Parenting Expert Outlines Tips For Sharing Custody During The Pandemic

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Parents and their two children seated on a sofa together. (Getty)
Parents and their two children seated on a sofa together. (Getty)

Navigating a divorce with kids is tough enough. Now throw in a global pandemic, and parents are facing new challenges in keeping their kids and themselves safe.

Many parents are wondering, is it safe for kids to travel back and forth between homes? How do I know if my kids are safe with the other parent or the other parent’s friends? Does the plan change if someone gets sick?

Some have even gone to court to resolve these questions. In April, a judge in Washington state ruled a woman had to stop seeing her children indefinitely because her ex-husband worried her job as a nurse put them at risk.

But experts say these disputes shouldn’t even get that far. Parents should negotiate amongst themselves before taking their issues to court, says Dr. Jann Blackstone, a retired child custody mediator for the Superior Court of California and co-author of "Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Putting Your Children First.”

“The reality is joint custody is not going to go away. Co-parenting is not going to go away, COVID or not, and you still have to negotiate and negotiate in your child's best interest,” she says. “You can do whatever you want as long as it's keeping people safe.”

Parents need to understand that the pandemic will not last forever, and it’s OK to make modifications to the parenting plan in times of crisis, Blackstone says. Temporary changes to custody arrangements aren’t likely to become legally permanent.

It’s all about changing the attitude around co-parenting in general, she says.

“If you can demonstrate firsthand how to negotiate in front of your child, then the child feels safe going back and forth,” she says. “But if you're playing tug of war in front of your kid when there's a crisis, you're just adding to the stress that the child has to deal with because they live in two homes.”

Disagreements over mask wearing or vaccinations are no different than disputes over whether a child can ride on the back of a motorcycle, Blackstone says. And if you can’t resolve those issues on your own, that’s when the courts step in.

“But I can tell you firsthand that the courts don't want to raise your children,” she says. “They want you to stand back and make the decision for your babies.”

Once they agree, parents can legally establish temporary changes to the custody arrangement through writing a new contract, Blackstone explains.

For example, the contract can read: “We the parents of Billy decide during this COVID pandemic that he will stay with mom from Monday through Friday and with dad from Friday to Monday. And when this pandemic is over, we will resume the past parenting plan beginning this date.”

Many parents tell Blackstone that they never want to go back to court to resolve custody issues, she says. If parents can keep the lines of communication open and don’t fear that they are going to lose their child, they won’t have to go to court, she says.

“I often tell parents the only one who loves this child as much as you is the other parent, and your child has the right to be with both of you,” she says. “So put your heads together and figure it out, and it's your responsibility to your child to make it as easy as possible.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 11, 2020.


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Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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