Parenting Arrangements during COVID-19

We are living in extraordinary times, and most aspects of our daily routines and activities have been impacted by COVID-19. None of us know how long this will last, and this is an extremely difficult and stressful time for everyone. Understandably, many parents are confused and worried as even the most carefully crafted parenting agreement or court order could not have contemplated a global pandemic.

As children transition between households during the era of social distancing and isolation, parents should openly discuss COVID-19 precautions that are being followed in their respective households. They should also share information about safety measures that are in place for anyone who spends time in their household, including other children and family members.  It is important to keep each other informed about the children’s health and daily activities, and work together in a cooperative, responsible manner.

Parents may have concerns about existing parenting schedules, transportation arrangements, and compliance with an agreement or court order as a result of directions from government and public health officials. If that is the case, parents are encouraged to openly communicate with one another to discuss their concerns and try to come up with practical solutions. Parents should act sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding parenting time, exchanges, and the children’s activities. Parents may agree to temporarily change the parenting or exchange arrangements, and such changes should be documented by a note, email, or text message between the parents. Communication, flexibility, and adaptability between parents will be important tools in navigating through these unique circumstances.

What happens if an agreement cannot be reached between parents?

A recent decision from Ontario provides guidance to help navigate parenting challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ribeiro v Wright, 2020 ONSC 1829, an existing court order provided the mother with day-to-day care of the 9 year old child, and the father had parenting time with the child every second weekend. The mother filed an emergency application, which asked the court to suspend the father’s parenting time. She was concerned that he would not follow social distancing protocols during his parenting time. The Court refused to suspend the father’s parenting time.

There are several important takeaways from the Court’s decision in Ribeiro v Wright:

  • In most situations, existing parenting arrangements and schedules should continue. Some changes may be necessary to ensure compliance with all COVID-19 precautions, including social distancing. For example, changes may be required to exchange locations and transportation arrangements to comply with social distancing protocols.
  • In some cases, parents may need to forego their parenting time due to personal restrictions, such as the parent being under self-isolation a result of recent travel, personal illness, or exposure to illness. A parent’s personal risk factors or additional work demands may also require temporary changes to their direct contact or parenting time with the children. The health, safety, and wellbeing of the children is the most important consideration in such circumstances.
  • In some cases, a parent’s behaviour may raise serious concerns about parental judgment. For example, failing to comply with social distancing or failing to take reasonable health-precautions. In such cases, it is possible that direct parent-child contact should be reconsidered. 

In Nova Scotia, Family Courts across the Province have adopted an essential services model. This means that only “urgent” or “emergency” matters are proceeding at this time. Such matters include:

  • child protection hearings;
  • adult protection applications;
  • child abduction cases;
  • secure treatment applications;
  • issues relating to domestic violence; and
  • matters deemed to be emergencies by the court.

While the Courts are still accepting applications, most matters are being adjourned or rescheduled to a later date.

What are parents to do if they believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has created urgent or emergency issues relating to their parenting arrangements? Family Courts throughout Nova Scotia remain available to deal with truly urgent matters, especially involving children. It is important to contact a lawyer for legal advice and guidance. Parents should not assume that COVID-19 will automatically result in a change in parenting arrangements, and should not assume that COVID-19 considerations will result in an emergency hearing.

In Nova Scotia, Courts have indicated that the following matters will not be considered “urgent” during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • unilateral changes or disruptions of court ordered parenting time;
  • disagreements about a child’s activities during parenting time;
  • interruption in payment of child or spousal support;
  • property issues flowing from relationship breakdown; and
  • suspension or enforcement of child or spousal support.

This situation is unprecedented, and we are closely monitoring directives from the government, public health officials, and judiciary.

At Patterson Law, our offices are working virtually to maintain the health and safety of our clients, communities, and employees. We remain committed to serving your needs, and we have secure, trusted, and tested technology in place that allows us to remain fully operational on a remote-work basis. Our Family Law Group is here to help you navigate through your own parenting issues, and we would be happy to arrange a telephone or video conference to discuss any questions or concerns you may have at this time.

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion. If you require further information or legal advice, Patterson Law would be pleased to discuss the issues addressed in this publication. Authors Kristy Hall and Kate Naugler.