I was once being driven by a taxi in Berlin. I cannot speak German and conversely, he could not speak English. As we drove, he persisted in talking to me in German – I guess he thought I was a quick learner or that somehow, I would eventually understand what he was trying to tell me. He started pointing out buildings and then it dawned on me – he was showing me where the Berlin Wall had been erected. He went onto explain how it even intersected houses and public buildings such as hospitals. I gathered he was saying that in the maternity ward, a mother and newborn baby could wake up to find themselves on the wrong side of the wall and the rest of their family on the other.
COVID19 may have a similar impact on families if isolation measures are stepped up. For separated families this will also present unique challenges. COVID19 is also likely to limit the number of families that can access court processes and only the most dire and urgent of situations may receive judicial assistance. It is vitally important for parents of children to truly put the needs of their children first. Family lawyers will often advise their clients to do this. Many clients believe they are acting in accordance with that advice but in reality, many of them pay lip service to this notion or delude themselves into thinking that they are putting their children’s needs first. It is now time for parents to step up to the parenting plate and cooperatively parent their children together. None of us know who will contract and who will survive this pandemic. Only the arrogant believe that statistically they will be left unscathed.
Here are some thoughts to keep you united in your parenting, even if you are separated:
1. Breathe and Stay Well
Do not panic. Children need leadership and will sense when their parents are upset or panicked. Many parents mistakenly think it is healthy if they demonstrate to their children that they are upset and cry about the behaviour of the other parent. Children do not want to be burdened by their parents’ emotions. Children do not want to see their parents’ Achilles heel. They want their parents to reassure them and protect them and allow them to be children. So, breathe and relax and do what ever you need to do to become the most effective parent you can be notwithstanding the daily or hourly stresses of a community in panic is having on you.
Ensure you do everything possible to ensure your own health and well being and do not place yourself at risk.
Do not engage in behaviours which would weaken your immune system and make healthy eating and drinking choices. Do not use the stress of the situation to drink alcohol more or eat food which has little or no nutritional value. Ask that the other parent consider similar measures.
2. Consult your Counsellor
Keep to your regular scheduled visits to your counsellor. As I say to all my family law clients, you need to surround yourself with a team of experts who can assist you through your separation. Think of yourself as an elite athlete who needs input from a variety of experts. Don’t listen to others who have been through a separation. Their journey is NOT your journey. Their choices should not be yours as they may limit you and your family’s options.
If your counsellor is in self-isolation, technology can still be used for you to remain in contact with them. If you do not have a counsellor, then you might need to read up on available online resources regarding managing your own stress and how to reassure others – particularly children.
3. Focus on the Children Not on the Pandemic
Now you have got your emotions in check, think about what parenting decisions you would be making if you were still living under the one roof and ensure to include the other parent in the decision-making process. Now is not the time for you to become highhanded or aggressive about choices. Instead think about how to develop options and all options put should contain at their heart what is really in the best interests of your children.
When proposing options, agree to put as many options forward without judgment or dismissing them out of hand. Agree to suspend jumping to a conclusion that something won’t work until you have put.
4. Respect and Listen to the Other Parent
No one parent should dictate terms and conditions to the other parent. Children are not property and you should not use the current situation to get the upper hand. This may backfire in Court when this current situation abates (and it will eventually abate). Instead think about when you were best able to problem solve with the other parent and focus on what made that problem solving easier than other conversations you may have had.
When discussing options, you might want to reality check anything you or they propose by asking simple but also sincere or “curious” questions instead of being dismissive “But that will never work…” The question instead should be “I am wondering how would that work? Do you have any ideas we could explore to see if that will work?” Is a much better way instead of dismissing the other parent out of hand. And at the heart of any question is “How will that work for the children?” and “How can we make that work for the children?”
5. Stay informed but from Reliable Sources
Do not buy into the panic or social media platforms where there is unreliable information being shared or promulgated. Make sure you access appropriate sources for your information and not ill-informed social media posts. Consider the posts by WHO (but ensure it is relevant to the Australian situation), the Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy, press releases by the Australian Government, recommendations by the Education Department or the principal of your children’s school/s.
Update your information daily and ensure you share this with the other parent or reach agreement as to what sources of information you intend to jointly consult.
This information will assist you in decision making and ensure that you determine for yourself first what you consider to be acceptable and unacceptable risks for your children. Be prepared to articulate the basis of any risk which you conclude is unacceptable.
6. Compliant and Consistent Household Measures
Ensure that your household is following and enforce measures which have been recommended from reliable sources i.e. WHO/Department of Health about minimising the risk of spreading the virus. Get your children into the habit of complying with these measures so they become second nature to them regardless of which parent they are with.
