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Children's Care and Changeover Arrangements During CoronavirusAmelia Higgs Posted 16 March 2020
The Coronavirus pandemic causes uncertainty across many aspects of our lives. It is natural and understandable that we all want ensure that those we love are safe. If further social distancing measures are implemented, such as school closures or complete shut-downs, what will this mean for children whose parents are separated? Should children be kept in the sole care of one parent, or continue moving between homes in accordance with existing orders or parenting plans?
First and foremost, despite the current situation, parents have joint or equal shared parental responsibility (unless there is a court order in place which states otherwise). This means they should make decisions about their children’s health, welfare and education in consultation with each other and should regularly keep each other updated about any changes to their child’s schooling, extra-curricular activities, or health during this period.
Any decision in relation to a child's care must be made in consideration of the child's best interests.
According to the World Health Organisation and the Australian Medical Association, children are at a very low risk of showing symptoms of Coronavirus, but can still carry the virus and transmit it between adults who they come into close contact with.
At this stage, it is appropriate for children to continue moving between homes in accordance with their usual arrangements if nobody in either of the child's homes has, or may have, COVID-19 (i.e. is under self-isolation).
Precaution should be used if changeover usually occurs in an enclosed public place, such as a fast-food restaurant. Parents in these circumstances who do not wish to perform changeover at home may wish to consider moving their changeover location to an alternative, open public location such as a car park. Parents who use the Hobart Children's Contact Service for changeover will be contacted by that organisation if its ability to facilitate changeover changes.
If a child is living in a house where a parent or family member is in self-isolation because of recent overseas travel, possible exposure to coronavirus, or because they have tested positive to COVID-19, it is unlikely to be appropriate for that child to spend time with the other parent. However, parents should seek medical advice from their GP or the public health authorities. Likewise, where children are due to spend time with a parent who is in isolation. Both parents should be involved in this decision and should seek medical advice if necessary.
If full social distancing becomes necessary (that is, a full closure of schools, public places, work places etc) it may be appropriate for children to continue transitioning between homes so long as nobody in either home is or may be unwell with COVID-19. Of course, this will be subject to any government restrictions in terms of people’s movement outside their homes. At this stage, it may no longer be appropriate or possible to use public changeover locations and changeover may need to occur at either parent's home (subject to any safety concerns).
If children are confined to one parent’s home and cannot spend time with the other parent as they usually would, it is appropriate for the children to maintain contact with the other parent though regular Skype, FaceTime, or phone communication.
Ultimately, parents will need to monitor the changing situation and make decisions which are in the children’s best interests. This should be determined in accordance with government policy and medical advice. Where parenting orders are in place, parents should not make hasty decisions or choices which are not supported by evidence or advice about withholding their children from the other parent. In cases where parenting orders are in place and a parent chooses not to allow the child to spend time with the other parent, the other parent may have grounds to apply for a Contravention Order if the withholding parent cannot demonstrate that she or he reasonably believed their actions to be necessary to protect the care or welfare of the child.
Even during times of crisis, children have a right to spend time with both of their parents. However, this must be balanced against the need to keep children and those around them safe from risk of harm. We urge all separated parents to use common sense and kindness when making decisions for their children during this time, while keeping in mind any current government advice.
Dobson Mitchell Allport’s team of family lawyers remains ready to assist with any queries in relation to parenting as well as other family law matters, and will continue to be available by telephone and email even in the event of further social distancing measures.