Two years on, the COVID-19 pandemic is a daily reality that the millions of single, divorced, and separated parents across the country are struggling to navigate, and things are only getting more complicated. Parents are increasingly fighting over children’s vaccines, masks, remote schooling, and travel due to the differing views on COVID-19 safety.
With society slowly reopening, parents are frantically asking themselves whether their child should be socializing with their peers or staying at home. Are indoor activities safe? What about summer camps?
The pandemic will have a long-standing effect on child custody issues, regardless of when things return to normal.
So, if you are the parent who wants to vaccinate your child, and the other parent objects, what do you do? You can go to court. However, any court action may take two to three months to be scheduled, due to the backup in the court system.
Judges are finding it difficult to balance the needs of families during this challenging moment in time. Not only are judges trying to weigh the best interests of all parties involved, but they also have to determine the safest outcome for any affected minors. Because of the time it takes to get court decisions, judges and attorneys try to get parents who have different views on COVID-19 safety to resolve their disputes outside of court or through mediation whenever possible.
There are creative alternative ways parents can resolve their pandemic child custody disputes outside of the courtroom, such as appointing a parent coordinator, appointing a child specialist, seeing a pediatrician, or going to co-parenting counseling.
Appointing a Parent Coordinator
Marquette 2018, is an associate attorney with Becker, Hickey & Poster, S.C., in Milwaukee, where she practices in family law, elder law, estate planning, special needs planning, trust administration, guardianship, and probate matters.
The court may appoint a parent coordinator to aid the spouses or parents in discussing the custody of their child or children. The parents can stipulate to an order appointing a parenting coordinator. The court, on its own initiative can appoint a parent coordinator even if the parents do not agree nor give consent (Wis. Stat. section 805.06).
Parent coordinators are specifically trained professionals whose work focuses on helping parents manage their parenting plan, improve communication, and mediate and resolve disputes. The parent coordinator can decide many types of disputes between parents including, but not limited to, school choice, vaccines, masks, children appearing remotely or in person to school, medical procedures, variable costs, changes to placement schedule, transportation responsibilities, placement exchange locations, travel, the children’s introduction to or contact with the parent’s significant other or family members who may pose a risk, and participation in extracurricular activities.
Although the parent coordinator may be an experienced family law attorney, the parent coordinator may not give either party individual legal advice or representation, as this is not the parent coordinator’s role.
A parent coordinator will consult with outside sources, such as teachers, therapists, physicians, attorney for either party, family members, etc., and review school records and speak to, or review the records of those the parties and/or child have met with.
Communications between the parties and the parent coordinator are not confidential. Therefore, written and oral communications made by the parties may be disclosed and are admissible as evidence in court. Information provided by the parties, either in discussions with the parent coordinator or in writing by the parties, will be considered by the parent coordinator when making decisions, and may be disclosed in their written decisions.
Information that the parent coordinator receives from confidential sources, pursuant to Releases, will only be disclosed as allowed under Wisconsin law. The parties are provided notice that parent coordinators may disclose information if they have a reason to believe that a child is in need of protection or either party or another person is in danger of bodily harm.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement regarding a dispute, the parent coordinator will prepare the written Findings, Decision, and Order, which will be provided to the parties and the court. The decision will be immediately binding upon the parties. Usually, either parent may appeal the decision to the court.
The parent coordinator process seeks to reduce conflict between parties, reduce chronic litigation, help the parents save money on legal fees, and assist parents in the expedited resolution of disputes.
Appointing a Child Specialist
Child specialists are a neutral third party in a collaborative or divorce case, which means they will not work toward pursing the desired outcome of either parent. Instead, their purpose as a mental health professional, is to assist in a conversation about the children’s needs and requirements, and address concerns in decisions on custody, visitation, and parenting time.
The main focus of the child specialist is the best interest of the child or children they are working with. Because he or she can gain a unique impression of the needs of everyone involved during a child custody or placement issue, a child specialist can be effective in helping parents to work out a plan that meets not only their goals, but also what is best for the children.
When the child specialist and parents reach a decision, it is up to the mediator (if they are then used as a drafting attorney), or a collaborative lawyer to enter the parenting plan into court in a Stipulation and Order, so that it be part of the complete legal settlement.
Using a child specialist eliminates the need for emotionally destructive and expensive litigation, and avoids the need for a guardian ad litem, while helping parents to make important decisions about the future of their family and children.
Seeing a Pediatrician
Pediatricians can play a valuable role by providing an objective perspective on issues related to child custody disputes related to medical care. For example, the parents can get a medical recommendation from the pediatrician regarding a child taking a vaccine or wearing a mask.
This provides a neutral and objective perspective that can help parents determine how to best meet the needs of their children. This is especially true in cases where a family has used the same pediatrician for a number of years, and where the children have developed a relationship with the physician. Parents can agree to be bound by a pediatrician recommendation when they have a medical dispute.
Pediatricians have a wide range of professional contacts and can provide referrals to counselors, social workers, or psychiatrists as needed. Those resources support parents and children who are going through a family law case. Working together to ensure that each child has the support that he or she needs during this challenging time is an excellent way to begin the co-parenting relationship.
Going to Co-parenting Counseling
Co-parenting counseling can be a tremendous help to balance the role of ex-partners with the purpose of working together to create the best experience they can for their children. Co-parenting counseling and co-parenting therapy are conducted by a qualified therapist with experience working with families through divorce or child custody disputes.
Even though both parents are the ones to attend co-parent therapy, this is to benefit the children. Together, parents meet with the therapist who is a neutral party and can help them focus on child-centered parenting plans and approves to dispute resolution.
During counseling, parents make and document co-parenting arrangements. Some of the discussions focus on logistics. Creating a parenting schedule can be part of therapy, as are other practical details like transportation between homes, getting children to and from school and activities, how medical decisions will be made, and educational considerations (which school to attend, how to help children thrive academically and socially). Parents also talk through other subjects with the assistance of the neutral counselor.
Conclusion: Adversity and Opportunity
Adversity created by the coronavirus, child care, home educating, and illness should become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child.
For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories and mixed emotions. It is important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to find alternative ways to resolve their child custody disputes during the pandemic and discussed ways to keep their children safe.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Family Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.