Ensure that measures you are putting in place in your home are also consistent with measures in respect of which the children are already familiar. If their schools have imposed measures and have notified parents, be consistent with these and ensure the other parent has the same information available to them. Do not assume the school has made that available to you both. Share it but make it clear that you are unaware if they have received the information or not. Offer to develop options around household measures consistent with 3 and 4 above.
Invite the other parent to be on the same page and doing likewise and instead of this being a demand, encourage them to better understand what the children have been used to doing with you and for the sake of consistency, it might be less confusing for the children if this happens in both households.
This is often easier said than done. If you are experiencing an antagonist separation you may want to seek legal assistance about how to set out the measures being taken in your household, obtain assurances from the other parent that there will be consistency regarding these measures, ensure that any literature is made available to the other parent to ensure they are on board and include them in any recognised information sharing.
Do not interrogate your children about what happens at the other parent’s house. This is not a healthy way to find out if the other parent is compliant and children do not want to be put in the middle of a parental dispute.
7. Social Isolation
If the Australian Government makes a decision to impose social isolation akin to that which has occurred in Italy, some of the following points may apply:
- Ensure that your family has the technology available to you to survive a lockdown situation and if not, start discussing this now with the other parent.
- Ensure the other parent is not contemplating shutting down services you consider vital to enable the children to thrive should isolation be imposed on the community.
- Ensure you keep the channels of communication open with the other parent should their circumstances change, and should it become necessary to stop some non-essential services to the home.
- If any member of the family is on medication, ensure you have sufficient supplies and they are kept in an appropriate manner to ensure their integrity and the other parent has done likewise. Share information about where to source and what quantities have been purchased by you and if there is a shelf life and how best to store.
- Ensure you discuss with the other parent the what ifs and if you are unable to have these conversations consult your lawyer or use a mediation service to have this conversation.
- Be prepared for one parent to maintain their connection with the children remotely and if the children are with you, your job is to ensure that the children feel free to converse with and interact with the other parent as much as possible in order to stay in touch and feel secure.
- Children need to assure themselves that both their parents are okay. If you deny the children the opportunity to speak with or interact with Skype, Zoom, Messenger, What’s App or similar, they will not thank you for it. You will have demonstrated you are unreliable. They will also become unsettled by realising you have a problem with the other parent.
- Children want to be loved and cared for by both parents. This means if a family is in geographical isolation from each other, more care must be taken to ensure that the children are the ones who feel free to make contact and as often as they want. Your job is to remind them to get in touch if they seem reluctant or have forgotten to make contact with the other parent.
- In our extensive experience, when a child shows reluctance to get in touch with or spend time with another parent – more often than not – it is because one parent makes it known to them that they do not like the other parent and would prefer the children not to see or speak with the other parent.
- One parent may say – but I never say anything negative about the other parent. That is insufficient – your job is to actively encourage the relationship between that parent and the children even if you do not hold the other parent in any regard.
8. Consult your Lawyer
Ahead of any lock down, you should ensure you know what your legal obligations and your options are in relation to your children and what the ramifications are if you decide to make unilateral decisions in respect of which the other parent may be in disagreement. If there are complex legal issues already in motion in relation to your parenting, ensure that you follow the advice of your lawyer and that they are able to give you cogent advice about the impact of COVID19 relevant to your situation.
There are limited circumstances in which you can simply cease contact between children and the other parent if there are orders and post the pandemic you will be held accountable for your decisions so ensure you understand the law as it relates to your duties and obligations pursuant to orders and in what limited situations you can withhold children from the other parent. This would only ever be a last resort and should not be undertaken lightly or without legal advice.
Make sure you always have a copy of the current parenting orders or parenting plan accessible in hard copy in case complaint is made by the other parent. As access to the Court system may be extremely limited you might be more dependent on your lawyer to assist resolve interim or COVID19 related issues rather than you depending on the Courts to assist you resolve matters.
Most lawyers are moving their operations to work remotely, and you will still be able to obtain legal advice even if social isolation occurs. If you have not yet engaged a lawyer but need legal advice during this time, as the system of Family Law in Australia is federal, many family lawyers represent clients without ever having met them face to face. This will be no different to the many occasions that Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers has looked after the legal needs and provided advice to clients residing interstate or indeed overseas.
If your relationship with the other parent is fraught and you experience threats of family violence and they are using the situation to intimidate you, then you should contact Victoria Police on 000 if the threat is imminent.
The information in this blog does not constitute legal advice and cannot be relied upon by you. If you require advice specific to your situation you must contact Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers. The contents of this blog are relevant as at 23 March 2020. We recommend you obtain specific advice relevant to you and your family’s situation.
Caroline Counsel is the Principal of Caroline Counsel Family Lawyers, an Accredited Family Law Specialist, Nationally Accredited Mediator and Collaborative Practitioner.