Ironing out New Jersey child custody cases has never exactly been a simple process. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is complicating matters even further, particularly for essential workers on the front line (like doctors, firefighters, nurses, corrections officers and others in law enforcement).
Most of these people cannot work from home and may be at high risk of contracting the virus because of their constant contact with the public, particularly those who may be sick.
As our Monmouth County child custody attorneys explained in a previous entry, COVID-19 has generally had a significant impact on New Jersey parenting time arrangements. School and extracurricular activity closures have upended longstanding routines. Employment may be uncertain. Custodial parents may no longer be able to make ends meet with the existing child support arrangements, and non-custodial parents may find it impossible to keep up with previous support orders.
But essential frontline workers face some unique challenges.
Do Essential Worker Parents Put Kids at Risk?
The New York Times recently reported on the trend, beginning with a spotlight on a New Jersey physician. After weeks of treating patients via video conferencing, she planned to resume in-person examinations. But when she told her soon-to-be ex-husband about this, he responded with a court order granting him temporary custody of their two children. His New Jersey child custody lawyer argued in a virtual hearing that as a doctor directly treating patients, the mother risked exposing the children to COVID-19. In response, she has filed 50 pages of paperwork and requested a hearing to try to reverse that order.
Ultimately, concerned she was going to lose custody of her children, the physician decided to revert to treating patients virtually. Thankfully, she worked in a position and facility where she could do that. Not all essential workers are that lucky.
This case highlights a question that is becoming increasingly common for those working on the front lines to provide crucial services: Will I be punished for helping people? Those on the other side of the coin say these types of jobs, particularly with direct exposure to patients with COVID-19, are just too great of an imminent risk to their children’s health and well-being. This is particularly true for those whose children may have underlying health conditions.
Our Monmouth County child custody attorneys have found that in the midst of this pandemic, the landscape of family law (which of course varies from state-to-state), is being tested. None of us have ever lived through a public health crisis of this magnitude, so families and Courts have few guidelines for how to safely and fairly respond.
These concerns aren’t solely applicable to medical workers either. Parents who work for grocery chains, delivery services, waste companies and public transportation services may be having the same disputes.
The Question Will Be: What is Best for the Child?
The president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers urged courts to find a way for visitation to continue if possible – because the last thing we want is to punish essential workers by forcing them to sacrifice more than they already are.
At the same time, it is the child’s well-being that will always come first in any parenting time dispute. There may be a strong case for limiting a child’s contact with someone in regular contact with those diagnosed with the highly contagious virus.
Judges in other states have ruled that frontline workers may have their parenting time agreements altered if it is not in the child’s best interests to stay with them.
In Miami, FL, an emergency medicine physician fought a temporary child custody order that stripped her of primary custody of her 4-year-old daughter. She argued in an appeal that she has access to a full armor of personal protective equipment and that she takes every precaution not to contract the virus. The Court, however, ruled that was not enough to prove that keeping the child in her custody was in the child’s best interests – even as her efforts were praised.
In California, a firefighter who shared custody of his children with his ex-wife was asked in an emergency motion to test negative for coronavirus before each parenting time with his children. He argued this was an impossibility at a time when tests are not readily available. His ex-wife was quoted as saying that while she understood how difficult the situation was, she was concerned for her children and her elderly mother, who visits her regularly. The judge later decided to allow the father parenting time unless he begins to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.
In Tennessee, a district court judge issued guidelines ahead of the state’s shelter-in-place order indicating the primary residential parent should take custody of the child within four hours of the shelter-in-place order and retain sole custody until such time as the order is no longer in place.
In Massachusetts, the chief justice of the state’s probate and family court issued a letter saying that if one parent must self-quarantine or otherwise be restricted from contact, the other parent should arrange for time to be spent via video conferencing or phone.
Neither the orders in Tennessee nor Massachusetts indicate what should happen when one parent is a frontline worker. This is a dynamic and unprecedented situation. The cases that have been decided so far illustrate the fact that Judges have wide discretion, different courts may have very different responses and frontline workers seeking to defend their existing custody arrangements will need to show ample proof that their child will not be endangered.
If you are in a situation where you are seeking to challenge an existing New Jersey child custody order or defend it, our dedicated legal team can help.
Contact us at (732) 810-0034 or email us through our website.