What to Do if Illness Threatens Your Parenting Time

mother with mask

Thousands of Pennsylvania residents have gotten sick with COVID-19 in the last couple months. Many of those people were likely parents with parenting plans. Many more were children splitting their time between divorced or separated parents. How should that sickness or the resulting quarantine affect your parenting time schedule? What should you do if you, your child, or someone else in your house has an illness that threatens your parenting time?

Not Every Common Cold Cancels Parenting Time, But COVID-19 Might

Any conversation about illness and parenting time must start by acknowledging that you don’t have to be a child’s primary custodial parent to care for them when they are sick. Generally speaking, the common cold or a sinus infection won’t be cause to cancel your regularly scheduled parenting time. Most Pennsylvania parenting plans include specific instructions about what to do when a parent or child is sick.

As a general rule, the first step is clear communication with the other parent. As soon as you believe parenting time may not occur you should be talking to the other parent about:

  • Who is sick
  • What a doctor recommends as far as staying home or limiting contact with others
  • What it means for the current parenting plan
  • How adjustments should be made

Remember that parents who share legal custody are required to tell one another about any illness or injury the child suffers. Even before it affects your parenting time plan, you and your child’s other parent should be communicating about your child’s condition and any instructions or medications prescribed by a doctor.

Consider Infection Periods and the Risks of Exposure

However, compared to other forms of illness, COVID-19 poses special challenges as a novel virus because of its long infection period and doctors’ advice to quarantine anyone displaying symptoms. If your step-daughter is struggling with allergies it won’t keep you from bringing your son home for the weekend. However, if anyone in the household has been exposed to COVID-19, you may be asked to quarantine the entire family for at least 14 days. That is likely to overlap with some parenting time.

This illness shows that parents need to consider when their children -- or they themselves -- are contagious and for how long, as well as the risk to the child if exposed to the virus. The common cold or flu are generally thought to only be contagious for the first few days. This could mean that a child can visit their non-custodial parent even while they are expressing symptoms. However, with COVID-19, the infection period often comes before any symptoms and can extend past when they feel well. You should talk to your child’s pediatrician or doctor about when they are medically cleared to avoid spreading the illness to others.

What to Do if You Have to Miss Parenting Time Because of Illness

Sometimes, parenting time will need to be adjusted because of a parent’s illness, rather than a child’s. When it comes to long-term conditions, a parent’s physical or mental illness only matters to the court to the degree it affects his or her ability to supervise and care for a child. However, an acute illness, such as the flu or COVID-19 may mean that you need to take a break because you are unable to drive, or don’t want to expose your child to the infection.

A previous post discussed strategies for longer-term adjustments to a family’s parenting plan due to high risks of COVID-19 exposure. However, even without medical vulnerabilities or a higher degree of risk, a family may still be affected by the disease.

When a parent or child is sick and can’t participate in parenting time, both parents should communicate (either directly or through their attorneys) to schedule make up time. This time should be similar to the missed visitation in length and kind. So if you regularly spend time with your child every other weekend, you may decide to postpone your visitation until the next weekend you and the child are both healthy, rather than exercising a series of evening visits over the next week. Your family law attorney can help you negotiate for make-up parenting time that is fair for you and your family.

What to Do if You are Denied Parenting Time Out of Fear of Disease

Unfortunately, sometimes one parent will take decision-making into their own hands by denying parenting time. This could happen because a parent is afraid that the child will be exposed in your home. In non-COVID-19 settings, a parent may falsely believe a chronic illness or condition makes you unable to care for your child.

When that happens and negotiations for makeup time fail, you and your family law attorney may need to file a motion to enforce parenting time. This motion will ask the court to hold your parent to the existing parenting plan, and possibly issue sanctions for violating the order. You should expect your co-parent to counter that motion by claiming your parenting plan needs to be changed because of your medical condition. Your attorney will help you prepare to defend against that argument, including working with your doctor to show you are not contagious, or are still able to care for your child despite your illness.

Quarantines and social distancing can be distressing for you and your child. When illness threatens your parenting time you need to be prepared to negotiate adjustments to your parenting plan that keeps everyone safe while protecting your relationship with your child. At Berman & Associates, our family court attorneys can help. Our staff is working hard from home to make sure our clients’ needs are met during the Coronavirus shutdown. We can negotiate with your child’s other parent or their attorney on your behalf. We also have access to the court system for emergency parenting time denials. We welcome you to contact us to schedule a virtual consultation with an attorney who can help answer your COVID-19 parenting time questions and find a solution that works for you and your family.