Juggling social distancing when your kids are divided between two households

There is no rulebook for custody during coronavirus. Fear and confusion over how to navigate social distancing and strict hygiene measures have resulted in many separated and divorced parents taking matters into their own hands.

Some parents are restricting or withdrawing access to children, citing concerns that the virus could spread between households. The result is that their former partners have been left out in the cold during what is already an extraordinarily bleak time.

Job losses have created new financial stresses and social isolation has pushed mental health issues to the foreground. For many, it has heightened strains that already existed in relationships and put children at risk.

Relationships Australia has fielded a flood of calls on how to manage child care arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a pretty unprecedented time of stress and anxiety for a lot of people,” says its national executive officer, Nick Tebbey. “And when we have families who are separated, or going through the separation process, it’s only adding to what’s already a challenging period for them.

“There’s the uncertainty of how to navigate the new world order, so people are doing all the right things in terms of wanting to follow the government guidelines and reduce the risk of spread of the virus.

“But then, when they see that conflicts with, or has the potential to conflict with, their shared custody arrangement or what court orders say, it throws people into uncertainty and challenges them to find the best way to make everyone happy.

“We are receiving a lot of calls from people right across the country wanting to resolve these sorts of issues. COVID-19 and the added pressure that’s putting on people is one of the first things that’s mentioned in almost all the calls.”

Court orders surrounding shared custody remain in place, but in a March statement the Family Court of Australia acknowledged “the highly unusual circumstances now faced by Australian parents and carers” making compliance with these orders difficult, and in some cases impossible.

This includes drop-off and pick-up arrangements from schools or extra-curricular activities that are now shut down and transport over state borders, some of which are closed (NSW and Victoria were the only states to keep their borders open).

In all cases, children need to come first, says lawyer Annabel Murray from Australia Family Lawyers. “It’s a big challenge for children because they’re missing out on the connections with their peer groups and face-to-face time with their friends,” she says.

Murray adds that as well as missing out on time with one of their parents, they’re also losing contact with other members of that parent’s household, such as grandparents and step-siblings.

She also warns parents to be “very careful” about withholding time with children from an ex-partner. “When parents do reach a new arrangement it would certainly be prudent for them to do that in writing so that both of them are very clear about it.”

‘My ex respects my decision’

Perth mum Miyuki Prentice chose to keep her children solely with her.

Miyuki Prentice saw how grave conditions were becoming in mid-March and pulled her two boys, aged six and four, out of school and childcare a week before the government ordered lockdowns. Three days later she lost both her part-time job at Myer and a job offer of full-time work as a travel agent at Flight Centre. While that was a blow, it meant she could spend more time with her children.

“It’s a lot trickier in our situation, I think because there isn’t anyone to take care of me if I get sick,” she says. “I’m kind of manic about it because it’s bad enough when you get sick with young kids around, let alone with something that might take you out for a couple of weeks.”

Miyuki and her former partner, who didn’t want to be named for this article, have been separated for two years. She has told her ex, who works as a hotel manager and is therefore in an environment where he’s more likely to be exposed, that their usual 80:20 split is unworkable during lockdown restrictions and that the boys are best placed staying with her.

During this time Miyuki’s ex had regular contact with his sons online, but she ruled out physical contact. “I was more worried about him, because they had some cruise ship people, flight attendants and returned Australians staying in the hotel,” she says. “I asked him to keep his distance from the children and he respected that.”

The children returned to weekend visits when WA schools re-opened recently, but Miyuki says the pandemic put a major strain on her relationship with her former partner. “We’d established a good routine,” she says, “but coronavirus threw a real spanner in the works.”

‘We’re spending more time together’

Melbourne parents Kish Nilaweera and Lynette Christie considered moving back in together.

Coronavirus may have pushed some split families further apart, but Kish Nilaweera and Lynette Christie have worked hard to strengthen their relationship for the sake of their two sons, aged 10 and six.

“We’ve got more communication now and we’re spending more time together with the boys,” Kish says. “The children are still moving between our two houses, but we have spent more time together as a family.”

The pair discussed cohabitation, but decided it would be best for Kish to stay over at Leni’s now and again. Through this arrangement, the parents hoped their two boys would get the best from both parents while waiting to go back to school.

“We have two very different children and as a single parent it’s hard to entertain them both,” Kish says. “We initially spoke about it to minimise contact with the outside world, and to give the boys stability.

“It’s down to the parents and their ability to work together. Any parent who says it’s too hard is putting themselves before their children.”
Kish Nilaweera

“As a trial, we spent a weekend together as a family, which went very well. The arrangement has no impact on child-support obligations, which will remain as they are.”

Flexibility in catering to each other’s work commitments is key to their united approach. “I think child-raising in general is down to the parents and their ability to work together,” Kish says. “Any parent who says it’s too hard is putting themselves before their children. Look for common ground, do not undercut each other, and make sure your children are put first.

“This is a very uncertain time and our primary concerns are our three monkeys, our dog included, and to make sure they are safe and happy.”

‘We’re talking to each other more’
Melbourne mum Bree Tollitt tried to keep custody arrangements as normal as possible.
Since they separated two-and-a-half years ago, Bree Tollitt has enjoyed an amicable relationship with her ex-partner. And despite the stress of coronavirus, the two have managed to maintain a stable routine for their eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.

“It is more difficult to see eye to eye on arrangements,” she says. “We’re both trying to get our heads around it while trying to do what’s best for the kids, and that can lead to stress and heightened anxiety”

The children normally spend 30 to 40 per cent of their time with their dad, who didn’t want to be named for this article. This has dropped slightly because he can no longer take them to weekend sport and after-school activities. However, his flexibility increased when his work as a plasterer ran out in early May.

“They are still going to their dad’s house every second weekend and for dinner one night a week as per our usual arrangement,” says Bree.
“If anything we are probably talking to each other a little more than usual due to the situation changing daily and having to discuss how to deal with the changes and what is going to be best for them. I think it is important that they still see both parents and keep some sort of routine.”

When her children are with her, Bree’s toughest challenge is keeping two cooped-up children happy and occupied. Aside from this, she says co-parenting is still workable.

“The kids still need reassurance and comfort – and to be getting the same advice from both parents, even if you are not under the same roof – to make them feel safe and to lower anxiety.”

Original published on The Sydney Morning Herald – 30 May 2020
Juggling social distancing when your kids are divided between two households

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