hope to shed some light and guidance on this issue, and pose some creative suggestions on maintaining contact with your children during these unprecedented times.
If you have child arrangements in place, whether by Order or agreement with your co-parent, please see our article about the impact of recent governmental measures on your arrangements – Coronavirus: Can a child arrangements order be changed?
Government advice concerning separated parents
Speaking on the news on 24 March, Michael Gove clarified that children under 18 years old moving between the households of separated parents will fall into one of the exceptions for staying at home. Michael Gove stressed that such movement was to be limited.
It is difficult without precedent to know exactly what this means, and we understand that parents will be frustrated with the lack of certainty and clarification. We hope to shed some light on what contact might look like in these times.
Prioritise your children
The guiding principle in child arrangement is the welfare of your children, which is considered a paramount consideration. This means that, if you feel your current arrangements expose your children to unnecessary risks due to your coronavirus concerns, then try to come to an agreement with your co-parent as to an arrangement that would minimise these risks.
This will not mean preventing your children from seeing your co-parent where contact was the norm, as the Court and Government stress the importance of parental contact – albeit limited where possible. For example, prioritising your children’s welfare might mean minimising travel time between households by changing the current arrangements, if you can come to agreement with your co-parent. Alternatively, by choosing your co-parent’s home as the household to mix with as part of the new support bubble measures.
This is a difficult time for your children, and they may not be able to understand what is going on. Therefore, it is important to offer reassurance and love, and to make sure that they keep in regular contact with your co-parent and extended family through frequent communications. Remember that your children will come first, and you must prioritise their welfare.
If you are unable to come to an agreement with your co-parent on child arrangements, make sure that you do not expose your children to arguments between you both and do not ‘bad mouth’ the other co-parent. It is a difficult time for everyone, and it is important to show a united front where possible.
Even if you cannot agree on certain issues, make sure that some level of contact is maintained where contact was the norm before – even if only remote through phone and video calls.
Flexibility and agreement
It is important to stress that this is a temporary and unprecedented situation we find ourselves in, and it is also important that your children experience parental contact continuing as normally as possible. The key to this will be flexibility – try to come up with creative compromises with your co-parent on contact and visitation.
For example, if minimising travel between households or self-isolation means that you or your co-parent is spending more time overnight with your children, then try and agree that when the restrictions are over, you get additional holiday time for example.
It is somewhat reassuring to remember that we have at our disposal a vast amount of technology, which will make contact with your children from a distance much easier. There are a great number of useful video toolkits, such as Zoom, Skype, Facetime or Messenger/WhatsApp video call.
There are also a large number of apps made specifically for co-parents: The Family Core, 2houses, and Amicable, Coparently, and many more. These apps can offer a platform for communication that often does not require sharing mobile numbers, email or Facebook details if this is a concern for you.
They also help to keep track of your agreements, and for some (like Coparently) you can share access with your children so they too have a shared platform and secure messenger with both parents outside of mobile, email and Facebook.
If you cannot agree
Unfortunately, a lot of separated parents will be unable to reach agreement.
There are ways forward, and we would suggest in the first place that you consider an urgent telephone/video call meeting with a mediator or trusted neutral third party. If you would like some recommendations on local mediators or wish to try mediation with Clare Pilsworth, contact our specialist team for initial advice and contact details.
If you have an Order in place, the default position is that the Order will continue to be in effect if agreement is not possible. See our article Coronavirus: Can a child arrangements order be changed? for full details on this issue.