***UPDATED 15 JANUARY***
Many of us live in families where the custody of a child or children is shared between separated parents.
Many of us have been grappling with the regular rule changes 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 arrangements 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 first 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 rules, and Boris Johnson has expressly clarified during subsequent lockdowns that children fall within the exception to staying at home where possible.
So the guidance remains as follows: ‘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.
Under the current national lockdown the rules on meeting others are:
- You cannot leave your home to meet socially with anyone you do not live with or are not in a support bubble with (if you are legally permitted to form one).
- You may exercise on your own, with one other person, or with your household or support bubble. This should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area.
- You cannot meet other people you do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, unless for a permitted reason.
- Stay 2 metres apart from anyone not in your household.
Exceptions are for support bubbles formed of one household (of any size) and a single adult household and childcare bubbles formed of two households (of any size) to provide informal childcare to any child under age 14 (including overnight stays).
In light of these measures, 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
The Government have continued with their 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. This applies regardless of the regional tier system where you live.
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. 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 or childcare bubble measures (if possible).
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 self-isolation means that you or your co-parent is spending less 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.
We’re here to help
If you want a lawyer to take a closer look at your situation, for a fixed fee of £150 + VAT, we can talk with you for up to 90 minutes and set out some options.