Scranton Times article that appeared on 4/19, written as a guest columnist.

Family Matters and Covid 19

The Coronavirus outbreak has raised new issues and concerns for parents and family law practitioners in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and across the country. Many of the newly raised issues are causing chaos for families and children. First responders, especially doctors and nurses, find themselves on the front lines fighting Covid-19 and in a court room fighting to maintain their child custody rights. Indefatigable health care workers are engaged in a war against an invisible enemy and are being told by an ex-spouse or other parent that their custody rights are being withheld or suspended because of fears that they have been exposed to or infected by a contagious virus. Co-parents are finding themselves renegotiating custody agreements all while trying to treat patients and save lives in the middle of the country’s largest public health crisis. Legal issues and arguments raised by both sides of these matters have merit and are being played out all over our country.

On one hand, health care workers argue that they are being punished for doing their jobs and defending our country. It’s true, because of these selfless and heroic individuals, people are being compassionately cared for and lives are being saved. Nurses and doctors are being tested and following the safety protocols established by their health care facilities in order to prevent the spread of a highly contagious virus. They also argue that the ex-spouse or the other parent are attempting to exploit the outbreak by using it to eventually modify the terms of a custody agreement negotiated in good faith. Arguments of this nature make sense but may be difficult to advance now that our entire court system is effectively shut down.

Conversely, the other parent is arguing that it is in the best interest of child or children to shelter in place during uncertain times. These parents believe that any contact with the health care worker/parent is an imminent threat to the child’s well-being. Essentially, they are arguing that the virus is akin to drug abuse or some other safety issue generally advanced in a custody case. Safety is a paramount concern for family courts and is weighted heavily along with other factors when arriving at decisions regarding child custody issues.

I recently had an opportunity to represent a nurse from Monroe County which is one of the hot spots in Pennsylvania for Covid-19. My client has been working in the health care profession for over 15 years and is the mother of an 11-year-old little girl. She has been tested for the virus, has her temperature taken daily and has followed the edicts of the Center for Disease Control. Thankfully, she did not test positive.

A custody agreement between my client and her ex-husband was worked out years ago and things have been going rather smoothly until this pandemic. The natural father’s concerns were raised when his daughter was about to go to her mother’s house for an extended stay. The father maintained it was in the child’s best interest to shelter in place and suspend all visits with mom until the government and health officials say it is safe to resume normal activities. Moreover, the father had consulted with an attorney and was preparing to file a Petition for Emergency Relief with the Court.

Obviously, the mother was in a panic and reached out to me for guidance during these unsettling times. The mother maintained that children need a relationship with both parents especially in times of uncertainty. She too felt as though she was being punished for doing her job. Therefore, we assembled all of her medical and testing records which clearly demonstrated that she wasn’t infected and in good health. Armed with the medical evidence, I reached out to the father’s lawyer. Fortunately, we were able to negotiate an amicable agreement between the parties without the need for court intervention. Had we not reached common ground, we may have found ourselves in a hearing being conducted telephonically or over Zoom. Utilizing this kind of technology is rather new to the courts and clearly uncharted waters for family law practitioners.

Amidst all of the chaos, family court judges are urging parents to abide by their Court Orders but be reasonable with regard to accommodating the other parent. Co-parenting during a pandemic is a monumental task and requires reasonable and measured conduct in these unprecedented times. Joint custody agreements may have to be temporarily modified but it is important to do whatever is necessary to protect the safety of all parties involved. Parents have and will continue to face unique challenges related to Covid-19, but at the end of the day you have to do what is in the best interest of the child or children.

James T. Mulligan, Esq.
Family Law Practitioner