In late March 2020, when the COVID-19 outbreak truly started to hit the American population, this office and law offices around the country that deal with Family Law matter began to be bombard questions as to what could be done about outstanding visitation orders in light of the pandemic. 

COVID Concerns Regarding Your Child's Custody ArrangementRhode Island Child Custody Lawyers Kirshenbaum & Kirshenbaum

One of the more common scenarios that was heard and is still being heard to this day is when one parent feels that the other parent is not placing the child in a safe position. For instance, take a hypothetical where child is placed with mother and has visitation rights with the father. Assume in this hypothetical that father works as an ER nurse and therefore is exposed to frequent cases of the coronavirus. Mother does not want the child to see the father for live in person visits as she is concerned father may be unnecessarily exposing the child to COVID-19. Mother wishes to unilaterally keep the child in her possession until she feels it safe for the child to visit with the father. While mother’s concerns are to be recognized, in this hypothetical mother does not have a unilateral right to modify the court order because of her concerns. Until the visitation order is modified by a Court, one parent cannot simply decide to change the schedule or deny the other parent visitation because of the coronavirus concerns. If mother believes that father is acting reckless or is not safe to be around a child due to his exposure to COVID-19, she should first try to file an emergency motion within the Family Court seeking to modify the visitation order, even if on a temporary basis. Again, until the order is modified by the court, mother would have no right to change it on her own.

Parenting Time With Your Children During The COVID Crisis

Another issue that has arisen with respect to visitation schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been following parenting time while the children are engaged in distance-learning and not attending school. Often times you may find a visitation order that allows one parent the have parenting time beginning “after school.” With there be no physical attendance at school, the query arises what does after school mean? Unfortunately, there is no real answer to this question. The best approach, if possible, would be to work with the other parent to arrange for an exchange time of the child during this unprecedented period. However, sometimes that is simply not possible and the court would need to be involved. Again, one parent does not have the right to unilaterally make changes or interpret the existing order as he or she sees fit. If there remains dispute as to what language may mean within an existing order, such as what does “after school” mean during distance learning, the best approach would be to file a motion with the court.

The court may take many approaches to interpreting this language with the end goal of finding what is in the best interest of the child. For instance, the court may find that the parent who has have the visitation after school would be capable of engaging the child and distance learning at his or her home and have the child be with that parent for the day. Other judges may take the approach that after school reflected a certain time such as 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. when the school would otherwise close. Given that most visitation orders were drafted without anticipating a school closure due to pandemic, the language is subject to interpretation and you will want an experienced attorney to argue your position on your behalf.

Do You Need To Speak To A Rhode Island Child Custody Attorney?

If you are concerned about your child custody agreement or need to create one you should to speak with an experienced Rhode Island child custody attorney as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Warwick office directly at 401.946.3200 to schedule your free consultation. We help divorce clients in Providence, Warwick and all areas of Rhode Island.

Jesse Nason
Helping Rhode Island residents with all of their family law, divorce and child custody needs since 2006.
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