Keep at Residence is filled with dad and mom who share custody of youngsters

When Governor Phil Scott ordered Vermonters to “stay home” last month, he opened the door to a spate of questions for parents who share custody of a child.

“When orders come in from the government, your first reaction is, ‘Oh God, am I being stopped in the car with my kid and asked where I am going? “A parent in Hinesburg who shares custody said last week.

The Covid-19 crisis has raised questions about what is allowed and safe for parents of children moving between homes at a time when health officials are urging Vermonters to minimize contact with others.

Family law attorneys want more support from the courts to help parents and guardians make decisions about how to deal with situations where children move between homes during the crisis.

Vermont judges agree that court orders over parent-child contact remain in place despite Scott’s home stay orders, according to Chief Justice Brian Grearson. The courts drastically reduced activity during the crisis and only heard emergency requests. Although requests to change custody arrangements may be considered in certain circumstances, Grearson said the “stay at home” order was not enough to trigger an emergency.

The state’s Supreme Court has not yet issued guidance on parenting and child custody decisions, and Grearson does not expect the court to do so.

“The Supreme Court believes that every case has a unique factual basis and decisions relating to those cases are best left at the discretion of the trial judges,” he said.

The parent in Hinesburg, who asked not to be identified by name due to the custody agreement, said the coronavirus crisis created a very emotional situation for parents who share custody.

“When the world is on fire, you want to be with your child,” said the parent, adding that routine and connection are also important. “Children need their parents, and if they have two parents, they need to be with both parents.”

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The family made some changes to the schedule to accommodate the unusual circumstances. In a typical school week, it makes sense for the child to change houses on Friday after school because they have the weekend to settle in. With schools fired for the remainder of the school year, students are now engaging in distance learning and Saturday makes more sense. Because they have a good relationship and have been in a shared parenting situation for years, it was easy for both parents to discuss changes in light of the “stay home” order.

However, it is a challenge for others who may have more strained relationships to meet court-ordered joint parenting arrangements.

Patricia Benelli, a Chester attorney and chairwoman of the Vermont Bar’s family law division, said lawyers across the state answer questions from confused clients.

“You have one order from the courts and another from the governor, and they’re contradicting themselves,” she said.

While the judges have made it clear that they assume that the court-ordered custody agreements will remain in place, the courts can change the rules in emergency situations.

Benelli said lawyers would like more guidance from the judiciary on what factors to consider. In the midst of the Covid 19 crisis, various factors are gaining new importance in contact agreements between children and parents. For example, how far does a child have to travel between parents? Or, if there is a particularly high risk for a parent, is there a possibility that going back and forth could damage a child’s health?

“There are tons of questions that arise when we take this into account that we normally don’t need to,” said Benelli.

Many parents are figuring out how to adjust visiting schedules in the coronavirus crisis without going to court, she said. Court orders usually allow parents the flexibility to make changes based on circumstances. In some cases, especially when relationships are controversial, changing schedules cannot be easily navigated outside of the courts.

Benelli hopes the Vermont Supreme Court will issue guidelines to help attorneys better help clients make decisions about parent-child custody arrangements. Benelli said there was an obvious inconsistency in the flexibility of different judges.

“We basically drive it, and our customers drive it,” she said.

According to Senator Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an attorney with background in law, some lawmakers have been concerned about the impact of the “stay at home” order on custody of parents and children since it was published.

Legislators have checked whether visits between foster children and parents are permitted during the crisis. A House committee last week reviewed the language that would allow the courts to postpone face-to-face meetings of parents and foster children for the duration of the pandemic for public health reasons.

Interrupting the visit between children and parents, Benning said, can break bonds between them. The threat to do so is “possibly a weapon that can be used by those who have the child,” Benning said. “They just don’t want to put up with the other side and that’s very worrying.”

He advises clients to maintain typical contact as per their court order, unless a family has been diagnosed with Covid-19. At this point they could turn to the courts.

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Effie Davis, who shares custody of her son, said families are concerned about the health problems when a child moves between households and doubles exposure to the virus.

“If the kid can’t go to school because this stuff is so contagious, the visit should stop,” she said.

While some parents can easily discuss changing schedules, Davis said, the subject can be difficult and emotionally charged for others.

“It almost becomes,” You’re using the kid against me, “when it isn’t at all,” she said.

Davis and her mother, Jeanette, who is helping care for the child, said the parents’ court visiting instructions should be milder during the crisis.

“If it’s something we’ve never seen before, people are told to stay home. Then these court orders have to be flexible enough to allow this bend, ”said Jeanette.

Parent-child custody regimes are particularly difficult to navigate as they are generally tailored to individual family situations, several lawyers noted.

That means potential changes to cases can vary widely, according to Michelle Donnelly of the Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic.

“All cases will be so factual,” she said.

In some cases, a parent may be particularly concerned about the child’s exposure to the virus. But she said, “those concerns about what might happen may not be enough to cause an emergency.” Closing non-essential stores and restricting gatherings has also complicated court orders that require a supervised visit or meeting in public places.

The novelty of the coronavirus emergency has taken the state’s legal system into uncharted waters, Donnelly said.

“Lawyers and judges, as well as the entire judicial system, rely on this idea of ​​precedent,” Donnelly said. “We did that before, so we’ll do this now.”

“We are only in an area where there is no precedent,” she said.

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