07 Apr Co-Parenting During Crisis
In Ontario, we face an unprecedented public health crisis due to a novel coronavirus, or Covid-19. For families who have experienced separation and divorce, co-parenting in this environment can be stressful, particularly if communication is already a challenge. At present, both the Ontario Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Justice have reduced operations but remain available to preside over urgent matters. In addition, on-site family mediation and information services have been temporarily suspended. At the direction of the provincial government in Ontario, all non-essential services and businesses have been directed to close which impacts parents’ ability to access alternative dispute resolution and other family law professionals. So, what is a parent to do?
1. Parenting Plan as Usual
Regardless of emerging parenting plan issues, parents are discouraged from using any public health emergency as an attempt to alter their parenting plan. Current examples of this may be a parent returning from a March Break holiday with the children, after having travelled out of the country. Although that residential parent and the children must self-isolate for 14 days, this is not a reason to deny the other parent’s access to the children, unless or until the other parent does not agree to self-isolation. The non-travelling parent must understand their obligation to self-isolate with the children for the required time, and as such, the parenting plan would continue as outlined in the parenting plan.
Try, wherever possible, not to utilize family or community members in the exchange of the children. This unnecessarily exposes other people to the contraction of the virus and may even increase the children’s exposure to the illness. There is, however, an exception to this. In cases where the Court has made an Order due concerns adult conflict or of domestic violence, the safety of the parent and children must come first.
Remember that the Court Order or the parenting plan agreement is to be followed whenever possible and should not be changed unless parents agree. The idea of the parenting plan is to provide answers to previous conflict and focus on the best interests of children. Regardless of whether a child is in school presently, the plan should be followed for both the regular time sharing and the holiday time sharing as outlined.
In these uncharted waters, parents are asked to be flexible. While there are families where conflict prevents constructive communication and flexibility, there is no greater need for these very things. For example, there are parents who must continue to work, regardless of closures and restrictions, as they are considered essential services. A parent who is a doctor, nurse, police officer, grocery store clerk or tradesperson cannot always follow the recommended the social distancing protocol. Any parent who fulfills these roles is aware of their heightened exposure to the virus and should want their children protected. In these circumstances, the other parent should be flexible and offer make-up time so that the children continue to enjoy time with both parents when it is safe to do so. Also, offer telephone or videoconferencing calls between parent and child, as this assures a child that both of their parents are safe and well.
3. Patience, Transparency and Communication
While it can be difficult to employ patience with a co-parent with whom there has been conflict in the past, this is a time for generosity and empathy. Parents are reminded of the seriousness of the pandemic and approaching their co-parenting relationship with a calm attitude allows for increased transparency and better communication. Also, parents should be respectful of their co-parent and respond to communication in a timely manner, particularly as it pertains to the children exhibiting any signs or symptoms of the virus.
4. Supporting Children
There is little doubt that children have knowledge of the severe impact of Covid 19 around the world. Their school has been cancelled, for many indefinitely, and they are restricted from play dates, sleepovers and public parks. Most adults have been closely following the news, which may also have the unintended consequence of raising anxiety in children.
Children can be filled with fear about illness and disease, and parents are called upon to provide reassurance and coping strategies for the anxiety. Check in with children and how they are feeling but share this information with the co-parent. Provide children with accurate and honest information, while assuring them that they are safe and loved. Both parents should guide children in ways to keep themselves safe and remind them that there are many effective ways to remain healthy. Lastly, co-parents should maintain structure and routine in their homes. Children benefit from the predictability of their day as it gives them a sense of normalcy and control.
5. Be Vigilant
As we all retreat into our homes for an unknown amount of time, children become less visible in our communities, as do victims of domestic violence. This is a time of increased risk for both as children are not seen by childcare or school staff and women are not interacting with friends, family or colleagues. As community members we all need to continue to be alert and advocate for the health and safety of children and victims of domestic violence, while being aware of the amplified vulnerability to both. All people can do their part to check in with their friends, family and colleagues through the use of technology. If you see something, do something and do not be a bystander.