Shared Care of Children
COVID-19, Alert Level 4 and what it means for contact and care arrangements for children
The elevation by the Government of the COVID Alert Level to Level 4, and the institution of a nationwide lockdown, has given rise to a lot of uncertainty and concern. This is not only for businesses and employers, but also for separated parents who share care of their children.
As this is a developing situation, the first and foremost priority is making decisions which are in the best interests of the child/children. Much of the uncertainty has been eased by the Principal Family Court Judge, Judge Moran, who provided a statement with guidance for shared care during these unprecedented times.
The basic starting point is that established contact and care arrangements should continue, however only if this can happen and if it is safe to do so. This is very dependent on each individual case. It has been emphasised, and must be put clearly, that the situation amidst COVID-19 should not be used as a tool to advance one parent’s interests to the exclusion of the other, rather decisions need to be made around the paramount view of what is in the best interests of the child.
Guidelines for Shared Care/Contact during Alert Level 4
If you share the care of your child/children, or have contact arrangements in place, the following guidelines provide some help:
- The overriding consideration is for decisions to be made which are in the best interests of the child/children.
- The underlying focus of Alert Level 4 is to reduce and restrict the layers of contact that each person has with another. This can be best accomplished by remaining at home to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
- If parents who share care are situated in different towns or communities, then safety of the children and those in each family “bubble” should not be put at risk by travelling between those homes, especially if this includes more than two households.
a) _For example, if one parent lives in Dunedin and the other in Queenstown, then it would be appropriate that the child/children remain with one of the parents for the duration of the lockdown.
b) _It is important that your “social bubble” should be confined to those who you live with in your household. Extending the bubble to others not only heightens the risk to yourself and your child/children, but also increases the potential for transmission of COVID-19.
- Children within the same communities can travel between households, however on the condition that:
4.1._The distance is not more than one hour’s drive between households.
4.2._The child is not unwell. The child should not travel until they have recovered and are healthy;
4.3._Someone in either household is unwell; and/or
4.4._Someone involved (the child or someone else who is in the household or social bubble) has been:
a)_overseas in the last 14 days;
b)_has been in close contact with someone who is currently undergoing testing for COVID-19; or
c)_has been in close contact with someone who has positively tested as having COVID-19.
- Parents and caregivers should consult with one another about whether the current arrangements may allow for a heightened risk of transmitting COVID-19, and whether an alternative arrangement can be agreed on. This may result in the child/children remaining with one parent or caregiver during the lockdown period.
- If the child/children are travelling between households, it is important that they are accompanied by an adult when doing so. Private vehicles should be used and travel should be limited to and from those households. Public transport can be used as a last resort if there are no other alternatives available.
- If the current arrangements cannot continue and the child/children cannot travel between households, then it is expected and strongly encouraged that there should be a generous amount of contact via other means such as telephone, social media or video messaging through applications such as Facetime, Skype, Whatsapp or other options.
- These are trying times for everyone, and particularly for children who look to their parents and caregivers for guidance. It is important that parents must look beyond adult conflict and take a child-focused approach to making decisions which promote safety not only for themselves, but also the wider community.
The social response to COVID-19 should not be used as an instrument for unilaterally changing established care and contact arrangements without reasonable cause or justification. Parents must also ensure that they also do not conduct themselves in a way which is contrary to the best interests of the child/children and Orders of the Family Court.
Parents and Caregivers are those of whom children look to for guidance and direction. These extraordinary circumstances provide the opportunity for the adults to put aside indifferences, and lead by example to safely bring the child/children out of this situation. It is a priority that parents and guardians continue to consult and communicate with one another.
Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) Mediation
Providers of FDR services have advised that mediation is still taking place, however is done so online or by using videoconferencing. If your income has changed due to the effect of COVID-19, then it is likely that you will be eligible for funding for mediation services. Eligibility will be confirmed with the provider directly.
Further information, including a FAQ supplied by the Ministry of Justice about what implications the lockdown has for court proceedings, can be found at the following links:
The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are evolving constantly and so too is the advice provided to clients. This article is intended as general information only and it is advised that legal advice be obtained in relation to your own circumstances.
Please contact the Saunders & Co Family Law Team below for further advice and information, including assistance with any difficulties related to communication and interactions between parents and caregivers.
Due to the current situation under the lockdown restrictions, Saunders & Co is operating remotely for assistance with clients. Staff can be contacted via mobile or alternatively email, whilst also being able to contact clients via teleconferencing and videoconferencing if necessary.