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The novel coronavirus pandemic is changing the world in dramatic ways. In these times of self-isolation, restricted travel, and social distancing, more and more unexpected issues are being addressed every day, including child custody and time-sharing.
Research has shown that continuing contact between both parents and their children offers reassurance and improved outcomes for children whose parents have divorced. However, since the first cases of coronavirus in the U.S. were confirmed in January 2020, parents are increasingly being denied access to their children, despite the existence of court-ordered parenting plans.
When a gatekeeping parent is disregarding court orders and using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to keep their children from the other parent, they are denying the children invaluable continuity and reassurance during what is likely an extremely fearful point in their lives. This disruption can and should be avoided, as long as family health can be protected.
Although the Florida child custody laws do not specifically address time-sharing during an emergency situation and the Supreme Court’s approved parenting plan form does not provide for such scenarios either, Florida law does speak to what might happen when a parent improperly denies time-sharing.
According to Section 61.13 of the state’s child custody statute, when a parent refuses to honor a time-sharing schedule without proper cause, the court can award the other parent make up time-sharing to compensate for what was missed. While the statute does not define what “improperly denies” means, Florida courts will typically consider the best interest of the child and decide whether to hold a parent in contempt for denying time-sharing by manipulating the facts or the crisis for their own gain. Balancing a parent’s risk of facing contempt with the risk of exposure and transmission of the virus will no doubt be extremely challenging.
To date, the Florida Supreme Court has not ordered the closure of the state court system or suspended family law hearings. Although there is little doubt that the best interest of a child is best served when their parents cooperate with one another, if parents are unable to resolve a time-sharing dispute related to the coronavirus, the issue can be raised before the court. To prevail and avoid being held in contempt, parents considering a restriction on the other parent’s court-ordered parenting time will likely be required to present evidence that the parenting schedule poses an unreasonable risk of transmission of the virus.
During this difficult time in Florida and across the globe, children can best thrive through continuing contact with both parents, electronic as well as face to face, if possible. Electronic (audio and video) via telephone or Skype visitations can provide a viable means for children to maintain this critical connection with their parents and help protect their mental health and wellbeing. Ideally, both parents will cooperate and present a unified front to not only facilitate time-sharing, but also protect the child (and each other) from the coronavirus.
Vero Beach, Florida Attorney Susan Chesnutt has dedicated her entire practice to child-welfare, and she can provide the guidance your family needs during these uncertain times. For competent legal advice regarding make up time-sharing, contact our firm online or call 772-492-3330 today.