Law Empowerment Principles in the Time of Coronavirus
Principle Two – Your Children Are Counting on You, You Can Count on the Law
By Sheyna Burt, Esq.
Nothing breeds anxiety quite like the feeling of helplessness. Conversely, nothing relieves anxiety quite like finding, claiming, and using your power. This applies to life and to law.
In this series of articles, we will explore various “Law Empowerment Principles in the Time of Coronavirus,” things you can do during this period of upheaval to take control of what is within your control. Note that these articles are not intended to be legal advice and should not be received as such. Consult an attorney to discuss your specific situation and legal needs.
In this piece, we will take on Principle Two – Your Children Are Counting on You, You Can Count on the Law.
For the most part, your children will eat what you feed them: grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken nuggets, PB&J, the occasional vegetable … tranquility, trust, anxiety, stress. You have the power to choose your kids’ diet and, at the risk of straining the metaphor, sometimes that diet is informed by a menu in the form of a custody, visitation, and support order. If you prefer to serve up peace at your table during our state-mandated isolation, it is critical that you approach multi-household co-parenting with intentionality.
By the time of this writing, most jurisdictions have some version of a stay-at-home order. In Virginia, for example, Governor Ralph Northam issued Executive Order Number 55 which provides, in relevant part: “All individuals in Virginia shall remain at their place of residence …. Individuals may leave their residences for the purpose of … [t]raveling required by court order or to facilitate child custody, visitation, or child care.” With this language in mind and barring extenuating circumstances, your Coronavirus Custody Plan should be to follow the orders you already have in place.
Just what will happen in the event of allegedly COVID-19 related court order violations is not clear. Most courts are closed to everything except emergencies and certain criminal matters. Routine custody, visitation, and support disputes will not qualify as emergencies. This, however, does not give you carte blanche to ignore orders. The courts will reopen eventually and, directly or indirectly, you will be held to account for choices that do not serve the best interests of your children.
And what if there is no order? The unavailability of the courts can be a blessing in disguise. You might find yourself with enough downtime to work out the details of a co-parenting plan, perhaps with the assistance of a (remote) mediator. With or without the help of a professional, the important thing is that you outline and stick to a written plan.
Whether the plan is court-ordered or home-cooked, during this time of fear and disruption your children will benefit even more than usual from sticking to it … except when they won’t. How should you handle situations when you sincerely believe that adhering to the written plan will harm the children it is meant to protect?
During the urgencies of this pandemic period, if you come to believe that a deviation from the written order is necessary, commit to the following:
I will thoughtfully consider what is in the best interests of the children. This is not about who will win parent of the year. Instead, you must consider as objectively as possible how to protect your children’s health and welfare. There are concrete questions you can ask yourself: Is my child immunocompromised or suffering from a condition that might put him or her at risk? Is either parent working in an occupation that exposes them to extraordinary risk (e.g., first responders, healthcare providers, delivery people, and grocery or pharmacy employees)? Are there special educational or daycare needs or opportunities? If the children are transferred from one parent to another, are there special risks attendant to the transportation (e.g., use of public transportation)? Your answers to these and similarly motivated questions will help you to analyze what is in the best interests of your children.
I will communicate. Past (and present) disputes notwithstanding, desperate times call for desperate measures: Parents must talk to each other about their children. In-person or telephone calls often are the most expedient methods, though they should be memorialized with a confirmation text or email to confirm any decisions made. Be clear about your hopes and concerns; be open to hearing those of the other parent. Discuss your ideas about the best interests of the children, really listen to the other parent’s ideas, and compromise.
I will honor the spirit of the order, if I cannot honor the letter of it. If health issues make actual visits dangerous, substitute video visits. If spring break or summer vacation plans have been mooted by Coronavirus, think creatively about how you will make the “staycation” time special for the children with unique decorations, games, and activities. Consider filing (by mail) a petition and agreed order that temporarily amends the existing order. While such an order may not be binding on the court, it can blunt the risk being held in contempt for violating the order on file.
I will be financially responsible. Child support should be a priority. Do everything possible to meet that obligation, and if layoffs or furloughs create a problem, be transparent with the parent entitled to payment. Explore every pool of funding you can find to make sure your children’s welfare is protected. Take advantage of federal, state, local, and private opportunities to bolster your income. Meanwhile, if you are the recipient of support, do what you can to stretch your dollars, particularly if the other parent is the victim of a financial problem not of his or her making. Both parties should keep good records of the financial transactions between them and, when the economic emergency has passed, both should work together to address any arrears.
Having a plan for adhering to your custody, visitation, and support orders is not a matter of form over substance. These legal vehicles can be a source of constancy and confidence for you, allowing you to be those things for your children. Your babies are what they eat; feed them harmony.
Check Back for Principle Three – Leases: Sword and Shield
Sheyna Burt, Esq., Attorney and Owner of The Law Office of Sheyna Nicole Burt, PLC, www.burtlaw.co, email@example.com, 571-659-2871