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One of the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it is the uncertainty about whether shared care arrangements should continue and in what circumstances they should stop or change. This is particularly since the country has been in the Alert Level 4 lockdown.
Ultimately parents need to decide what is in the best interests of the children, in the unique circumstances that we are in. In any decisions relating to children and parenting that should always be the focus. That has not changed with COVID-19.
Families will also have to consider what the aim of the lockdown has been, which is to prevent the community transmission of COVID-19. The guidance that has been given on shared care arrangements with that in mind is that, if the two families are in the same community, then there may be no reason why those arrangements cannot continue. If the families are in different towns and/or areas, then the children should stay at one home for the duration of the Level 4 lockdown.
There will also be other circumstances in which shared care arrangements should stop, at least in the short term. Examples are if the children are sick, or someone living in either home is sick, or at risk of having COVID-19. There could also be an ‘essential worker’ at one of the homes, and because they are likely to be at an increased level of exposure you may decide to keep the children away from that home during the lockdown. This would be particularly important if, for example, one of the children has an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk.
Another consideration for many families is the financial impact of the Level 4 lockdown. Family incomes in either/both households may be strained, and the financial ability for one parent to continue the usual shared care arrangements may be an issue. Again with the best interests of the children in mind, this may be a time to consider providing financial/additional financial support to the other parent to help them through this tough time. Even in the form of groceries or cooked meals. Alternatively, it may be that you propose increasing your care of the children to minimise the financial burden on the other parent.
If none of those circumstances exist and you’re in the same general area, there’s no reason you cannot continue the usual arrangements, as long as you’re using the same precautions to minimise risks as you should be already.
Some families will have the added complications of supervised contact arrangements to consider. In some circumstances it will not be possible to continue those arrangements during the lockdown period. This is particularly the case if supervision is Court-ordered and there is no mechanism in the Court order to enable any changes. In other cases it may be a matter of trying to negotiate alternative arrangements. The difficulty will be if you are unable to reach an agreement and the parent who is under supervision is prevented from seeing the children during the lockdown as a result.
In any circumstances where the decision is made to keep the children at one home, it is important to think of alternative ways that the children can stay connected to the other parent, and be generous in allowing that alternative contact. An example is phone and/or video contact. The more time the children would have otherwise been spending with the other parent, the more generous you should be with allowing that alternative contact.
If there is no agreement and decisions being made are not considered to be in the best interests of the children, then we can advise you on your options for addressing that during the lockdown period. The Family Court is still available for urgent applications (such as where there are issues of safety involved), and we can advise you on whether your situation meets the necessary legal test for that. Online Family Dispute Resolution (“FDR”) services are also still available if you want to try negotiating an agreement over video conference with the assistance of a qualified mediator. We can assist you with negotiating changes to contact arrangements before considering FDR.