NJ lawyers take on COVID-19 vs. child custody arrangements
Child custody agreements in place for the past several months or years have never encountered an obstacle like the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, getting an argument in front of a judge — not in person, but virtually — is more of a challenge.
Every day, as officials continue to urge New Jersey residents to stay at home and maintain a safe distance from others, Weinberger Divorce & Family Law Group offices throughout the Garden State receive a slew of calls from concerned parents who either fear how joint physical custody could temporarily threaten the safety of their child, or are being blocked from seeing their offspring because of these fears.
"The number of questions in this area is becoming alarming," founder and managing partner Bari Weinberger told New Jersey 101.5.
The specific issues vary, and there are plenty. In certain instances, one parent is a healthcare worker or first responder who's face to face daily with individuals who've tested positive for COVID-19. Or maybe one parent lives in a "hot spot" for the disease, while the other lives in an area not hit as severely. In other cases, one parent may not be adhering to social distancing guidelines handed down by the state, or one parent feels strongly that a child, or children, shouldn't be transported from home to home at a time when individuals are encouraged to stay put to help limit the spread of the respiratory illness.
And there is no black-and-white answer. While the main goal, Weinberger said, is protecting the kids, parents and legal professionals have to be get creative when parties can't see eye to eye during this pandemic.
"What we're finding is a lot of these parents just are struggling with effective communication with one another," she said.
Parents, of course, don't need to get a lawyer or judge involved if they have the ability to communicate amicably and arrive at an understanding that these are trying and unusual times for everyone and that no one could have had the power to predict.
Due to issues that have risen out of the pandemic, Jhanice Domingo, a family law attorney with Denville-based Einhorn Barbarito, has begun adding language about emergency situations to documentation related to custody and parenting time.
The office is holding virtual mediation sessions to help resolve parenting issues remotely.
"We've been drafting modifications to existing custody parenting time agreements so that they allow for agreed-upon suspension of in-person visits, increase in daily communication by phone, virtual visits through Skype, FaceTime or Zoom, and having parameters for both parents — how to transport children from one parent to another," Domingo said.
The current crisis, Domingo said, has led to judges asking very specific questions to parents should a matter need to be heard in court — for example, has either parent been exposed to someone who's tested positive for COVID-19, or has either parent recently traveled, and if so, have they self-quarantined?
"I think the core inquiry is always going to be, as it has always been, what is in the child's best interest?" Domingo said. "I would not be surprised at all, though, for courts to err on the side of caution because there are so many unknowns related to the coronavirus."
The Administrative Office of the Courts said while judges are not handling matters in person, courts are open and have been dealing with routine matters every day, including child custody and parenting time issues.
"For emergent custody or parenting time matters, litigants can file an order to show cause either through the emergent email boxes that the Judiciary has set up in each vicinage or through the Judiciary Electronic Document Submissions system that became active April 1 to make the filing process smoother," a spokesperson said.