The coronavirus crisis has hurled parents into uncharted territories. They’re facing unprecedented questions about their day-to-day lives, and many have become teachers, nurses and full-time caretakers to their children, now at home every day due to the coronavirus crisis.
On top of these day-to-day changes, co-parenting adults face additional challenges. How should co-parents follow existing court orders, plan custodial visits and share expenses while families are under quarantine? What safety plans can be created to deal with an emergency? How will federal disaster assistance affect child and spousal support? With unfamiliar and restricted routines come increased obstacles for co-parents.
As a former family law judge and past Presiding Judge of Riverside County, California, I am deeply concerned about Family Law Courts and the people who need them during the current pandemic. I’ve been speaking with judges about how courts are attempting to respond to these questions, and what I’m hearing troubles me:
- During closures, family mediation and self-help centers cannot be expected or relied upon to answer simple co-parenting questions, whether COVID-related or otherwise
- Courts are faced with mandatory closures and families with pending, non-emergency cases should not expect to get the help they need anytime soon
- Most families who need to file new cases will have to wait until after the coronavirus crisis is over
The majority of family courts across the country are now closed to the public for nonemergency hearings due to COVID-19. In addition, court mediation departments — who actually resolve up to 90 percent of family law cases — have mostly stopped providing services to families during this crisis. This lack of access leaves families, parents and children in a prolonged state of uncertainty and compounds stress on households trying to co-parent during this very difficult time.
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Cases currently in the pipeline will stall because of the crisis, and even more cases will be filed during this period. The vast majority of these parents (85 percent) don’t have lawyers, which means they’re on their own to make sense of the rules, process and procedure of the court. Add to that the reality that communication about court closures, delays of hearing or service requirements may currently be unclear, inconsistent and confusing. These factors could negatively impact current and future cases. Courts will struggle under current and future caseload. Families will struggle with long term consequences such as prolonged separation from their child or children, confusion about support payments, and questions about how to structure make-up days for lost parenting time. It will be nearly impossible to shield kids from their parents’ ongoing conflict and could increase exposure to toxic stress. All while they, too, try to figure out their new normal. Unless we do something, kids across the U.S. will bear the brunt of this crisis.
Mediators, family therapists and child wellbeing professionals across the nation are scrambling to provide remote mediation and mental health services to families in need. In the best of times, family cases can extend over weeks, months and years, leading to increased anxiety, emotional upheaval and conflict. As COVID-19 questions and stresses are added to the co-parenting mix, things will amplify quickly and can even lead to physical violence.
Fortunately, as we endure this crisis, innovations in technology have already enabled us to find solutions to some of the most pressing problems we are facing. Teachers are adapting and making use of online teaching tools, companies that have never before allowed remote work are exploring what working from home looks like for their employees and mediation and mental health professionals are providing their services using platforms and apps like coParenter, which provides mediation, communication and planning services for separated parents. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, coParenter’s national team of retired family law judges and trained mediators have helped hundreds of parents make coronavirus-related custody, visitation and emergency plans from the safety of their home.
As a former presiding Judge of one of the largest jurisdictions in the country, I thought I’d seen it all, but the coronavirus has changed everything for families, coparents and the Courts. This pandemic will strain our court system and families in ways we’ve never witnessed or experienced before.
Co-parents across the country should know that they’re not alone. There are solutions and resources available as they navigate this unfamiliar world. Millions of health care, mediation and child well-being professionals are still here for them, many of us are just online and in new places. They’re not alone, and there are many of us here and ready to help.
Hon. Sherrill A. Ellsworth (RET) has 20 years of experience on the bench and 10 in a Family Law Department. She served as Presiding Judge of Riverside County in California. She is a co-founder of coParenter, a coparenting app offering mediation services to divorced parents. Coparents can try the app for the first time for free for 30 days on www.coparenter.com/covidhelp. Qualified volunteer mediators can learn more about helping families through coParenter by visiting www.coparenter.com/covid19volunteer.
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