Custody Exchanges During COVID-19
In Executive Order 55, Governor Northam issued a stay-at-home order for all non-essential purposes and limited social gatherings to less than 10 people in Virginia. The order specifically addressed child custody and visitation, stating that individuals may “leave their residence for purposes of … traveling required by court order or to facilitate custody, visitation, or child care.”
If you have an order in place for a visitation schedule, you should continue to abide by it to the extent possible. When arranging for custodial exchanges, all recommended CDC guidelines should be followed. For those that ordinarily exchange their children in a public location, parents should use caution and select a location that will minimize contact with the public. Both parents should use every precaution to make sure the child’s belongings have been and remain properly sanitized before entering the house.
If you do not yet have a custody order in place, you can still travel in order to facilitate visitation time for the other parent. You should continue to follow the status quo for the child, as their schedule has likely already been interrupted.
When Can Visitation be Denied?
In certain situations, such as those involving long-distance travel or high-risk employment, it may be reasonable to modify or suspend visitation. Remember to communicate clearly with the other parent prior to making any change to the custodial schedule. It’s best to document your communication or attempt at communication in a written form such as text or email. Remember that any violation of the court’s current order can be a basis for contempt later on. With that in mind, you should take whatever action is necessary to ensure the child is best protected from any risk of harm.
If visitation requires air travel or lengthy car travel, it may not be reasonable to subject the child or the parents to all of the potential exposures along the way. Parents can work to find alternative travel dates in the summer or fall to make up for lost time. If parents can agree to a change, they should document it in writing.
If a parent is employed in a high-risk industry, they need to take every precaution to ensure they are not exposing the child to any unnecessary risk. Those in the healthcare field have been recommended to leave their shoes outside, shower, and wash all clothing and everything else at the end of their shift before having any contact with family members or any household items.
If a child is at high-risk of infection or has significant underlying health problems, it may be necessary to suspend in-person visitation with a parent in a high-risk industry. You should be sure to provide phone, Skype, or Facetime availability for the child with the other parent. If the other parent does not agree to a suspension of visitation, it may be best to file a request for an emergency modification with the court.
For those attempting to enforce their current orders or make changes to their visitation schedule, their options will be limited for a few weeks. On March 27, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court extended its declaration of a judicial emergency and ordered the closure of its courts through April 26th. It’s likely that this deadline will be extended further into May. Some local courts have already announced closures extending into early May.
As a result, only those custody matters that qualify as an emergency can be brought into court for a hearing. Emergency matters are those where the child’s health, safety, or welfare is at risk of immediate harm or threat of immediate harm. The child must be present in the Commonwealth of Virginia in order for the court to take jurisdiction. Emergency jurisdiction is only temporary until the child’s home state can act. In an emergency case the court can order custody be granted to any interested party, including extended family members, on a temporary basis to ensure the child’s safety.
Melone Law, P.C.
While this is an extremely uncertain time it’s important to continue following any orders or agreements you have in place. Eventually, the court will resume its normal schedule and you don’t want to face contempt for violating any court orders. If you have specific questions about your case, contact one of the attorneys at Melone Law PC in our Northern Virginia office at 703-995-9900 or Virginia Beach at 757-296-0580.
COVID-19, custody, Executive Order 55, visitation