Child arrangements during Coronavirus lockdown is a very worrying concern. For families with young children, there is a whole host of difficulties that wouldn’t even occur to others. Not just the challenge of attempting to home-school little ones whilst simultaneously working full-time, but also the never-ending “what nextness” of toddlers needing to be picked up, pre-schoolers needing to be entertained, youngsters needing to be prised away from their screens.
How much more difficult for those trying to cope alone, in single-parent families. When you’re trying to parent children alone, worries can become all-consuming. With no-one to talk to, there can be no sharing of the burden, no “problem shared, problem halved”. When you’re risking your health, and the health of your children by going to work, or going to the supermarket, or escaping the four walls for a desperately needed bit of fresh air, who do you trust to look after your little ones as you would do? Who is going to protect them from this virus? Why would you risk handing them over for the weekend exposing them to unacceptable risks when you could keep them safe at home? This is the dilemma facing so many parents at the moment, and in the majority of cases it must be a genuine concern, arising from the unprecedented circumstances, the daily death count and the creeping, unstoppable and violent nature of the virus.
An article in The Guardian ” UK lawyers inundated by divorced parents arguing over lockdown custody” talks about a mother seeking to withhold her child’s contact with the father on the basis that he wouldn’t be able to teach the child her times tables. And another mother, who withheld contact on the basis that she was concerned about the risk of infection, but who then posted pictures of herself and the children on social media which suggested otherwise.
I don’t recognise this in the stories I have heard from my clients. Yes, there have been one or two cases in which difficult questions have had to be asked, but for the majority, it was a genuine question.
I must admit, the first time I was asked, my gut reaction was to say, “no”. I am one of those mothers, clearly, who thinks that no-one can protect her little darlings as well as she can.
Luckily, help was very quickly on hand in the form of guidance issued by the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane. “The country,” he said, “is in the middle of a Public Health crisis on an unprecedented scale. The expectation must be that parents will care for children by acting sensibly and safely when making decisions regarding the arrangements for their child and deciding where and with whom their child spends time.” Eminently sensible, as ever, putting responsibility firmly where it should be: with the parents.
“The decision,” he went on, “whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.”
So far, so self-evident. But what if the parents can’t agree about what constitutes a sensible assessment? Well, in that case, Sir Andrew says that, “the best way to deal with these difficult times will be for parents to communicate with one another about their worries”. Great advice, always. But what if they still don’t agree?
And so although it’s difficult to provide generalities at a time like this, the advice I am giving clients on child arrangements during Coronavirus lockdown is that, unless there are special circumstances (perhaps the child has a particular health need), or the other parent is in self-isolation or quarantine, the usual arrangements should remain in place as much as possible.
Of course it should be up to the parents themselves to make the decision, and the vast majority of parents can be trusted to do the right thing for their children. But they should be under no illusion from the President’s guidance: where they are later found to have acted unreasonably, they will be held to account.
If you have any child arrangement concerns please contact a member of the Family team.
Our page “Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Legal advice and guidance” is continually being updated with advice and guidance as and when updates come in from Government or other regulatory bodies.