Co-Parenting in Missouri During the COVID-19 Crisis
Note: Information about the current coronavirus pandemic is evolving rapidly. Please refer to your attorney or other legal practitioners in your area to answer your specific questions related to family law and the COVID-19 crisis.
The current COVID-19 crisis is challenging people worldwide. With families that are trying to co-parent in different households, this becomes even more difficult. In uncharted waters, with information changing hourly, a family that struggles to make joint decisions in good times is really stressed. Below are some suggestions to help families navigate these times.
- Realize that all this is new and it will be difficult to find definitive answers for many custody questions during a pandemic.
- Realize that keeping healthy is the number one goal. If a parenting plan needs to be deviated for the greater good of keeping your children and everyone else in your community safe, then do it.
- Spring Break should be over for most families. If it has not yet happened, most likely your plans will have changed. We cannot go to public places without risking violating the law or at the very least without risking infection. Staying home or going to outdoor spaces which allow for safe social distancing is what needs to happen. Inform the other parent what you intend to do for Spring Break.
- Some parents live apart and the children have travelled to the other parent’s home for Spring Break. Is it safe for the child to travel back to the home state? Maybe different arrangements should be made such as parents driving halfway to get the child instead of an airplane. Be open to suggestions and try to be flexible.
- Even if this is difficult, reach out to the other parent. Tell them what steps you are taking to keep the children physically healthy. Invite input – ask the other parent if they are doing anything else and if they would like you to add anything to your regimen.
- Even if this is difficult, try to get a narrative about the virus to keep your children emotionally safe. Try to reach an agreement on what is age-appropriate to discuss with your children about coronavirus, why things are so different now, and how both parents are trying to keep them healthy.
- This may be one of the most difficult things to do but be honest with the other parent if you or anyone in your family has been exposed to coronavirus. Parents frequently do not trust the other parent so giving up this information seems scary. Get an agreement with your child’s parent ahead of time that if the above happens, you will immediately notify the other parent and plan for the children to be with them. Even if the other parent won’t agree, you do the right thing.
- Coordinate with the other parent about how you are going to school the children during this time. Many schools are closed for the semester. Never, ever, did you anticipate this! This is a nightmare! Books, supplies and especially computers will need to go back and forth between the homes. Figure out with the other parent how to have a consistent schedule of how and when the children will do their work. If the other parent will not plan with you, still inform that parent of your plan.
- What are you going to do with your own work? If you must work outside your home during this time, consider alternative custody arrangements. Is there a stepparent at home to not only watch the children but participate in their schoolwork? Do you have a relative who can help? If these are not options, talk with the other parent. Are they able to have the kids during your work time? If they are, come to an agreement on how you will transport the kids to and from the other parent’s home. Come up with a plan on how to inform the other parent what work has been done at your home and what needs to be done at the other parent’s home. Be sure to show appreciation when that parent steps up to help.
- Likely, there is going to be some alteration to your current parenting plan. Parents should not fear that this will set a precedent that will remain in effect after the pandemic clears and your custody will be lessened. From this Guardian Ad Litem’s perspective, that will not be a reason to increase or decrease a parent’s time. Any occasion in which a parent puts the child first and makes child-centered decisions goes well with the GAL and the court.
Most parents will be able to communicate with their lawyers during the upcoming weeks via email or telephone. You can always ask them for advice on how to handle issues that arise. Seek the input of the GAL during this time. How long courts will be closed remains to be seen. Currently in Missouri, most cases are being continued unless they are of emergency in nature. The individual judges are scheduling these cases no sooner than the end of March 2020, and even those dates may be subject to further continuances. Some judges will be handling matters such as pretrial conferences via conference calls with the attorneys. Always check with your lawyer to see if you need to appear in court.
Throughout all of this, keep a level head for your sake and that of your children. Take this time to be civil and cordial with your child’s parent because the health and safety of all is involved.
Sarah Pleban graduated from St. Louis University School of Law. She was Chief Trial Attorney for the St. Louis County Public Defender Office. Since going into private practice Ms. Pleban has devoted most of her practice to guardian ad item work in custody cases and in juvenile court. She has been a speaker for the Missouri Bar, Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, St. Louis County Bar Association, and the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts.