As featured in Gabrielle Hartley’s Better Apart Blog
Nothing makes parents more anxious than threats of any kind to our children’s health and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened level of concern, on so many different levels, for parents. Communities are closing schools. Daycares are shutting down. Extracurricular activities are cancelled. Parent’s work schedules are in flux. Co-parenting in such uncertain times is not for the faint of heart.
Parenting plans that worked a few shorts weeks ago may need tweaking. If you mediated your parenting plan, your agreement likely contains language stating that “a reasonable and flexible access schedule between both parties and the child serve the child’s best interests, and as such the parties intend the plan to provide a flexible framework which may be adjusted, upon mutual agreement, to meet specific needs and circumstances.” Co-parents who have a healthy co-parenting relationship likely are able to agree upon changes that make sense for the family during this uncertain time.
But what if you can’t? What if the kids being home from school make it so the parenting plan you’ve had no longer works and you both have different ideas as to how it should change. For example,
Now than more than ever, parents need to have meaningful, respectful co-parenting communication focused solely on the best interests of their children. An evaluation of the potential issues this pandemic may raise for your family is necessary. Better to be proactive and have discussion now so that your expectations and those of co-parent are aligned.
What steps should we take?
Your parenting plan may have a built in framework for working towards amicable resolution of any modifications, such as an agreement that you will meet in person, and attempt to reach a decision that is in the best interests of the child or children. Some agreements further provide that you will consider the wishes of the child (considering the age and maturity of the child) and then, if still not in agreement, jointly consult with a professional in the area of disagreement and consider his or her recommendation. (Note, I am not suggesting children of any age should have any say in this regard, but your Agreement may have such a provision for disputes in general). Usually most agreements will provide that these steps will be taken prior to either party seeking judicial intervention. Many parenting plans even state that in the event the parties cannot agree on any parenting issue, after face to face discussion for the purpose of trying to resolve it themselves, the parties agree that upon either party’s request, they shall meet with a neutral mediator, mental health professional or co-parenting counselor and attend at least one or two sessions with such professional prior to any motion seeking judicial intervention is filed. There is usually a provision regarding how such sessions shall be paid for. Make sure you go back to your agreement to see what you and your former spouse agreed upon and follow that framework.
Tips for Healthy Communication:
If you are still unable to come to an agreement together, what are your options?
Given the pandemic, you will likely not have access to the Court system. In Connecticut, the courts will schedule and hear only those matters identified as “Priority 1 Business Functions.” Very few matters fall into this category, and mostly all have to do with emergency matters.
Private Mediation. If you cannot come to an agreement, consider mediating your dispute with a private mediator. In mediation, the mediator facilitates the negotiations of the disputing parties and tries to help them settle their dispute. The responsibility is on the parties, and not the mediator, to make the decisions. Often in parenting situations, co-parenting counselors can help enhance your co-parenting relationship to reduce the stress for both you and your children.
Private Arbitration. You can also explore private arbitration in which you and your former spouse appoint an unbiased arbitrator to make a binding decision after hearing from both sides. Proceedings can range from paper submissions to a full trial. Parties should consider the extent to which the rules of evidence will apply, the type and extent of witness testimony, upper limits on the length of the hearings, whether hearings will be in person or over electronic means, and more.
Your children need to see parents working together, having respectful communication and ensuring they are safe. You can do this, because you have to do this!
A special thank you to Kelley Hopkins Alvarez, LPC for her contributions of TIPS FOR HEALTHY COMMUNICATION!