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Apr 06, 2020

Co-Parenting in the Face of a National Pandemic: What You Can Do to Help Your Children

By Sylvia S. Costantino Esq., Family Law & Divorce Attorney

We have been forced by the coronavirus pandemic to slow down the usual frenetic pace of our everyday lives. Most of us spent the majority of our day outside of the home. Before the pandemic, we would go to work, run our household, raise our families, run errands, socialize, dine out, etc. The only thing that seemed to matter was our daily agenda that grew longer and more complicated. At night, we would finally slow down for a small window of time to be with family and to sleep. Our days went by in a blur, and we have allowed technology to distance us from real human contact. Then, in an instant, the unimaginable changed our lives for an indeterminate amount of time. We are left confused and frightened as control has seemingly slipped through our fingers.

While we fight this unseen enemy, I implore you to remember the innocent children who need and deserve protection from domestic discord in the home. I believe this is a fundamental responsibility of all parents, regardless of the status of your marriage or relationship. It should be practiced even under normal conditions, but sadly is not.

As a divorce attorney, I witness the demise of civility between parents every day. One would think, however, that a national emergency would unite people even if they are no longer partners, and especially if they have children. Instead, I am witnessing a surge in co-parenting issues where children are placed squarely in the middle, even if it is unintentional.

Remember that even during these frightening times, children are intuitive and advanced beyond their years. Even if you do not argue in their presence, they know what is going on. They can feel negative energy and respond to it in ways that make sense to them. In nearly every divorce and family law case involving children, there are lasting repercussions for them. Some of this will be permanent. What can you do to minimize this? Here are my top five tips on co-parenting during the pandemic, whether you are married, living separate or divorced – not just for now, but every day moving forward:

1. Have a contingency plan in place. If there are two parents, then you are fortunate to have a built-in backup. If you were to fall ill, the other parent must be ready to take on custody and all child-related responsibilities. Now is not the time to stick to the belief that the other parent is incapable. Therefore, if you feel the need to educate the other parent on child-related issues, then do it but perhaps in a neutral, non-degrading manner. If you are receiving the advice, perhaps just listen and try to be objective. Often co-parents clash due to poor listening skills. Remember that you share a common goal of caring for the children and keeping them safe. Keep the flow of communication going even if the other parent is not someone you enjoy talking to.

2. The “best interest of the child” controls. This standard is defined “as one that protects the safety, happiness, physical, mental and moral welfare of the child” (citations omitted). Family Court judges are charged with the doctrine of parens patrie, which in Latin means the authority to protect those who cannot protect themselves. This vital principle should be employed by co-parents every day, especially now. If you are a parent at a true impasse with the other parent, take a minute and really think about what you can do to benefit the children instead of focusing on what you want or believe is right.

3. Memorialize agreements in writing. It is important to reduce verbal agreements to writing to avoid misunderstandings. For example, include details as to who is tasked with picking up and dropping off the children, at what time and where. Come up with a mutually agreeable sanitation routine to prevent the spread of the virus between households. Do a run-through to see if your agreement has any gaps. Place all assumptions and expectations in writing and sign it. Your attorney can assist in drafting a consent order that resolves custody, parenting time and financial issues. This way both parents are on the same page.

4. Work on you. Take shifts caring for children as everyone needs down time, especially now. Disconnect from technology and the news for a few hours each day. Go to a separate room in your house or outside while practicing any social-distancing requirements. Reconnect with hobbies or exercise. To be the best co-parent you can be, you need to stay grounded, and cultivate your own self-esteem and self-worth. When you embrace the things that bring you peace and happiness even in difficult times, it naturally has a positive effect on others, especially children.

5. You still have legal rights. While courts may have limited access during this national emergency, your legal rights remain intact and can be enforced. For example, even if you are temporarily distanced from your children for safety reasons, you should have reasonable access via Facetime or Skype. Continuous access to one’s children, especially during this trying time, is essential. On this and other issues, I can guide you and take decisive steps to protect your rights. Mediation via video conferencing is one effective option that can also be used while social distancing.

In closing, I hope that you and your family stay healthy and safe during these uncertain times. If you have questions, please feel free to email me at ssc@njfamilylawdivorce.com, and we will schedule your free virtual strategy session. My team remains at the ready to assist. You can rely on our experience, dedication and skills to effectively represent all of your family law interests. Together, we will make it through.