The historic COVID-19 pandemic has been undoubtedly stressful for many parents who are simultaneously working from home, assisting with distance learning and calming the anxieties of their children. Divorced or separated parents, especially those in high-conflict relationships with their ex-spouse or partner, face even more stress and uncertainty. For example, if one parent is not following social distancing guidelines, does the other parent have to follow the custody order and turn the child over? What if one of the parents is a healthcare worker and is in regular contact with COVID-19 patients? Montgomery County courts have been closed for over a month and there has been no real way to get answers from the court to these questions.
However, on April 15, 2020, the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas issued guidelines for those subject to orders in the County during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidelines provide some much-needed direction to divorced and separated parents in the County.
These guidelines make clear that existing custody orders will remain in effect and govern where a child resides unless the court modifies that order (by way of an emergency hearing) or the parties agree otherwise.
Importantly, the guidelines explain that employment by one party as a first responder, healthcare worker, or other essential worker is not a valid reason alone to justify suspension of a custody order. This has been a topic of much debate in the past month. For example, if a parent is an employee at a hospital, what is the effect on a custody order? The other parent often argues that the custody order should be suspended, and the children should live with the non-essential worker parent who is not leaving the home every day. These guidelines make clear that such a circumstance alone does not justify suspension of a custody order and the parties are to follow the order as written.
The guidelines also have a process to follow if anyone around the children show signs of COVID-19. Specifically, if a parent or a person in the parent’s household becomes infected with a respiratory illness or demonstrates symptoms of COVID-19, that parent must report such a situation to the other parent. Further, the parent reporting symptoms of an individual in their household shall have their physical custody rights temporarily suspended and the child(ren) should remain with the other parent pending resolution of the infection or illness. However, any parent whose custody rights are suspended due to such an illness should have the right to daily contact with the child through non-physical means including telephone, Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, etc. The guidelines provide that this contact should be liberal and should maximize the child’s contact with the other parent.
The guidelines state that if a custody exchange is required under an order to take place inside a public location, the exchange should instead take place in the parking lot of that location.
The guidelines also suggest that parties subject to custody orders should adhere to the CDC recommended protocols for COVID-19. These include, but are not limited to, washing hands, cleaning surfaces with disinfectant solutions, physical distancing, and remaining in their homes.
The guidelines are in effect until Montgomery County is no longer under a stay-at-home order.
It must be noted that these are only guidelines and are not enforceable via a petition for contempt through the Court. However, if a parent refuses to follow these guidelines, it is highly likely that such a decision would be an issue in any future custody litigation once the courts reopen. Parents subject to custody orders would be wise to heed these clear guidelines articulated by the Court.
The divorce and family law attorneys of Shemtob Draganosky Taylor can guide you through all of your divorce and family law matters including custody issues. Contact our family lawyers for a confidential discussion.