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Is Your Custody Plan Disrupted by COVID-19?

By Sheryl Rentz on June 9, 2020

child staring out a window

Pennsylvania, like many other states, has enacted a Stay at Home Order for Montgomery County residents to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which includes closing business and government institutions and advising residents to remain at home. While this order is necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every resident, including the elderly, children, and the immunocompromised, it has resulted in serious financial difficulties for Pennsylvania residents.

For divorcees, it may be difficult to stick to a custody plan or visitation time with the limitations of the Stay at Home Order. While these are unprecedented times, the Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C. are still available to answer your questions and provide clarity.

Rules About Custody and Visitation During Quarantine

As of June 5th, 2020, Pennsylvania counties are labeled as green and yellow zones under the Stay at Home Order, meaning that depending on where you live, certain businesses may remain closed or have limited restrictions, but overall our state is on the path to recovery. As of June 1st, all orders to close Pennsylvania courts have expired, meaning your local family court may be opened in a limited capacity. For example, Montgomery County courts are open between 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and some family cases will be scheduled for virtual hearings.

For residents living in the yellow zones, some business may be open for limited services as long as they abide by occupancy restrictions. Overall, you are allowed to go outside to:

  • Get supplies, such as medicine and groceries
  • Attend to the needs of a family member, dependant, or pet
  • Care for a family member or dependant in another household
  • Receive medical attention
  • Visit a school to pick up distance learning materials
  • Travel to work if you are in an essential industry
  • Exercise, so long as you are maintaining social distancing guidelines
  • Travel to abide by court orders

It is important to understand that being in a green zone does not mean that all restrictions are lifted. To effectively slow the spread of COVID-19, public health officials still advise all residents to maintain social distancing, practice proper hand sanitation, and telecommute where possible.

For parents with joint custody or visitation, you are legally required to abide by all provisions in your custody plan. The Stay at Home Order has not overridden any judicial rulings, meaning that you should continue to respect the other parent’s right to visitation and custody schedule. If you agreed that your child would remain with you during the school days while the other parent has them on the weekend, you should continue with that plan.

However, we understand that this may prove more difficult and confusing with the fear of COVID-19, which is why we have included a handful of tips for how to deal with the Stay at Home Order and your custody plans.

Sharing Custody and Social Distancing

In order to limit the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve, health officials from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have outlined several guidelines for people to follow. One of the most important concepts is social distancing, which means maintaining a six foot distance from all individuals when out in public, limiting gatherings to individuals you live with, wearing protective gear such as masks and gloves, and quarantining any individual who develops COVID-19 symptoms.

For parents who are trying to abide by custody plans, this may prove difficult if you or the other parent is an essential worker or lives with an essential worker. These individuals are more likely to contract the virus and spread it to the household if CDC and WHO guidelines are not followed. It is understandable that some parents may be afraid that their child could become sick if they are exposed to the virus. However, there are still steps you can take to follow your custody plan and prevent infections.

First, open a direct line of communication with the other parent. Discuss your current work/life schedule, whether or not you are at risk of becoming infected—either through work or roommates—if you think you have been exposed, and how to best care for your child. Remember, your custody plan is a court order program that exists for the benefit of your child and you should always think about how it can affect them. If neither of your are at risk and can still follow your current plan while maintaining social distancing rules, such as dropping off your child at an empty park or safely escorting them to the other parent’s residence, then you should do so.

For individuals who are at risk, such as essential workers, discuss the possibility of getting tested. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has outlined several testing sites that are currently only available to individuals who have approval from their healthcare provider. If you have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider to discuss your next steps. You may be advised to remain indoors and rest if you have mild symptoms, or seek medical attention if your symptoms are severe. Of course, during this period it is best to suspend your current visitation time or custody plan to protect your child from infection.

Alongside testing, review how you can both minimize your risk of becoming infected. If you feel that the risk of exposure is too great, consider alternative approaches to visitation and having your child stay with the parent who is least likely to become infected. Alternatives to visitation time can include phone calls, video chats like Facetime, playing games over Zoom or Discord, or other online programs that allow you to spend time with your child. If you agree to this and you are the parent who has custody during this period, make sure to support the other parent’s visitation time. Remember, if the situation was reversed, you would also want them to ensure you get to chat with your child every day.

Ultimately, you should both work towards protecting the health and wellbeing of your child. To do that, you may wish to explain COVID-19 to your children, including the importance of hand hygiene, social distancing, and coughing into their elbows. The DOH has made a short guide for discussing COVID-19 with your child and we suggest reviewing it. Your child may want to spend time with their friends and argue with you about staying indoors, especially if they are teenagers.

Do not shame them for spending more time on social media or playing online games with their friends, but also be careful how they are exposed to the media. We all know how difficult it is to read the news these days, so it is important to discuss these matters with older teens to ensure they understand the dangers and risks of infection.

When To Contact a Family Law Attorney

Stressful times like these can be especially difficult if you do not have a good communication with the other parent. They may not pick up your calls or ignore your requests. If you can get in contact with them, try to remain as calm and logical as possible. Remind them of your custody plan and try to have a direct discussion about any modifications you may need during this strange period. If they refuse to abide by the plan, they may be found in contempt of court. If there is an instance of neglect, you may be eligible for an emergency custody order.

If you and the other parent are having difficulty abiding by a custody plan during the Stay at Home Order, contact the Montgomery County child custody attorney at Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C. Attorney Sheryl Rentz is still available to discuss your case over the phone or by video chat. She may suggest mediation or a temporary modification of your custody plan. Contact us at (610) 645-0100 to discuss the best options for you and your child.

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