The impact of Corona Virus on parenting arrangements – By Briony Robertson
The ever changing directives of the Government and health authorities in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic are causing great confusion to parents and care-givers, particularly those who share the care of children pursuant to Parenting Orders or Parenting Plans. For example, on 30 March 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services declared a “stay at home period” beginning at midnight on 30 March 2020 and ending on 13 April 2020. During the “stay at home period”, Victorian’s must not leave their home other than for one of the reasons specified in the DHHS “Stay at Home Directions”.
So what does this mean for children who, pursuant to Court Orders, Parenting Plans or existing parenting arrangements, are to travel between their parents’ households during this time?
In a media release by the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, it was made abundantly clear that parents are expected to comply with Court Orders in relation to parenting arrangements, including facilitating time being spent by children with each parent, to the extent that those arrangements can continue to be implemented.
The Court’s position in this regard is supported by the DHHS directive, which identifies that children who are the subject of shared parenting arrangements are taken to have two “ordinary places of residence” (that is, one with each parent). Furthermore, one of the limited reasons for which a person is permitted to leave their home during the “stay at home” period is to meet obligations in relation to shared parenting arrangements, whether pursuant to a Court Order or otherwise.
So what happens when it is no longer practical for parties to comply with parenting arrangements – for example, changeover locations are no longer operating – or if a child (or parent) is required, by law, to self-isolate?
In the Chief Justice’s media release, the Court urges parents to find sensible and reasonable alternatives to any practical difficulties that may arise as a result of the Corona Virus. In circumstances where a child or a parent is required to self-isolate, then it is expected that electronic communication will take place during the period of isolation and make-up time will be provided once that person is no longer required to isolate, irrespective of whether or not Court Orders, Parenting Plans or existing parenting arrangements require the provision of make-up time.
Furthermore, there is an expectation that electronic communication should not be confined to the times when a child would normally have face-to-face contact with a parent and parents are encouraged to facilitate frequent and flexible telephone/video calls during any periods of isolation.
In the event that existing arrangements cannot be complied with, then parents are urged to engage in a transparent exchange of information with the other, including the timely provision of any directives issued by the children’s treating health professionals. Should a parent be accused of utilising the current pandemic to limit or obstruct a child’s time with the other parent, then a Court is unlikely to consider such behaviour as reasonable if that parent has not provided the other with the advice in which their decision is based in a timely manner.
It is likely that there will be numerous Contravention Applications stemming from parenting arrangements that have been varied as a result of COVID-19. To help parents avoid finding themselves the subject of such applications, we strongly recommend:
- Continuing to follow Orders, Parenting Plans and pre-existing parenting arrangements wherever possible;
- In the event that these arrangements cannot be followed due to risks to the health and safety of a parent, the children or members of their respective households, parents should work together to find suitable and reasonable alternatives;
- Any variations to pre-existing arrangements should be recorded in an updated Parenting Plan wherever possible; and
- The health and safety of the children should always be parents’ primary consideration.
Parents are encouraged to contact our office to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts their particular arrangements and any variations that may be required to Parenting Orders, Parenting Plans and the like so as to avoid the risk of further litigation.