Being aware of the coronavirus and the risks it presents to you and your family is important. We are fortunate to live in an age of the internet and information on demand. Hopefully you have been able to maintain employment and income during a time when our focus has almost entirely been on avoiding this virus. In the coming months, as the summer vacation period in most family court orders begins, families like yours will have questions about how to proceed with their possession schedules given the fact that schools will be closed for the foreseeable future.
What can you do to ensure that your ex-spouse is taking all the necessary precautions to keep your child safe when he or she is away from your home? The reality is there is not a whole lot that can be done. Both parents who live under family court orders need to be able to follow the orders and communicate necessary updates to the other parent. However, you won’t have the ability to drop in unexpectedly to make sure that hands are being washed and distances are being socially kept between persons and your child.
It is possible that you had concerns about your child’s well-being at the other parent’s home even before this time period where the coronavirus has crept up to the top of the list of concerns that people have as far as their health. You may not have liked the way that your ex-spouse fed your child, the hours that they kept at his home (the kids stay up too late!) or how the kids’ clothes were always dirty when they were brought home. Minor annoyances previously could have morphed into major concerns nowadays.
The ”where the rubber hits the road” question for all of us is whether or not the coronavirus could impede your summer visitation and possession plans with your children? Will you be able to travel this summer with your children even short distances? While we cannot predict the future with precise accuracy, what we can do is address questions like these with the information that we have available to us at this juncture.
What happens if cases “spike” in the Houston area? Do you have to follow the possession order and exchange possession with your ex-spouse?
A spike in coronavirus cases means that there is a sudden increase in the number of people that have tested positive for the virus. For months we have been living in fear (most people it seems) that Houston would see a dramatic uptick in cases that would render our area unsafe. Fortunately, to this point, that severe uptick has not been seen beyond the initial stages of testing. People have gotten sick. Very few have unfortunately not recovered. Most people who get the coronavirus will survive. That doesn’t mean that people don’t have the right to be afraid, however.
In the event that an uptick is seen and we have to concern ourselves with many more people testing positive for the virus, it would make sense for you to be hesitant to strap your kiddo in the car and drop him or her off at their other parent’s home. It is stressful enough for many parents to be caring for their child during this pandemic. It is even more stressful to have your child removed because a court order demands that this be done.
The first thing that you should do if you are worried about exchanging possession of your child during this time would be to call your ex-spouse. I know that this may not seem all that appealing, but it beats sitting around your home and stressing out about something that you do not have all that much control over. Many times you will be surprised to learn that your ex-spouse has their own concerns that he or she would like to share with you.
For instance, your ex-spouse may have similar concerns about doing possession exchanges right now and is waiting to hear your thoughts on the matter. There may be a middle ground that you all can reach for the time being or a compromise that will allow your child to remain with you right now. Make up time for your ex-spouse would be appropriate later in the summer, as well.
This is a good time for you and your ex-spouse to explore ideas that are outside the box and different than you would typically employ. For example, as the weather is getting warmer and warmer it is an interesting time for you all to consider activities and opportunities for visitation that occur outdoors. Maybe an earlier visitation period for your ex-spouse at a local park or play ground? That could take the place of a visitation session inside of the home.
If you are able to come to an agreement on a temporary change to your possession orders, you should do your best to get the agreement in writing. Keep in mind that your ex-spouse can tell you that he no longer wants to go forward with the modifications previously made. He is free to do that and the end result would be reverting to the court orders that had been in place previously. However, putting the agreement down in writing means less of a chance that either of you could argue that you were unaware of the agreement that you all had.
Do not ignore your possession order out of anger or frustration
The coronavirus is not going to be a very effective excuse for you to give a judge as to why their court order had been violated by you. For example, you cannot tell the judge that because you were concerned for your child’s well-being you decided to not allow your ex-spouse to see your child for the time being. That’s not a valid excuse and a court could potentially hold you in contempt for having done so.
