The global COVID-19 pandemic is creating significant stress for many families who are juggling new work from home arrangements, altered child care and schooling arrangements and uncertain financial times. Children are facing disruption in their daily lives as their parents seek to manage these uncertain and concerning times. It is important for children to continue on in their daily routine and that includes seeing and spending time with each of their parents pursuant to orders of the Family or Federal Circuit Court.
Recently, the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia announced guidelines for parents and Family Law professionals while acknowledging that this is a highly unusual and very stressful time. His overarching message is that any parenting orders that currently exist should be complied with, except for when people cannot comply given to changes as a result of this pandemic.
Examples where parenting arrangements or orders that may not be able to be upheld is in circumstances where one parent, or someone in close contact with that parent has been exposed to COVID-19 and therefore the safety of a child could be compromised. Another instance may be where parents live across borders that are closed or handover locations such as schools are closed .
While you can read the statement in full here, I have summarised the key messages for you in this article. I will also cover what you need to do first as well as next steps if you and your children’s other parent cannot come to an agreement.
What should be done first?
Avoid acting on any heightened levels of anxiety you are experiencing that are contrary to your parenting orders.
Where there are orders that stipulate that contact with a parent is to happen at a designated contact support or handover centre, check the centre’s website for updates or phone ahead of time to determine what their most recent procedures are. Where a second person must be present during a parent’s access to a child, this presents as challenging given the recently revised rule permitting no more than two people together at a time. Commonsense would provide for that person to be present where an order or usual long standing or agreed arrangement provides for their presence at a handover. Social distancing measures need to be in place.
In situations where the pick up arrangements of your children have been at a park, fast food venue or school and those places are closed, if it is safe for you to communicate with the other parent, it is vital for you to attempt to reach new or revised arrangements.
If you are in disagreement about revised arrangements or where it may be impossible for one parent to have access, you must endeavour to facilitate contact between your children and the other parent via video calls, social media or if that is not possible, via phone.
If you can reach an agreement about the new or temporary parenting arrangements, this agreement should be in writing. Email, text message or WhatsApp communications are the three methods mentioned as suitable by the Chief Justice during this COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have concerns about orders not being complied with, document some sensible suggestions and communicate the alternatives to the other parent. The Court is still operational so if you wish to have consent orders revised, applications can be filed electronically with the Family Court. You can also enter into a temporary Parenting Plan to amend in writing the arrangements during the pandemic phase.
What if we can’t agree?
There are a number of major services that can be approached for support such as Relationships Australia, Conflict Resolution service, as well as private family dispute practitioners. Most of the mediation services around Australia are still available via phone.
If you cannot come to an agreement, you need somebody who can help you communicate with the other parent and guide you about what is appropriate given your circumstances. As family lawyers, we may be able to help you find a solution sooner. Throughout this pandemic we are available to facilitate discussions and mediations, even remotely. We are using technology to conference effectively with our clients and other lawyers and continue to help parents and their children. Currently we are seeing existing clients as well as some past clients who are returning to us for some sensible, calm advice about what their next steps should be.
While it might be hard, above all stay calm and avoid any one-sided decision making at this time, particularly in circumstances where you have Court orders or a long standing arrangement.
DDCS Lawyers specialise in all aspects of family law and can help guide you through changes to your parenting arrangements and consent orders. Reach out to our team on (02) 6212 7600 to book a consultation.