COVID-19: Parenting through lockdown
The Government’s announcement that New Zealand would be entering a nationwide lockdown for at least four weeks has created significant uncertainty for families with shared care arrangements. The message from the Government has been clear; movement of people needs to be reduced and contact should not occur with people outside of your household. The question therefore arose as to whether children in shared care arrangements could move between the homes of their parents. Some clarity has since been provided on this issue.
Care arrangements between households should continue and be followed unless:
- the child is unwell
- someone in the home is unwell
- someone involved in the care arrangement has been overseas in the last 14 days or is being tested or confirmed to have COVID 19
- parents live in different cities or towns.
This should not be used as an opportunity to unilaterally change established care arrangements.
The Family Court remains open for urgent applications.
Communication from the Family Court and Ministries of Health and Justice
On 23 March 2020 Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said that children in shared care arrangements could continue to move between the two homes if they were in the same community. No legal definition has been provided as to what “same community” means, but it has been made clear what will not fall within it. Where parents live in different cities or towns, the child will need to remain at just one of their parents’ home during this time. Minister of Justice Andrew Little has said that care arrangements where children are expected to stay with one parent in a different part of the country for the school holidays will need to be altered as this simply cannot occur during the Level 4 Alert. Whatever town or city the child was in at 11.59pm Wednesday 25 March 2020, is the town or city the child must remain in throughout the lockdown.
Principal Family Court Judge Jaquelyn Moran released a statement on 24 March 2020 concerning shared care of children during this time. She stressed that parents should be making decisions in the best interests of their children at this time. Judge Moran outlined certain circumstances where shared care should be discontinued, these being where the child is unwell, someone in either home is unwell or someone involved has been overseas in the last 14 days or been in close contact with someone being tested for the COVID-19 or confirmed to have COVID-19. Further, the child should not move between more than two homes. This statement makes it clear therefore that the child’s safety is paramount in the decisions parents need to make during the lockdown.
Where children are moving between homes, some guidance has been given as to how this should occur. Private vehicles should be used where possible and children should always be accompanied by an adult when moving between homes. Parents should also maintain a 2-metre distance from each other during changeover where possible.
Where shared care cannot continue, Minister of Justice Andrew Little has urged parents to put aside their conflicts and allow a generous amount of contact via skype, facetime, phone or other methods between the child and the other parent. The court has also noted an expectation that indirect contact be generous at this time. Parents should therefore be making their best endeavours to ensure the child has adequate opportunities to communicate with the other parent whilst the child cannot be physically in their care.
Those with supervised contact may be in a more precarious situation. Court appointed supervisors do not appear to have been deemed an essential service, and therefore those with supervised contact orders will be unable to have this contact occur. The Level 4 Alert also means supervision could not occur by anyone else outside of the family “bubble” and thus any supervised contact would likely be difficult to arrange. We urge families in these situations to try their best to come to some form of arrangement to ensure the child maintains contact with both of their parents, particularly ensuring the child has technological means to contact the parent they would usually have supervised contact with.
This is a scary time for all, particularly children. Maintaining stability in the child’s care arrangement where possible and safe to do so must be seen as being in the child’s best interests. Children need to know that their loved ones are safe and be able to communicate with them whenever they feel the need to. Parents should be flexible and accommodating and work together to get through this exceptional time. This is a time to rise above the acrimony between parents to ensure the child’s interests and welfare are put first. Children will need the support and love of both of their parents during the lockdown period.
The Family Court has been clear; this global pandemic should not be used as an opportunity by parents to unilaterally change established care arrangements for the child or otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child’s best interests. If you have cause for concerns in relation to continuing established care arrangements at this time, you should seek legal advice prior to making unilateral changes.
Where disputes do arise, the Family Court remains open at a reduced capacity throughout Alert Level 4 for urgent applications, including those relating to the safety and wellbeing of children.
Disclaimer: the content of this article is general in nature and not intended as a substitute for specific professional advice on any matter and should not be relied upon for that purpose.