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Custody and the coronavirus: parents denying visitation rights

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Chicago (AFP)

It has been more than a month since Jennifer Leeper's ex-husband has seen their 12-year-old daughter, despite him being granted regular contact after the divorce.

Leeper, 48, of Sacramento, California, is defying the custody settlement out of fear that Chloe risks contracting COVID-19 by being with her father.

"My preference is to have Chloe stay here with me until this dies down. We can make up the time after this ends," she told AFP.

Leeper's story is becoming increasingly common as divorced parents try to balance divvying up time with their children and keeping them safe in the pandemic.

Across the country, bar associations, states and counties have issued advice for parents, mostly informing them to stick to their visitation agreements.

But not every case is the same and blanket pronouncements do not work for some parents.

For Leeper, the choice has been simple. As an elementary school teacher with a school-age daughter, she has not left their home since March 13 and neither has Chloe.

Her ex-husband, a construction contractor who lives two hours' drive away, has continued to work and interact with people.

Leeper feels this makes her daughter, herself and her current husband, who is deemed high-risk because of health issues, more vulnerable to infection.

"He's currently moving and he's had workers in the house that he is moving into and at the house he's moving from. Plus he's... still working. Those are my concerns more than the travel," Leeper said.

- Playing with fire -

While her worries may be legitimate, Ronald Brot, a family law attorney, said parents who ignore child visitation agreements could be playing with fire.

Some may feel emboldened, he told AFP, because most family courts are only handling emergency matters during the crisis.

"So we have parents seeking this edge or advantage that in all likelihood has very little concern for COVID-19 on an objective basis," said Brot, the president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

"Who's to say that one parent's home puts the child more at risk than the other parent's home?"

Brot concedes that while some may be using the pandemic as an excuse, many parents' concerns are warranted and there are situations where even he would ignore the law.

"I've seen a situation where one parent will say, 'I don't believe this is a risk. I'm not doing anything differently, I'm not wearing a mask, I'm letting people into my home,' et cetera," Brot said.

"If I'm the other parent, I would not let my kids go."

Stephanie Williams, a family law attorney from Sacramento, California, said parents who find themselves without their children because of the other parent's COVID-19 concerns do not have much legal recourse.

"If you have a situation where the circumstances present a danger, then you can go in and ask for emergency relief, but the courts are being very strict in what they are considering an emergency right now," she told AFP.

A petition seeking an order to prevent a parent withholding custody over COVID-19 fears is unlikely to qualify, she added.

- 'Equally at home' -

Kathy Tynus, a physician in Chicago and the mother of a 17-year-old, said following her child custody agreement led to her son having to self-quarantine alone.

Someone at her ex-husband's workplace had tested positive for COVID.

"Then they tested everyone in his office and several people, including my ex-husband and his girlfriend, who he lives with, tested positive," Tynus said.

Once she found out her ex-husband had tested positive, Tynus had her son quarantine himself in a rental property she owns.

A few days later he tested negative but she said he is still monitoring himself for symptoms.

While parents juggle safety issues with visitation rights, another obstacle in fighting an ex-spouse is having the resources during a financial crunch to hire a lawyer.

"I can go to court, but it's going to cost me a lot of money that I do not have right now," said 43-year-old Kairi Coleman of New York, who has not seen his son in a month.

In his case, he feels the argument that underpinned the original custody order has been turned on its head by the pandemic.

"The whole premise of a lot of these children, including my own son, living with their mothers, is because the fathers were out earning money and had no time and the mothers were home and if they were working had a more flexible schedule," Coleman said.

"Now that we are home, that should go out of the window. We both are equally at home."

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