Article written by Ruhaina Dhirani
The COVID-19 pandemic has made life challenging for just about everyone, but in particular parents of children who are separated or divorced. Schools and non-essential businesses have temporarily closed, individuals are working remotely and families have been instructed to self-isolate. However, there are still many individuals who are unable to work remotely, namely front line workers.
In situations where a co-parent is a front-line worker, the complications caused by social distancing can be exacerbated. Concerns and matters regarding custody have significantly increased. Even more so, hurdles can arise when parents are fearful for the health and safety of their children. In light of the above, parenting arrangements and exchanges have become an extraordinary challenge for front-line workers, as they deal with the stigma associated with the virus and unknown fears.
An example of such was reported in a recent news article whereby an emergency room doctor in Miami who treats COVID-19 patients had temporarily lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter. This mother felt that the Order discriminated against her, as a parent and divorcee, as she would not have been given the same treatment if she was still married. She would not have had to choose between her child and the oath she took as a physician.
How are Front Line Workers being treated in Ontario?
Thankfully, in Ontario there have not been any reported incidents of front-line workers having to choose between their job and being a parent.
The general rule of thumb is that divorced or separated parents must abide by their court orders or status quo that were in place before the pandemic. We are fortunate to have recent case law, such as Ribeiro v Wright,that provides us with a framework for how separated parents should conduct themselves during the pandemic. The recent court decisions arising from the COVID-19 crisis have not tolerated any unilateral self-help remedies, either on withholding or overholding access without specific personal restrictions, especially when there is a court order in place.
The courts have consistently affirmed, that an existing court order reflects a determination that meaningful personal contact with both parents is in the best interests of the child, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By putting a child’s relationship with any parent on hold, there are serious risks to causing emotional distress to that child. Justice Pazaratz, in Ribeiro v Wrightstates:
“None of us know how long this crisis is going to last. In many respects we are going to have to put our lives “on hold” until COVID-19 is resolved. But children’s lives – and vitally important family relationships – cannot be placed “on hold” indefinitely without risking serious emotional harm and upset. “
The focus in our family courts is not on a parent’s marital or occupation status, but rather on the health, safety and wellbeing of the child/ren and their families and the children’s best interest. This was illustrated in the case of Zee v Quon that involved a father’s refusal to return the child to the mother’s care because of the mother’s assumed exposure as a health care worker at a hospital. The court found that even though the mother was exposed to a greater risk of contracting the virus, as a health care professional,
“…both her and her employer are well aware of all the protocols to prevent transmission of the infection. If the mother is required to return to work, she will take all necessary precautions to keep her child safe while in her care.”
As such the mother’s parenting time with her child was not suspended.
Some useful tips for parents who are co-parenting with front line workers
- Stay Child Focused:Educate your children about the seriousness of the virus instead of instilling fear in them. Speak positively about the other parent and the heroic duties that they are performing as a front-line worker. Encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them at a level that is age appropriate.
- Step into your co-parent’s shoes: Think about how you would like the other parent to behave towards you during this difficult time and model that behaviour. Be accommodating and open especially towards the co-parent who is a front-line worker, as they are forced to work in some scary situations during this pandemic.
- Get Modifications in writing: COVID-19 has caused schedule disruptions for many parents making it difficult or even impossible to stick to their original parenting plan. If you are modifying your parenting plan, consider getting it in writing. If you fear that your ex-spouse/partner may take advantage of the amended parenting plan after the pandemic, seek help from a Family Law Lawyer. Remember that we are always available to help!
Bottom Line: Front Line Workers are also parents and should not have to choose between being a parent and carrying out their duties as a front-line worker