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COVID-19 and care arrangements

COVID-19 and care arrangements

COVID-19 and care arrangements

Wednesday 1 April, 2020

COVID-19 has descended upon us as an unprecedented event and at an unprecedented speed.  There was little warning given to the New Zealand public about the Alert Level 4 lockdown.  For separated families, there was little time to consider how the lockdown would affect their children and their care arrangements.

Thankfully, we have received guidelines from the Principal Family Court Judge to assist parents who are involved in shared care or contact arrangements pursuant to Family Court orders or parenting agreements.

The overriding consideration is for parents to make decisions that are in the best interests of their children.

In light of the risks posed by COVID-19, we suggest that the overriding consideration for parents is the safety of their children while New Zealand is at Alert Level 4.  Parents should also consider safety of families members who are aged over 70, or have pre-existing conditions, if those family members reside in the same household.

The Justice Minister has made it clear that shared care and contact should continue to the extent possible during the lockdown, provided it is safe to do so.  Where there is a shared care arrangement and the families are in different towns or communities, the safety of the children and others in their family units should not be compromised by movement between those homes, particularly if there are more than two homes involved. An example of this would be if one parent resided in Hamilton and the other in Auckland.

It has been confirmed that children can keep moving between two households in the same community, unless the child or someone in either home is unwell, has been overseas in the last 14 days, or has been in close contact with another person who has the virus or is being tested for it.  In determining whether you are in the “same community”, the guidelines state that houses which are less than one hour’s drive apart are within the same community. You may wish to take a copy of your parenting order with you when you are transporting children between homes.

You should also consider whether your shared care arrangement could allow COVID-19 to spread, keeping in mind that children may display few, if any, symptoms.  If there is any risk that it could, this may mean your child/children should stay with one parent or caregiver for the initial four-week period

Parents could consider minimising changeovers so that children spend longer periods of time with each parent.

Where children cannot move between homes the Court expects indirect contact - such as by phone or social media messaging to be generous. There are various apps that you can use nowadays, including Skype, Facetime, Zoom, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to initiate this contact. It is important for children that they maintain as much contact as possible with both parents during Alert Level 4, even if it is not physical. Similarly, the care parent should make an increased effort to share updates with the other parent (such as via Facebook), and encourage direct communication between older children and the other parent.   

We encourage parents to put aside their conflict at this time and make decisions that are in the best interests of their children and their families. Children should be able to see their parents and caregivers lead by example. This global pandemic should not be seen as an opportunity for parents to unilaterally change established care arrangements without reason or otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child’s best interests or the court ordered care arrangements.

The Family Court will continue to operate through all pandemic alert levels, but on a reduced capacity, dealing with priority proceedings. Those included in the priority proceedings includes applications for Compulsory Treatment Orders, interim parenting orders, enforcement of parenting orders, family violence orders and those involving vulnerable parties such as welfare guardianship or property orders under the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act; and those arising out of social dysfunction and family harm.

Above all, it is imperative to follow Government guidelines. If in doubt about your rights and obligations as a parent and guardian, please take advice from a specialised family lawyer so that you are fully informed before making a decision about the next steps.

It is business as usual for Tompkins Wake and we are now working remotely. We can provide advice via email, phone, Microsoft Teams, and Skype.  

Our family disputes team lawyers are here to assist you with any disagreements that may arise in co-parenting relationships.  We also work with clients on dissolution (divorce), protection orders, division of relationship property, contracting out agreements (pre-nups), estate issues and trust matters.