By Kelly Johnson
I’m pretty sure today is Thursday, April 9, 2020. I had to check because, let’s face it, nobody knows what freaking day it is. Kids have been out of school for several weeks and many parents have inadvertently and involuntarily become homeschool parents, in addition to continuing to perform their day jobs, in addition to washing their hands 500 times per day, in addition to social distancing from their friends and elderly family members, in addition to watching way too much Tiger King. Basically, everyone is just trying to stay sane and healthy while we patiently wait for this pandemic to end. Side note: Tiger King will help you feel sane. Promise.
As if this stress isn’t enough, many families with custody orders and agreements are navigating these difficult days with fear that their children will be put in harm’s way by going back and forth between their parents’ homes. One parent may still be working outside of the home, one parent may not be properly “social distancing” from friends, one parent may have taken too many trips to the liquor store, one parent may be posting excessive memes on Facebook about Carole Baskin.
The current North and South Carolina state stay-at-home-type orders allow people to follow their court orders, which includes custody orders. So, YES, they still must be followed. In general, this pandemic is not a valid reason for one parent to withhold time from the other parent, despite their concerns of travel back and forth, or their concerns for one parent remaining on the couch in PJ pants, or their concerns of the kids being exposed to fantastic Joe Exotic songs. (Of course, if someone in the home of the other parent is sick or has a fever, or there is any legitimate concern for COVID-19 exposure and/or the health and safety of the kids, that’s another story. Call your lawyer for clarification.i)
This afternoon, I found myself on the phone with a police officer in a South Carolina county regarding a dispute over exchange of my client’s children. Mother and Father have a permanent custody order, which explicitly designates regular time to each parent based on the days of the week or holidays. Mother refused to allow Father to pick up the children on his day and stated that the children were not safe to stay at his home due to the pandemic. Once I provided the custody order to the officer, the issue was resolved and kids went home with Father, as provided in the regular custody schedule. However, the officer was confused about the custody schedule.
What bewildered me, and frankly inspired me to write about this subject, was the police officer’s comment to me, “Well, the kids are all out of school so they should be following their SUMMER schedules.” My mouth dropped open. I was glad it wasn’t a video phone call, as my gum fell to the ground in slow mo.
“Um, NO Sir!” I quickly, yet politely, exclaimed. “Kids are in school, some are now on Spring Break in certain counties; but, let’s be clear here—the summer schedules don’t trigger until the date that the school would have actually let out.” Kids are still doing schoolwork; kids are still meeting with their teachers and classmates on Zoom; kids are still learning new material; kids are still going to bed at a reasonable hour so their parents can drink all the wine and watch Netflix. Kids are certainly not enjoying their summer vacations right now—neither are teachers, for that matter. Remember, kids are just beginning the fourth quarter of their current school year.
While this pandemic is certainly affecting our normal lives like we never imagined it would (do we even remember what “normal” feels like?), please continue to follow your regular parenting schedules until the end of the school yearii, please follow your holiday schedules for Spring Break/Easter, please do not withhold your kids from their other parent, and please, I beg you, stop inviting me to join your Facebook Group to free Joe Exotic. Just stop it.
Use this opportunity to reconnect with your kids and try to be extra empathetic to your ex. Don’t turn your pandemic parenting into pandemonium.
i Executive Order No. 121 State of North Carolina Stay at Home Order
https://files.nc.gov/governor/documents/files/EO121-Stay-at-Home-Order-3.pdf Executive Order No. 2020-21 State of South Carolina
ii On April 14, 2020, the North Carolina Judicial Branch issued a memo regarding Custody and Visitation Recommendations During Covid-19.