Commentary: School Closures For COVID-19 Should Make Parents Reconsider Their Custody Battles
Genevieve A. Suzuki Attorney, Partner Suzuki, Zandovskis & Yip
Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune March 19, 2020
Original Publication: https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/story/2020-03-19/covid19-coronavirus-custody-battles-school-closures-court
Fighting a common enemy, not unlike what humans did in the film “Independence Day,” has a unique way of uniting people who were once on opposite sides of the table. Many of us who practice family law are hoping COVID-19 is the alien that brings together our clients and their opposing parties in the best interests of their children. Sadly, there are many San Diego County actions that could use such an interfering alien.
According to the San Diego Superior Court, there are about 20,000 family court filings every year, and some 3,000 of them involve paternity, child custody and visitation, and other miscellaneous family court petitions.
As soon as the various San Diego County school districts announced closures, my office began receiving emails and phone calls from clients, who wanted to know how this would affect their custodial exchanges. Questions included wanting to know whether they could have the time normally occupied by the school day and whether they needed to ask the working opposing party whether they could provide childcare.
Most court orders clearly delineate when a party has the child if there is no school, but those orders are based on pre-arranged holiday schedules, not spontaneous announcements stemming from health crises. Although many colleagues and I recognized the uncomfortable predicament facing our clients fighting for custody and visitation of their children, we also saw an opportunity to better guide the parties to a resolution outside of court.
This is not an easy situation for parents who are no longer living in the same home. Anyone who has had any experience in family court will tell you these issues are not trivial. Rather, parties often have visceral reactions to the thought of having to share a child more with a person they no longer want to be around every day themselves.
Human nature also has a dark side when it comes to custody. There are parents who will use this situation to their advantage by refusing to exchange the child or manipulating court orders for their own benefits. While there will surely be mothers who do not show up to exchanges or fathers who do not obey exact orders, or vice versa, parents should focus on the most important people in these scenarios: their children, who are surely feeling more anxious than the adults amid talk about the coronavirus.
Parents need to think about how much sudden change has been imposed on their kids, who probably looked forward to seeing their friends every day in class, attending soccer practice or dance rehearsals, or just to a simple change of scenery.
It is inevitable that our courts will pare everything down to only the most necessary of actions. Custody conflicts that aren’t life or death need to be discussed between parents. Nothing is stopping moms and dads from working together for their families.
If it helps, it would be unlikely that any temporary custodial situation resulting from the coronavirus closures would have a permanent effect on regular visitation. Allowing a parent to have the children during the day in light of social distancing does not comprise a normal routine. That said, any refusal to work together could have a detrimental effect on custody actions. Denying another parent time when you could have cooperated with each other, particularly in the face of adversity, is any family law attorney’s dream evidence. Don’t make it easy on us to win points.
For parents who are unable to make it work, Colleen Warren, the president of the San Diego Family Law Bar Association, recommends practicing patience at least until April 6, when courts, which closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, are scheduled to reopen. “Lots of people are scared and this is unprecedented,” she said. “If there are visitation disputes, utilize the district attorney’s online portal to report a visitation issue, thereby creating a record.”
Warren also recommends calling an attorney. “We will still be working and will know where to get updates from the court,” she said.
Warren encourages her fellow family law practitioners to embrace creativity during this difficult time. “Share information with each other; work harder to meet and confer or settle cases, or narrow issues. Offer to help the more senior members of the bar who may be self-isolating.”
The advice holds for divorced parents and lawyers alike. Agree where you can. Think about whether an issue is really an emergency before elevating it to one.