As we all know by now, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-21 on Monday, March 23, 2020, effectively shutting down the state until at least April 13. The Governor’s “Stay at Home Order” has some exceptions, but for the most part, we have been ordered to stay home until we get the Coronavirus and Covid-19 crisis under control.
Executive Order 2020-21 and Parenting Time
Governor Whitmer’s “Stay at Home Order” has several exceptions, including Section 7(b), which states that we may leave our homes for several reasons, including “As required by law enforcement or a court order, including the transportation of children pursuant to a custody agreement.” Governor Whitmer’s Executive Order is consistent with a previous statement issued by the Supreme Court, which stated that all custody and parenting time orders are still in force.
My office has already been contacted by parents who are concerned about Covid-19 and the impact on their children and parenting time. Custodial parents are asking whether they have to allow the other parent to have their parenting time; parents are asking whether they will get in trouble if they drive their children from one home to another; non-custodial parents are being told by the custodial parent that they will not be able to see their children during this crisis.
Advice for Handling Parenting Time during the Shut Down
Follow your court order
Governor Whitmer’s stay at home order specifically exempts travel for parenting time exchanges. You will not be in violation of the stay at home order if you drive for the purpose of a parenting time exchange.
Communicate with the other parent
If your children are not currently in your custody, and you are worried about your next parenting time, send written communication (text or email) to the other parent, making it very clear that you are planning to exercise your parenting time according to your current parenting time order. You should also tell the other parent that you are taking this situation very seriously, and that you are taking necessary precautions to keep your children safe.
If you have trouble communication with the other parent, ask your attorney to speak with the other parent, or the other parent’s attorney. Remember, stress levels are high right now. The other parent may have legitimate concerns about your children’s health or may just be worried in general. Be patient and do your best to work constructively with the other parent.
If necessary, consider other forms of “parenting time” with your children
Please remember there may be legitimate reasons your children may not come to your house for your next parenting time: maybe your children, or someone in the other parent’s household, is sick, or has been told to quarantine for a week or fourteen days. Maybe someone in your household is sick or has been told to quarantine.
If it is in the best interest of your children to stay in place, you should consider alternate forms of parenting time. If you are the custodial parent, you should encourage these alternate forms of parenting time.
Even if your children cannot travel to the other parent’s house for scheduled parenting time, your children need contact with the other parent. Your children have also been taken out of their normal routine by not being in school and are probably experiencing high levels of stress themselves, even if they are not talking about it.
I recommend offering your children virtually unlimited phone contact with the other parent during this time. Children also need to see their parents when they are stressed and worried, so video contact is essential, as well. Most cell phones now have video conferencing features. There are also free programs that can be used on a laptop or tablet, such as Google Hangout, Skype, or Zoom. Your children want to know that both of their parents are safe and healthy, and the best way to give your children that level of comfort is to allow them to see and talk to both parents.
If parenting time is missed, consider makeup parenting time
Governor Whitmer’s current Executive Order is effective until April 13, 2020. If parenting time is interrupted during the shutdown, discuss now the makeup parenting time that will be given to the other parent who misses parenting time during this crisis. Summer vacation is just around the corner and may be a great opportunity for parents to exercise any parenting time that is missed during this crisis.
Although the courts are not open during this time and it would therefore be impossible now to enter an agreement as an official court order, document in writing any agreement that is reached. It is my firm belief that the courts would honor those agreements that are documented, even though they will not be currently entered as a court order.
What do I do if my parenting time order is violated?
Once the courts re-open, the courts will accept motions filed by parents who are denied their parenting time during this crisis. If the court determines that a parent rightfully withheld parenting time, but no agreement to do so was in place, the court will most likely order makeup parenting time as a remedy.
If the court determines that parenting time was wrongfully withheld, it is likely the court will choose from a number of possible remedies, including makeup parenting time (maybe even more than was missed), contempt of court, sanctions, and attorney fees. In very severe cases, the court could also consider a permanent parenting time or custody change in favor of the parent who was wrongfully denied parenting time.
Don’t bad mouth the other parent
Again, please remember that children need to be reassured during this difficult time. Children are more than likely worried about the health of their parents, especially if they are old enough to be online or watch the news. Children are also facing severe levels of stress, as their daily routines have been disrupted by not being in school. They also may be feeling lonely because they miss their friends, classmates and teachers.
Even if your relationship with the other parent is difficult, dysfunctional, or even volatile, this is not the time to badmouth the other parent in front of your children. Your children should be told that both parents love them.