This is an extraordinary time for all of us, but separated families have an additional hurdle to tackle and it is throwing up a lot of worries and questions. In this article, Alice Scambler, partner in the Family Law team looks at some of the most frequently asked questions:
I’m worried about the health risks of the children moving between households, should I stop contact?
This is the most common query and it is understandable that parents feel fearful about children mixing with different family members and potentially new partners who may have other children. Government advice is clear. Children can, and indeed should, continue to spend time with both parents and moving children between their respective houses is an exemption to the ‘Stay at Home’ rules. Despite this advice, some parents are making the decision to suspend contact. Our mental health is deeply affected by matters relating to our children and a natural reaction to this health crisis is to control things by keeping our children close to us. If it is agreed between parents that it is best for their family not to continue moving the children for important reasons such as one parent being a front-line health worker or shielding due to high vulnerability, then this decision will be the right one and will not be challenged. However, using Coronavirus to restrict access without agreement and for no good medical reason cannot be the best decision for the children. Studies have shown that restricting access to a parent can be deeply damaging for children. In a situation where children are already missing school, teachers, friends and grandparents it is key that parents ask themselves the question, “am I acting as a result of my own anxiety and fear or in consideration of what will be best for the mental and physical health of my children?” As long as you can legitimately say it is the latter, you can be confident you are doing the right thing.
How do I know that my ex-partner is following the advice relating to issues such as social distancing and hand washing when my children are with them?
This is a difficult one. You can only control what you can control. Trusting the other parent to act in the children’s best interests and letting go of the anxiety about what happens in the other household are key. You cannot control them, you cannot be in their home and you cannot parent for them and that can be really hard. Different people parent in different ways and this frequently results in conflict about issues such as homework, attending events and bedtimes. Here, the situation is magnified to the extreme because we are all in a potentially life threatening situation. Communication is key. Keep talking to one another so that you can check if your views are the same. The best time to agree boundaries is in advance but it is not too late. Think about what you would like to discuss and set it out to the other parent. If communication is difficult, we can help you with wording an email or can send one on your behalf.
My ex-partner is preventing me having contact with the children for no good reason. What should I do?
Most importantly, keep your integrity and know that you can tell your children in the future that you did everything possible to support them and did not enter into hostile arguments with their other parent. When the lockdown ends, the Courts will look back at how families have dealt with this situation. If children’s access has been restricted for no good reason, there may be consequences by altering arrangements in the future. Often, a well drafted email setting out how you can deal with any anxieties the other parent might have can work wonders. If this doesn’t achieve the desired result, do get in touch as a solicitor’s letter may carry additional weight and in emergency situations, the Court is still there to step in when needed.
What if there is Court Order in place but the arrangements don’t now work?
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division confirmed on 24th March 2020 that moving between households is an exemption to the Government rules to stay at home. He clarified that, in this unprecedented situation, it is ok for parents to alter arrangements between them by agreement and without Court involvement where necessary to keep the family safe. It is important to remember his key message, that, “where Coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of a court order to be varied, the spirit of the order should nevertheless be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child”. Where parents do not agree on whether to change the arrangements but one parent is concerned that it would be a health risk to comply with them, then that parent can alter the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. This is open to abuse, but as set out above, the Court will take action later to address any decisions that have been made without the child’s best interests at heart. The full guidance on this issue is available HERE (link to our website)
There is a hearing coming up to decide arrangements for my child, will it go ahead?
Further guidance issued by Sir Andrew McFarlane tells us that there is now a presumption that hearings will take place remotely via telephone or Skype. Where the requirements of fairness and justice require a court-based hearing however, and it is safe to conduct one, then a court-based hearing should take place. It is important to discuss with your ex-partner or their solicitor whether they agree that the hearing is suitable for a telephone hearing and ensure that the Court has the contact details for all parties. This is something we frequently organise on behalf of our clients.
I am not seeing my children as much as normal. How can I ensure that our relationship doesn’t suffer and will this be a reason that I won’t see them as much in the future?
Creative use of technology is really valuable at this time of reduced face-to-face contact. Thanks to Facetime, Skype, Zoom and Houseparty it’s possible to have regular conversations with children who are in different households. We all know that young children are not always the best conversationalists and trying to keep their concentration can be difficult. That’s why it pays to get imaginative. Can you set a quiz with age appropriate questions and a prize at the end? Would they enjoy you reading a story, a funny poem or performing magic trick? Or you could watch a film together by playing it in each house at the same time. The most important piece of advice to remember is that this will pass and emergency arrangements are simply that. They will not determine the future arrangements when the lockdown ultimately ends.
How can we avoid arguments about what will happen if the situation changes again, for example if one of the family becomes ill and has to self-isolate or is in hospital?
It’s best to try to think about all scenarios in advance as it’s usually easier to discuss arrangements without the additional stress of time sensitivity and illness. Is communication good enough for you to arrange a telephone call to talk through different scenarios and make some plans? A co-created plan will stand more chance of being enacted if and when the situation arises. Not only will this give you a plan for the future but it will help reduce anxiety that is heightened by worrying about the unknown.
Finally – looking for positives…
With the restrictions to our lives and health related stress, many of us are understandably finding life hard. Add to that the stress of home-schooling different aged children while doing our day jobs and it is no wonder that relationships are stretched. It is however important to look for the positives of every situation and spending more time at home can lead to a greater connection to our children. We can watch our children’s relationships with their siblings flourish and see them learning. If the children are not with you, be reassured that they are safe and that this will not last forever. Look at it as an opportunity to improve your relationship with the other parent by seeing if you can communicate in new ways, for example by a family facetime call. If successful, this improved communication could last into the future, enabling small issues to be dealt with as they come up, rather than dwelling on them. It is also a good time to reflect on whether the arrangements that were in place before lockdown could be improved in any way. Those of us that have moved to home working may decide to continue this into the future, working more flexibly and being more available to see our children which can only be a positive.
If you have any specific questions about any of these issues please get in touch with a member of the family team at [email protected].