Visitation Exchanges with Stepchildren During the Pandemic

Posted on May 4, 2020 by Katie Carter

As a mom myself, I’m a member of a lot of online communities for moms. They’re not all divorce and custody related but, as you’re probably aware, we slip into that territory fairly often. I hear all sorts of questions related to it, and, mostly, in an online capacity, I don’t answer. These people don’t know me from Adam, and they’re not really asking ME anyway. They’re polling the general community to get a sense of the answer.

With the pandemic, I’m seeing all sorts of new questions. And one of the ones I’ve seen the most often are ones about stepchildren. Specifically, do you let them in when you don’t know what their other parent has been allowing? Or, worse, if they’re teenagers who can’t be trusted to quarantine and social distance appropriately, what do you do?

There’s no easy answer. In fact, I’m not sure there is an answer, because this is a situation that no one has ever experienced before.

Obviously, as I’m SURE you know, it is important for your stepchildren to visit. It’s important to support your child’s father’s relationship with his other children, but it’s also important for the sibling relationship they have or will develop with your children.
It’s not easy being a mom and a stepmom, though, especially if there’s a stark difference in rules, boundaries, or social distancing protocols between houses. There’s always SOME differences, of course, even between the most well meaning coparents. But it’s where these differences are really dramatic, and where the fears are at their height with all of this COVID craziness, that trouble can really compound and get messy.

Do I disallow visitation with my stepchild during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Eeeks. I hate to make any hard and fast rules, or recommend a complete cessation of any kind or arrangement that you guys have or are working on. Everything is case specific, and it depends on the people and the facts involved in your specific case. I’d recommend different things for different people.

Before you start forbidding visitation (and forcing people to draw comparisons between you and the proverbial wicked stepmother), have a conversation with your partner and, if possible, with the other family involved. If you can agree on some rules, do.

If it’s too much of a hot button issue, maybe just institute stricter controls in your own home. When your stepchild comes to visit, have them take off their shoes at the door, spray them with alcohol, shower, and put their clothes immediately into the wash. It’s been recommended over and over, and it can’t hurt to be careful. If they’ll tolerate a mask, that could work, too.

Obviously, a real quarantine can’t happen, and I think it would be destructive to the relationship and hurtful to the child to try.
It may be necessary to suspend visitation, at least for a little while, though. If you do, I think I’d want to be super prepared to discuss alternatives: digital visitation (both for your partner, and for the siblings) while the stay at home order is in place, make up visitation after the stay at home order expires, or even that you assume care of the stepchild in the meantime (especially if part of the issue is that your stepchild’s other parent is working in an essential capacity, like as a doctor or nurse).

Remember: this may be make or break for your relationship with your stepchild, and with your stepchild’s other parent(s).

If you’re alarmed, you’re not alone. If you’re scared because you’re pregnant, because you’re immunocompromised, or because your child is compromised, you’re not alone. It’s totally normal to be worried, or to feel panic about the situation.

It’s normal, too, to try to pare things down to basics – and, to you, that probably means limiting yourself to just your immediate family. Parenting a stepchild is already difficult, and parenting during a pandemic is different entirely. There’s a lot going on so, if you’re feeling the strain, you’re not alone. I don’t think the answer is necessarily restricting visits from the stepchild, but it is one possibility to explore as you look at the risks and assess what’s best for your family under the circumstances.

It’s not a perfect world, though. If you have questions about custody law and how to navigate this tricky territory, we’re here to help. Give us a call at 757-425-5200 if you need more information or would like to sit down one-on-one with a Virginia custody attorney.