In the face of a global pandemic, it is no surprise that things change. While the full impact of the outbreak is uncertain, we are adapting to minimise the impacts on our clients. This week we consider how the coronavirus impacts children contact arrangements.
How the coronavirus impacts children contact arrangements
Following a divorce or separation, it’s common for children to travel between parents’ houses.
Most parenting orders contain detailed contact arrangements accounting for various types of contact. E.g. weekday contact, weekend contact, after school pick up, sporting activities and holiday time.
If that’s your “normal” routine, what happens when life changes? It’s safe to say that few people, if any, would have contemplated a pandemic contingency in their parenting orders.
Australian authorities are saying that the measures implemented due to the pandemic are as disruptive as those during times of world war.
Considering the “what ifs”
How coronavirus impacts parenting matters is unchartered territory.
- What happens if one parent, or a member of that parent’s household, becomes infected with COVID-19?
- Is it reasonable for the non-infected parent to prevent their children from coming into contact with the infected parent and their household?
- What if there is no confirmation of a parent’s infection but the other parent has serious concerns that they may have been exposed?
These are the scenarios that many parents may be facing already. And unfortunately, there are no clear answers to such questions just yet.
However based on the information at hand, we must still consider how coronavirus impacts children contact arrangements.
When containment measures due to coronavirus impacts parenting matters
If your child’s contact arrangements are dictated by parenting orders – whether by consent or by judicial determination – you must adhere to those terms unless you have a “reasonable excuse” to deviate from them.
Circumstances that give rise to a reasonable excuse include where:
- the person bound by the order did not understand the obligations imposed by the order; and
- the person reasonably believed that their actions constituting the contravention were necessary to protect the health and safety of a person – and the contravention did not last longer than was necessary.
What if it’s not clear what is “reasonable”?
In these uncertain times, there will be ambiguous situations involving quarantine, health scares, travel restrictions and social distancing that result in differing opinions on what is a “reasonable excuse”.
Parents should use their common sense to determine what excuses are and are not reasonable. For example, you could justify a decision to withhold contact where the other parent has advised you that they have tested positive for COVID-19. Or that they are self quarantining but the child is not infected.
This is because it is is not just the risk to the child of COVID-19 infection that needs to be considered. You must assess the flow on effects of such a situation. These include the infected child staying home from school and the impact this may have on your ability to work.
If you think a change to contact arrangements might be necessary, communicate with one another – personally or via lawyers. Give the other parent as much notice as possible if a deviation from parenting orders is likely and an abundance of information about the circumstances at hand.
No matter the situation, parents are expected to act in the best interests of their child. Remember that you have a united goal, keeping your child safe from harm. Be considerate, be flexible and work together to ensure that your child is not unnecessarily exposed to COVID-19.
If you have any questions about the impact of COVID-19 on your obligations pursuant parenting orders, seek legal advice as a matter of priority.
When infection of your child by coronavirus impacts children contact arrangements
It is important to consider what needs to happen should your child become at risk of infection. While not pleasant to think about, it is one of the only ways to guard their wellbeing.
For example, what if a child has close contact with a household member who tests positive for COVID-19, should they remain in that home? Or what if they are exposed to a classmate at school who tests positive for COVID-1? Which household should retain care of the child while they self quarantine?
Again, there are no clear answers.
It is imperative for parents to communicate about the risks of infection, vulnerable others residing in each household, the economic impact of each household quarantining and all options going forward so that the best possible solution can be achieved.
When international travel restrictions impacts children contact arrangements
International travel is becoming complicated. More countries are closing their borders and introducing travel restrictions and as the situation evolves. Naturally this has caused concern that travellers may not be able to return to Australia when they had planned to.
As a result, the Australian government has implemented the highest advice level possible for international travel. Australians have been advised not to travel overseas. And those who are already overseas should return home as soon as possible.
Consider how these restrictions on international travel may affect your parenting orders and any applications you may have on foot. For example, any Orders or an Application for:
- a parent to take a child on an international holiday;
- a child who is habitually resident in Australia to spend time with a parent living in another country;
- a child who is habitually resident in another country to spend time with a parent living in Australia; or
- permanent relocation of a child to any other country than Australia, particularly a country that is badly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
If parenting orders exist – either by consent or by judicial determination – that contradict the advice of health authorities, it is critical to reconsider these arrangements.
If parenting orders do not exist and an application is on-foot relating to international travel, it may be wise to withdraw or alter the application. The Family Court may adjourn an application of this nature altogether until the global situation becomes more clear.
It comes down to the “best interests of the child”
In any event, it is important to consider the child’s best interests. Unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 will not satisfy these interests. Nor would orders for costs that may flow from an unsuccessful parenting application meet them. Every family situation is different.