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Parents all across Pennsylvania, and the U.S. are finding themselves facing the Coronavirus pandemic with more questions than answers. That includes questions about how COVID-19 will affect their Pennsylvania parenting time plan or visitation orders. Should you follow the court order even if it puts your child at risk of catching the virus, or should you look for some other agreement with your child’s other parent.
On March 23, 2020, in response to the novel Coronavirus COVID-19, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine issued “Stay at Home” orders applying to Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Monroe, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties, in an effort to contain the virus. However, on April 1, 2020, before those orders were set to expire the Governor acted again, expanding the “Stay-at-Home” order statewide, and extending them until at least April 30. The orders said that Pennsylvania residents could only leave their homes for essential travel, such as getting supplies or groceries, maintaining their health or safety, or working in essential businesses.
This order, together with orders from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court restricting court services, left many parents wondering how COVID-19 would affect their parenting time plans. These plans are part of a joint or shared custody order, and describe when and how children should move between their parents’ homes for visitation. Sometimes these custody exchanges can happen more than once a week. Other times, especially when parents live far apart, they may only happen during school breaks. Until now, no one had thought to ask about what happens when schools close for a month and parents are told to “Stay calm. Stay home. Stay safe.”
The Stay-at-Home Orders and the pandemic that caused them raise serious concerns for some parents. When a child -- or anyone -- moves between households it means that everyone in both families are exposed to each other’s germs. If one parent has been exposed to the virus, there is a real chance that their child will become infected, and could carry that infection with them to the other parent’s home. With the end of the school year approaching, many out-of-state parents are also worried that the Coronavirus will force them to miss out on summer parenting time as airlines continue to cancel flights.
The Stay at Home orders also create their own confusion as parents wonder if they are permitted to travel to custody exchanges, what to do if a parent is in a high-risk profession, or if children are allowed to fly out of state to visit far-away parents. Since each state is responding to COVID-19 individually, when custody exchanges cross state lines, it can be twice as complicated to know what to do.
The Pennsylvania Stay-at-Home orders do not overrule your existing parenting time plan. The governor’s order says that “travel required by . . . court order” is essential and allowed even during the shut-down. That includes traveling to a court-ordered parenting time exchange. Parents with visitation orders are legally required to follow them. That means if you unilaterally decide to cancel your child’s trip to their other parent’s home because of the Coronavirus, you may face contempt of court or have to make up the time after the danger has passed.
However, in some cases it will not be safe to send your child to their other parent’s home if it presents a high risk that your child will catch the COVID-19 virus. In those cases, family courts in other states have begun to temporarily modify custody rather than risk exposure. The key here is that one parent should not make the decision to change the parenting time plan alone. Both parents should agree. If the parties cannot agree, you may have to file an emergency motion and hope that the court takes up the issue while performing restricted services.
This is where an experienced family law attorney can help. These are unprecedented times, but the idea of temporarily modifying a visitation schedule when circumstances change is not new. At Berman & Associates, our family court attorneys know how to negotiate on your behalf to protect your children, your health, and your rights in these strange times. To make sure our clients’ needs are met during the Coronavirus shutdown, our staff is working hard from home and we also have access to the court system for emergencies. We welcome you to contact us to schedule a virtual consultation with an attorney who can help answer your COVID-19 custody questions and find a solution that works for you and your family.
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