It should be expected that your ex-spouse will not see completely eye to eye with you on this matter. You may even get into some back and forth arguing on how to modify your court orders to better suit your family right now. Telling him or her that you are not going to drop your child off at their house at the agreed upon time is not an appropriate response. It may feel good to do this, but in the long run it can cause you significant problems with your child, your ex-spouse and the court. You are knowingly violating a court order and that is something that judges will certainly will hold against you.
How to get a court order quickly when you believe that your child’s welfare is at stake
If you have more than just a “hunch” that your child’s safety is at risk if you were to drop him or her off at your ex-spouse’s home, then you should file a motion for a temporary protective order as soon as you are able to do so. A petition for a temporary restraining order or protective order can be filed with the clerk of your county. You must be able to show that the threat of harm to your child is immediate and the failure to act would result in injury or death to your child.
Think about situations like one that involves your child living with a person at your ex-spouse’s home who has contracted the virus. If you make your ex-spouse aware of your concerns and nonetheless he has refused to bar access for this individual to your child, then you should file a petition for a hearing to get your emergency protective order. Since this is an essential matter it is likely that you would be able to get into court fairly quickly.
Specifically, if your child has a compromised immune system or any other special circumstance that needs to be considered by you and your ex-spouse then you should allow him an opportunity to address that situation with you directly before turning to the court. In the event that your ex-spouse chooses not to work with you on this problem you can then attempt to get your emergency hearing set up and go from there.
High conflict relationships with your ex-spouse makes coordinating a response to this problem more difficult
You may find yourself in a position where coordinating and co-parenting with your ex-spouse is next to impossible given the nature of your relationship. You all may only speak when absolutely necessary and even then that feels like it is too much. Coordinating parenting plan changes would be difficult for you all in the best of times, but it would be especially hard right now when the stakes are higher and patience with the other person has worn thin.
What you should do in situations like this, I believe, is to eliminate any unnecessary talk and just focus on the essentials when it comes to making sure that your child is safe. What information do you absolutely need to convey to your ex-spouse? What changes do you want to see made and why are you requesting those changes? Is there any other factual information that your ex-spouse needs to be aware of based on your family’s circumstances?
Limiting your conversations to the bare facts is a great way to proceed in this regard because you shorten the conversations that need to be have and ensure that the important information that needs to be shared is not lost in the shuffle of unimportant updates on trivial matters. Focus his and your attention on what really matters. Connect every point you make to your concern for your child’s well-being instead of taking pot-shots and his or her parenting style.
For instance, it would be important for you to know if anyone in his family has tested positive for the virus. Asking for your child to be kept from that person for the time being is a reasonable thing to ask for. Share the same information with him about your family and social circle. It is the right thing to do and can alleviate many of the problems that you may be concerned with at the moment.
Take steps to protect your child’s health directly
Instead of fretting over your child’s well-being while he or she is away from you, why not take steps to help your child learn good habits at keeping him or herself safe? For instance, if your child is still young you should show him or her how to wash their hands properly. I don’t mean the two second hand washing my three- and four-year old’s try to get away with, either. I mean soap, warm water and an extended time scrubbing. That is what it takes to reduce the risk that your child gets COVID-19 by a significant degree. It may be more productive than a million conversations with your ex-spouse.
Next, you should reach out to your child’s primary care doctor to see about any tips or tricks to help keep your child safe and healthy right now. Foods he or she should be eating? Vitamins that are safe to give him or her? Anything is worth trying right now, even if it reduces the likelihood of him or her getting sick by a few percentage points here or there. Don’t look down on any opportunity to improve your knowledge base to keep your child well.
Questions about this topic or any other in family law? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material that we covered today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week either over the phone or via video conference. These consultations are a great opportunity to learn more about your case, the state of family law in Texas and our law practice. We work on behalf of clients from across southeast Texas and do so with a great deal of pride.