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Contributed photo by the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults / Social distancing and quarantine pose difficult questions for parents who share custody of their children.

Sharing custody of a child is never easy in normal circumstances, but it can be especially difficult during a global pandemic.

With the spread of the coronavirus, parents are now faced with a variety of difficult questions that their co-parenting plans don't address: What happens if one parent wants to keep their child at home to prevent the spread of the virus, but it's the other parent's turn to have the child? Who gets to keep the child if a shelter-in-place order is issued? What if state borders are closed and one parent lives out of state?

"During this unprecedented time, parents who live separately and share parenting time with their children are urged to be evermore open to increased communication and cooperation," said Sam Mairs, Hamilton County Juvenile Court administrator.

He stressed that in instances where a child lives in two homes, cooperation, communication and flexibility are the keys to successful co-parenting.

"The circumstances we are currently facing make those things even more important and require every parent to remember that all decisions regarding their child should be in the spirit of determining what is in the child's best interests and those decisions should be made together as much as possible," he said.

If a member of one household is exposed to the virus, that would make it prudent for the child to spend more time with the other parent temporarily, said Mairs.

"We urge parents to talk to each other openly, honestly, and often about what is best for their families during this time of necessary extra precautions," he said. "Common sense must be the order of the day."

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Contributed photo by the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults / Social distancing and quarantine pose difficult questions for parents who share custody of their children.

But what happens when parents can't reach a compromise? What if the parents don't speak to each other, or can't even be in the same room?

That's the case for Brainerd resident Raphael Kaplan, whose 13-year-old son, Gabe, is supposed to visit him every other weekend. He and Gabe's mother used to have supervised exchanges, but their most recent mediary is immunocompromised and could no longer facilitate their exchanges. Gabe is on the autism spectrum, and it can be difficult to find someone with the necessary qualifications, Kaplan said.

The Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' Center for Family Connections is a local program that provides child visitation in a monitored environment as well as supervised exchanges for parents who share custody of a child.

The center continues to offer supervised exchanges on site, because exchanges require only a few people to be in the building at one time, said program Director Elaine Bradway. Parents park in separate areas and arrive at staggered times to avoid contact. Staff are not required to wear masks, but they are distancing themselves from clients.

"[Supervised exchange] is something that really needs to continue, because it helps reduce conflict children are exposed to," she said.

Supervised visitations are now conducted virtually through the Zoom platform to avoid having too many people in the building simultaneously and increasing the chances of spreading the virus. Virtual visitation is not typically an option, said Bradway, though it fills an important need during the pandemic.

"I think for children it's best that they meet in person," she said, adding that when that isn't possible, "it's important for children to know they can still have access to that parent."

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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