How divorced or separated parents share custody of their kids during COVID-19 crisis

Parents across Canada are trying to figure out what to do with their children — how to keep them busy, how to entertain them and so on — now that many are stuck inside their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for those who are separated or divorced, it poses an additional challenge: how to share custody of their kids.

Sarah Carlyon co-parents her three children — ages 10, 8 and 6 — with her ex-husband in Smiths Falls, Ont. The kids split their time 50/50 between their two homes, which are about 15 minutes away from one another.

She said in some ways she and her ex-husband have to communicate more these days, particularly when the children aren’t with her.

“Normally, my ex and I respect each other’s distance. We don’t really check in. But I’ve been texting daily, ‘How are the kids?’ I just want to hug and hold them a little closer.”

‘What’s stressing me out’

These are early days of the pandemic. And for separated couples who have an amicable, or at least, working relationship with one another — for now, things are status quo. But it’s still not without worries.

“My concern is, is it ethically sound for me to shuttle my kids back and forth? Am I being unethical, saying ‘You can go to your dad’s,'” said Kat Antonopolous, whose children spend 40 per cent of the time with their father. “Am I making a bad decision?”

Antonopolous is a mother of three children, ages nine, six and four. They split their time with her and her ex-husband, who lives down the street.

“My concern is if we go into a full quarantine, like Italy, and don’t leave our house, then how are we going to deal with that? If things escalate, what’s going to happen?” she said. “There’s so many factors, so many moving parts in this. That’s what’s stressing me out.”

Communicate directly, family lawyer advises

The concerns are real, and family lawyers are hearing them more and more during the past couple of weeks.

Michelle Sample, a family lawyer with Toronto-based Goldhart Law, advises ex-couples who do get along to communicate, and try and come up with a plan.

“Reach out to the other parent directly because hopefully the person who cares most about your children is the other parent. Identify what are the [coronavirus] risks and try to agree on that. Do we have an agreement that everyone in your house and mine is self-isolating? Maybe it’s not reasonable then to continue things as normal.”

She said things become much more complex if separated or divorced parents have an acrimonious relationship or some sort of supervision agreement. The supervisor — often a neutral third party, such as a friend or family member — transfers kids between the parents.

Sometimes, the supervisor stays during a visitation. But some supervisors are now self-isolating or don’t want to be the conduit for fear of spreading the virus if they’re infected themselves and have stopped doing their jobs.

In other cases, the supervised access requires it to take place in a public place, like a coffee shop or recreation centre. And with so many of them no longer offering seating areas or shuttered altogether, Sample said it’s proving very difficult.

Add to that, she said that courts, including family courts, are only accepting urgent matters right now.

“You might have a case and were banking on bringing the matter in front of court to get more access, and now, that’s just adjourned till further notice,” Sample said. “If somebody is relying on the courts, we have no idea when we’re going to be able to get in there.”


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