Co-Parenting and COVID-19: What's a Parent to Do?
A family law and mental health perspective on the current COVID-19 crisis.
Posted June 3, 2020
The crossover between family law and psychology is widely documented, and often professionals work in tandem to help families discover the best possible outcomes for themselves and their children. When thinking about planning or settlement, it is impossible to solely consider the aspects of what is “best” when the outcomes are so dependent on real people, children, and lifelong decision-making.
Currently, in Canada, approximately 9% of all individuals are divorced or separated, with a quarter of these families having children under the age of 18. With Canada’s significant population, this number proves to be quite large.
What then happens when taking the COVID-19 pandemic into account? Well, if you listen to the news, panic has ensued, chaos has erupted, families simply cannot cope, and as professionals, we are being inundated. But what is the real story? And more importantly, what can this pandemic teach us about co-parenting, safety, and ensuring the best possible outcomes in separation?
Thankfully, we are joined by Rebecca Etinginhttps://www.sherimspuntavocate.com/rebecca-etingin and Michele Rabinovitchhttps://www.sherimspuntavocate.com/michele-rabinovitch of Sheri M. Spunt Avocate Inc. https://www.sherimspuntavocate.com/ to help us answer those questions.
From a legal perspective, both Etingin and Rabinovitch discussed seeing an increase in interpersonal violence and higher levels of emotional volatility in separating families which they hypothesized to be exacerbated by the lockdown. With respect to conflict, they also shared receiving many requests and disputes with respect to child support obligations as a result of potential job loss and financial implications of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the ramifications of the pandemic and the recommendations to social distance have led to confusion, frustration, and painful conclusions for families. In the child protection context, supervised visitation, and visitation organized by the child protection authorities has been suspended. These parents often have no other ways or opportunities to see their children and have turned to Zoom, Facetime, etc. While it's a good option for some, it feels insufficient for parents and children.
Secondly, for parents who live and share custody across the border, this has caused similar challenges for children who typically spend summers/weekends on one side of the border, or when a parent works remotely outside of Canada. With the current limitations to travel and the closure of the United States-Canada border, this has further challenged families to think creatively.
Lastly, for parents who are splitting parenting time, further challenges arise with respect to new partners, extended family, work responsibilities, and how this can potentially mean exposing the children, and subsequently family members in both homes to the virus. This has led to families being unsure of who to social distance from, and how to continue meaningful relationships with both sets of parents and extended family.
Now onto the more positive lessons learned. Similarly to Hanna Ingber’s New York Times piece, “My Ex and I Fought About Everything — Then Came Coronavirus," most professionals in the field (including Etingin and Rabinovitch) shared seeing more collaboration between parents for the benefit of their children, and that parents are acknowledging that they can mirror collaboration and stability for their children as things feel so uncertain and scary.
Take one example, in particular: A family with multiple children was in the midst of a separation and receiving services from Etingin and Rabinovitch’s firm when COVID-19 struck. These parents typically were not amicable, and unable to resolve conflicts on their own. Despite this track record, the lawyers were happy to learn that when one child became ill unexpectedly, they were able to agree to deviate from their regular schedule so that one parent could care for the child, and the other parent could care for the other children until the illness was resolved.
Another unexpected benefit has been the noticeable (and unprecedented) levels of positive settlement among families. Etingin and Rabinovitch hypothesized that this is likely related to the courts seeing only “urgent” files, and thus making the prospect of judgment for families very unpredictable, and likely a long-time away. Instead, families have been more willing to cooperate with each other and work together to come up with a mutually acceptable plan of action. Now, this is what we call a win-win situation (please excuse the negotiation pun)!
So what is a parent to do? Well unsurprisingly, not much has changed in this regard. At the forefront of any decision, parents need to take into account "the best interests of the child." This can be challenging at times when embroiled in conflict, and fearful about the pandemic; however, according to Etingin and Rabinovitch, they continue to reiterate to clients that their role as parents is to minimize the damage of their separation for the children. In these times especially, they add that kids are undergoing extreme stress, struggling to live with changes in their day-to-day routine; thus emphasizing the bigger need to ensure stability, consistency, and predictability.
In addition, Etingin and Rabinovitch emphasized that the courts remain closed to non-urgent matters, and encouraged parents to attempt to problem solve and identify creative solutions among themselves, or with the support of professionals trained in this regard. Further, they caution parents who hope to change elements of their agreed-upon parenting plan, active court order, or child support arrangements at this time.
From a mental health perspective, the former remains true. Parents are rightfully struggling to adapt to their new normal, and this (understandably) has a trickle-down effect on the children. This often unintentional side effect is perhaps more salient during these times, as families are sheltering in place together, and navigating changing dynamics with less support.
For this reason, parents need to continue practicing active coping skills, discuss boundaries openly, and negotiate additions/changes to their parenting time schedules. The vast majority of mediation/co-parenting counseling is focused on just that, and ensuring that families and children can be appropriately resourced, and have their needs met outside of the courtroom.
There is no doubt about it: These times have certainly been challenging for everyone, families, adults, children, and the professionals tasked with working on these matters. We hope that we are at the tail end of this, but truthfully, so much feels out of our control.
Luckily, there are some things that we can recommend clearly. Firstly, if you ever feel unsafe, or are physically, financially, sexually, or emotionally abused, please get help from the recommendations below. You are not alone!
Secondly, when it comes to family law, regardless of how you approach it, whether from a legal standpoint, an Alternative Dispute Resolution standpoint, or a psychological standpoint, you only get one opportunity to be the best parent you can be. By keeping what is best for your children at the forefront, you can ensure that you love your children more than you hate the other parent.
This article is not legal advice, nor is it mental health advice. If you or your family is struggling, please contact local professionals in your area for support.
Toronto Distress Centres: 416 408-4357 or 408-HELP
Spectra Helpline: 416 920-0497
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 416 863-0511; Toll-free: 1 866 863-0511 Kids Help Phone: 1 800 668-6868; Languages: English and French
Pro Bono Ontario’s Legal Advice Hotline: 1-855-255-7256
Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-668-8258
Women Aware 1-866-489-1110
Ligne S.O.S. Violence conjugale: 1-800-363-9010
Becky Etingin is a lawyer in Montreal and is licensed in New York and Quebec bar exams. She works at Sheri M. Spunt Family Law firm in Montreal and is passionate about having a meaningful and positive impact on those going through the most difficult times in their lives. She is a graduate of the Juris Doctor program from Universite de Montreal and holds a Bachelor of Psychology Degree from McGill University.
Michele Rabinovitch is a member of the Law Society of Ontario and works at Sheri M. Spunt Family firm in Montreal. She is a graduate of the Juris Doctor program from Universite de Montreal and holds a Bachelor of Political Science and Communications Degree from McGill University. Michele is passionate about helping those who are vulnerable to improve themselves and their communities.
Ingber, H. (2020, March 21). My Ex and I Fought About Everything. Then Came the Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/parenting/coronavirus-divorce-copare…
Facts and Stats: Divorce, Separation and Uncoupling in Canada. (2019, July 31). Retrieved from https://vanierinstitute.ca/facts-and-stats-divorce-separation-and-uncou…
Code Civil de Quebec- Article 33 . (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2020, from https://ccq.lexum.com/w/ccq/fr#!fragment/art33