Co-parenting while separated is difficult – mix in a global pandemic and raising a child can get particularly complicated, and those complications might compound as kids return to school in the coming weeks.
The Provincial Court of B.C. is starting to see the effects of the pandemic as parenting disputes make their way into courtrooms, judges forced to quickly adapt to unprecedented disagreements on parenting time and safety during the COVID-19 crisis.
In one case, a Vancouver mother argued against an application to return her children to their father since the switch over required international travel. In another, a father says his son’s mother – a health-care worker – should self-isolate for two weeks before seeing the child and can visit with him during that time from her balcony only.
The B.C. Family Law Act adapted too – pushing forward urgent applications involving parenting time, protection orders and anything that could impact a child’s safety.
“The health, safety and well-being of children and families remains the court’s foremost consideration during COVID-19,” said Ontario Superior Court Justice Alex Pazaratz in an early decision involving co-parenting in the time of COVID-19. “This is an extremely difficult and stressful period for everyone.
Brittany Goud, a Victoria lawyer and family law advocate, said it’s important to be mindful that in any family court decision, the final test will be the best interest of the child.
“There is no such thing as a final order with regards to a child,” she said. “Even in a situation where one guardian has all the decision-making powers, the guardian is not impervious to an application contesting that decision.”
Judges will consider a multitude of factors in determining “best interest” in each case, including but not limited to the child’s health and well being, their history of care, stability, age, development and depending on age – the child’s own views on the situation.
“The bottom line is it has to be in the child’s best interest and not the best interest of the parent,” Goud said, acknowledging that many guardians have contentious relationships.
“That’s where people are really having to put aside their history, their bad blood, personal opinions and views. They’re having to put that aside to make a decision that’s in the child’s best interest.”
Goud isn’t surprised the pandemic is complicating co-parenting, but she emphasized the importance of attempting negotiation or mitigation before taking the matter to court.
“There’s nothing more precious to people than their children. These are very uncertain times and there’s lots of anxiety, and I think fundamentally, people are doing their best,” she said. “Court should always be a last resort.”
Mediate BC, which in April created a quarantine conflict resolution service for cohabitant residents, has shifted its focus to supporting families’ decision-making as schools reopen. The quarantine conflict resolution service is provided by experienced mediators and is delivered online and by phone. A low fee program and fee waivers are available for low-income families who qualify.
“I encourage parents to back up a bit and start with identifying your family’s particular needs,” said mediator Lori Frank in a statement. “When thinking about the issue of going back to school there may be needs around safety, finances, schedules, extended family, a child’s special needs and so on. When you know what needs you are trying to meet then you can make effective decisions and create a plan that meets them.”