Can I force my child’s father to quarantine after risk of COVID-19 exposure?

As we prepare for a second wave of coronavirus infections (assuming, of course, that we aren’t already in the middle of it now), many people have really high anxiety. It’s sad that dealing with a worldwide pandemic has become such a political issue, with people on both sides of the spectrum weighing in with completely different (and often very emotionally charged) opinions.

 

What level of coronavirus exposure are YOU comfortable with?

It is challenging to deal with the pandemic, and all of its consequences, in so many ways. Of course, we’re all risking exposure in some way, but there are a lot of questions about what’s a “acceptable” risk of exposure and what’s not. Small family gatherings? Church? Vacation? Travel? Haircuts? There’s a lot of gray areas. Even grocery shopping is risky, and I think we can all agree that, sooner or later, we have to do it.

I have yet to see a restriction so severe that it specifically precludes visitation exchanges, so visitation is something that parents are going to have to address.  Probably you’ve addressed it some already, but you may or may not have reached a full and final decision about how you’ll handle all manner of situations.  I think, in the beginning, many parents were a lot more inclined to keep the kids safe; as time has gone on, though, it’s impossible to really agree to a situation continuing long-term that doesn’t allow both parents to have some involvement.

What if you and your child’s father don’t agree about what precautions are necessary?

What if your child’s father doesn’t wear a mask? What if he won’t disclose his exposures? What if he’s not living the way you feel he should? What about the risk to you, your children, or anyone else that you’re coming into contact with? Where are the lines drawn, and what is your responsibility? If you (or your child’s father) have second families, with other children, it gets especially complicated because a transfer so that one parent can have parenting time with a child means that so many of your loved ones risk exposure.

In a lot of ways, I think that going between households is particularly problematic. I’ve experienced that with work, too. I often go between our Virginia Beach and Newport News offices, and, at different points, we’ve all faced the threat of exposures – it makes me feel like a super weak link, since I’ve been connected with so many different people just by virtue of having gone to both offices. Families work the same way, except exposure is closer and more frequent. I’ve tried to minimize all of the going back and forth. But for parents, is that even possible?

The lines are, in some ways, as clear as mud. We’re all muddling through, and we’re all juggling issues that we’ve not really had to consider prior to March. But also, it’s been SINCE MARCH! In the beginning, it felt like people were more willing to do what they needed to do to stay safe, but, as this continues to drag out, I think it’s extra clear that parents can’t just go in indeterminate amount of time without seeing their children, just because of a pandemic.

How should parenting time be handled in a pandemic?

If you’re feeling panicked or overwhelmed, especially as in-person schooling has almost entirely screeched to a halt, you’re not alone. And you’re right to be asking questions, and to be considering what choices you need to make to ensure that your children and families are safe. It’s hard to minimize exposure entirely, and we’ve all been put in an untenable position. So, what do you do?
Well, it’s hard to give you a definitive answer. In a lot of cases, we’re still having trouble getting in person hearings, and many courts have pretty significant delays.

Can I ask him to quarantine?

It’s hard to FORCE him to quarantine. And I think that, when it comes down to it, the judge is going to look pretty seriously at your situation and try to make an assessment about whether or not its reasonable to ask that he do that. What kind of field is he working in? Is he really at-risk – or more at-risk than you? (Don’t be surprised if it turns back around on you! After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, you know?)

How will the judge and GAL perceive your request that your child’s father quarantine?

In a lot of cases, I think requests like these come from a place of control – or they can be perceived as such. So you’ll want to be careful, and make sure that what you’re requesting is reasonable.

Does it matter if we already have a custody order in place?

If you already have a custody order in place, though, I think the answer is that you should probably follow it. It’s important to remember that, whether you’re dealing with an agreement (that was subsequently entered by the court) or whether you’ve got an order entered by a judge after a hearing you attended, it’s a court order. That means its no longer optional; your compliance is required. If you don’t follow a court order, sanctions can be imposed.

In general, my advice is almost always to follow a court order. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t or couldn’t be situations where I’d advise against following it or where it might be reasonable to expect him to quarantine before seeing the kids, but I would also suggest that, if you fall into that category (or suspect you might), you should talk to an attorney one on one before making any drastic decisions that could impact your case later.

NOT having a custody order isn’t an excuse to just do whatever you want, either, but it’s different then than if you openly defy a court’s order.

Remember: judges (and Guardians ad litem) have long memories. And you don’t want to be caught on their bad side, especially not because you acted emotionally or impulsively. If you’re wondering what to do in your specific situation, consult an attorney and get some advice. You don’t have to follow it, necessarily, but you should go in to any situation with your eyes wide open and in full awareness of the potential consequences.

If you don’t already have a custody order in place, you have a little more latitude – but be aware that a judge could still feel like you made the decision for the wrong reasons. In general, judges don’t like when it seems as though a parent made a decision specifically to exclude a child’s other parent or to impose their own restrictions. It’s easy for a judge – hey, they’re jaded! – to think that, any time one parent tries to insist on a certain perspective, that they’re doing it in an attempt to control the other parent.

Unfortunately, even when it comes to something like a pandemic, there’s such a varied level of response from different groups that it’s hard to know how someone else will feel. It seems like so many people have different levels of comfort, and they tend to impose that level on other people. People who are out eating in restaurants and attending weddings and traveling are wondering why others aren’t doing the same. People who are still quarantining at home are also left wondering why other people are making different choices. It’s all kind of specific to a particular person and their set of circumstances, so what might seem reasonable to you might not seem reasonable to someone else.

In any case, if you’re wondering how to proceed, it’s always a good idea to at least get a sense of what the merits and demerits of a particular position might be. It’s hard to know the ins and outs of a position – especially when you’re as emotionally close to the situation as you are in a custody case – and its always a good idea to at least talk it through before you make any big decisions.
For more information, or to schedule a confidential consultation with one of our divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.