Living through the Coronavirus creates a heightened sense of stress and anxiety for us all. Decisions that used to require no thought at all are now, for many of us, very fraught: Should I go to the supermarket? How should I take my daily exercise? Do we have enough food this week? How can I support my elderly relatives? It is an extremely challenging time.
For couples who are separated, or are in the process of separating, there is an added layer of stress. At The Divorce Surgery we are trying, as much as we can, to provide much needed information to couples at this time. We have already published a blog on what steps couples can take, even now, in preparing to agree the division of their finances. This week we are focussing on child arrangements.
Our co-founder, Samantha Woodham, was on BBC News this week speaking about child arrangements during Covid 19. Although there is guidance available for separated parents, it is clear that many are unaware of it, or if they are aware, are unclear as to how exactly it applies to them.
It appears this is disproportionately affecting our front line workers, some of whom are not only battling the Coronavirus each day to protect us all, but are then going home and facing private battles to see their children.
At The Divorce Surgery our core belief is that separating couples need to be expertly and reliably informed. Once you have clear information as to what a Judge would do in your circumstances and what is expected of you, you can reach a fair agreement, in relation to your children or your finances.
There are three key sources of guidance:
The difficulty is probably caused by the fact that the guidance, taken as a whole, is permissive rather than directive. It is telling parents that children can move between homes but not that they must. And in circumstances where some separated parents have very high levels of mistrust for each other, it can be extremely difficult for them to reach any form of agreement as to whether child arrangements in these exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in should be varied or not.
Unfortunately, some parents are interpreting this guidance as being a basis for stopping their children moving between homes at all, even when both households are well, on the basis that any movement for a child is an additional ‘risk’ which should be avoided.
There are parents, very sadly, who are using the virus as an excuse to change arrangements they may not have been happy with previously, whilst others are simply frightened of the risk of their children contracting the virus, and do not trust the other parent to comply with the Government Guidance.
As Samantha set out on the BBC, there are examples of NHS and front line workers who are being particularly impacted:
Our children’s lives are being completely up-ended by this pandemic. They cannot see their friends, go to school, go on holiday or do any of their usual activities. As Samantha said in her interview, if children are used to spending time with each of their parents, the consistency of that routine is as necessary as food and exercise. Clearly if either household is self-isolating, or parents agree to vary arrangements, then that is different. But where parents cannot agree and both households are well, the presumption should be that existing child arrangements, in place before the pandemic, should continue. We must consider not only the physical health of children but also their emotional and mental health through this exceptional period of time.
It is right that every case and every family is different. It is undoubtedly better for children if their parents can agree what the arrangements for their care should be. If parents are able to do so, then provided they follow the Government’s advice with regard to isolating when displaying symptoms, children can move between their parents’ homes in accordance with whatever schedule their parents decide.
But some parents cannot agree. And for those parents, they really need to know what they should do. We are being told to live in a very prescriptive way and are being instructed, quite rightly, to fear this virus. But we must make holistic choices, taking into account not only our children’s physical health, but also their emotional and mental health.
The advice we would give to parents is as follows:
We regularly advise couples, together, as to what arrangements a Judge would consider to be in the best interests of their children. If you are stuck, or at an impasse, feel free to reach out to us and we can offer video link meetings with an impartial, expert barrister to get you back on track.