How Does COVID-19 Affect Visitation Rights?
If you have a visitation order/agreement you no doubt have had to give some thought to how the Covid shutdowns, pauses and quarantine rules affect your rights and obligations as a co-parent. The pandemic has affected everything from how people in Rhode Island work to how they travel, participate in schooling, and even how they buy necessities. It has had less effect on visitation schedules but has caused much worry about the logistics and safety of transferring children from one household to the other.
Many states have put in place specific orders to stay home and practice social distancing. However, as a family, choosing a social distancing plan that works may be more challenging than expected. If the entire family is in one home, the children and parents can follow specific rules together regarding staying inside and practicing precautions. Parents who are separated or divorced will find it more difficult to discover a way to take children back and forth between houses while staying safe and healthy. However, Governor Raimondo has stated that even during a “pause” the children may “gather” with both households.
How Restrictions Affect Visitation Rights
One thing to be aware of is that the shelter-in-place and social distancing rules are not likely to affect your current custody orders. As such, continuing your current visitation arrangement is the best option unless both spouses agree that a new plan should be made or a judge chooses to change the plan.
However, some parents are going to have specific concerns and, in some cases, these concerns might justify making temporary changes to the custody order. A few of the reasons that might come into play include:
- A child who has a higher than average risk of getting COVID-19
- A parent who has already been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID
- A parent with a high-risk job who is going to be exposed to COVID regularly
- A parent who is starting to show some of the symptoms of COVID-19
- A parent or child who has tested positive
If both households are healthy for the child and the child is not at a high risk of getting COVID, there’s no reason that you have to change your visitation schedule. However, some situations will require a change to ensure the health of the children who typically move between two households.
What Happens if the Child Contracts COVID?
COVID-19 is a very contagious virus that can cause major respiratory complications, especially in anyone who has asthma. While many children are doing well at avoiding the virus, those who have underlying health issues have a higher risk of getting the virus and experiencing complications.
Children who are immunocompromised, immunosuppressed, or who have asthma will need to have extra processes in place to ensure they stay healthy. It’s far more important to keep a child healthy than it is to cart them from one house to the other regularly.
Of course, there is no reason to panic. If your child is generally healthy as studies have shown that children are more at risk for the flu than Covid-19. Your child’s doctor can give you information and advice about how to keep the child healthy in both of their homes and whether your child is more at risk than others.
If the child already has COVID-19, there may need to be changes made to the custody order temporarily. Having a sick child going from one house to the other prevents the child from quarantining and can result in more people getting the illness.
Children who have COVID should be placed in an area of isolation with a caregiver who is not at a high risk of contracting the virus. Again, it is important to follow the instructions of the child’s doctor and not try to impose unilateral changes or restrictions based on fear.
Changes to Visitation if Someone in the Household Gets COVID-19
As a parent, your child might be the most precious thing in your life. If someone in your child’s other parent’s home has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is showing symptoms of the virus, you want to be sure you’re keeping your child safe and healthy. If you are under the impression that sending your child to the other household could negatively affect a child’s health, there are steps you can take. A few of the most common include:
- Speak with your ex and discuss with them a temporary visitation or placement change
- Schedule phone calls each day so the child can connect with their other parent or have virtual contact through Zoom or FaceTime
- Postpone any in-person visits for a specific amount of time as determined by the child’s physician and schedule extra visits in the future to make up for it
Rhode Island Special Considerations
As far as the state of Rhode Island goes, there are differing views on what steps to take with a child who might live in two households or live in one and visit another on a regular basis. Most experts agree that it’s important to continue following current court orders to avoid breaking the law. However, every situation is unique and, in some cases, a child may be in a better place in one household than the other.
The best option is to communicate as a family about what steps to take whenever possible. If that doesn’t work, moving to the legal avenue may be required. However, the courts have signaled that they will not tolerate parents using the pandemic as an excuse to limit the access of the other parent to the children.
Legal Representation in Cases Where Parents Disagree
In most cases, keeping the child placement and visitation agreement intact won’t cause any undue hardship. However, some parents may find that disagreements occur about the right precautions to take. If these disagreements cannot be worked through easily by the family, a family law attorney or a mediator may be able to help.
The good news is that attorneys are still operating and they offer consultations by phone, video, and even in-person, if necessary. Some state court websites will also have information about how to deal with custody issues related to COVID-19 and the Rhode Island Family Court has a virtual clerk who may be found at their website if needed.
In situations where a child’s health is being risked, a judge may intervene. An attorney can help you get an emergency temporary order to keep the child safe, if necessary. It comes down to weighing the risk to the child with the current order against the importance to the child of access to both of their parents. Both concerns are important. Contact us immediately to speak with an experienced Warwick divorce lawyer if you have questions about how Covid affects visitation.