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Sheltering in place — with your ex-wife? Pandemic poses extra challenges for divorced parents

With family courts closed because of the coronavirus, child custody arrangements are being tweaked on the fly — some more amicably than others.
Image: Henry and Lisa Drake
Henry and Lisa Drake, who divorced in 2014, have temporarily moved back in with each other during the pandemic so both can see their son, Alex, 9.Courtesy Henry and Lisa Drake

Despite having divorced in 2014, Henry and Lisa Drake still see each other most days.

Henry picks up their son after school and stays with him at Lisa's until she comes home. Their 9-year-old, Alex, sleeps at his mom's during the week and spends every other weekend at his dad's.

The arrangement worked well — until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Suddenly, Henry, a Mississippi native who lives in Toronto and commutes everywhere by mass transit, no longer felt comfortable making the 45-minute trip to his ex-wife's house in the east end of the city.

Lisa shared her ex-husband's concerns about taking subways and buses, and she hunkered down with Alex at her house for three weeks straight in March.

But it was not ideal.

Despite regular video chats with Henry, Alex missed his dad. Meanwhile, with Alex's school closed, Lisa was overwhelmed working remotely and homeschooling their third grader.

"We got divorced for a reason."

So she made an unusual suggestion to her ex-husband: Why not temporarily move into her house?

Henry had had the same thought, and he agreed — reluctantly.

"We got divorced for a reason," he told NBC News, laughing.

Even under the best of circumstances, co-parenting with an ex can be challenging. Now, amid an outbreak that has closed family courts, shuttered neutral meeting places where child exchanges typically happen and raised the health risks of shuttling children from one home to the other, divorced and separated parents face even bigger obstacles.

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With no precedent for co-parenting during a pandemic, many families have scrambled to make temporary changes to their child custody agreements themselves, some amicably and others not.

And most are doing so without any guidance from the courts, although some states have weighed in: In Maryland and Texas, for example, travel related to child custody arrangements has been deemed essential, meaning the agreements must be honored. Other states, such as Massachusetts, have recommended that co-parents keep their agreements.

"All of our literature leads us to believe that it is as important, especially now, for children to have contact with both parents if both parents are completely capable of taking care of that child's needs."

"All of our literature leads us to believe that it is as important, especially now, for children to have contact with both parents if both parents are completely capable of taking care of that child's needs," said family attorney Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Myres said she has fielded an "explosive" number of inquiries in recent weeks at her Houston law office, mostly from clients who were struggling before the pandemic.

"COVID-19 is like a magnifying glass," she said. "The parents who have conflicted relationships and poor communication skills, they're really going to get highlighted."

While daily operations of family courts are on hold, judges are holding hearings remotely for emergency situations — cases involving domestic abuse, restraining orders or serious child neglect, lawyers said.

Those are the most extreme cases. Overall, most co-parents are complying with their court agreements, said Matthew Sullivan, president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, an organization of 5,500 family law professionals worldwide.

But it has not been easy. Many parents call his organization complaining that their exes are being too lax with social distancing with their children. Others are trying to figure out ways to tweak their visitation schedules if one parent is a health care worker on the front lines.

"There's a demand for much more collaboration, much more information-sharing, much more transparency," Sullivan said. Only about half of divorced parents are able to rise to the challenge, he added.

'You don't want your kids exposed unnecessarily'

Efforts to work together can be especially difficult when one parent falls ill.

Cameron McGowan of Buffalo, New York, shares a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old with her ex-husband, who lives five blocks away. The two divorced last year, and they split their children's time between their homes. Earlier this month, when the kids were at her house, McGowan, a fifth grade teacher, developed a low-grade fever, a sore throat and chest pain — symptoms of the coronavirus.

McGowan called her doctor, who said she should presume that she had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and told her to isolate at home.

Cameron McGowan of Buffalo, New York, shares custody of her sons Teddy, left, and Finnian, right, with her ex-husband. The kids were at her house when she started experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus.
Cameron McGowan of Buffalo, New York, shares custody of her sons Teddy, left, and Finnian, right, with her ex-husband. The kids were at her house when she started experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus.Cameron McGowan

Meanwhile, her ex-husband, John McGowan, called the children's pediatrician to ask whether they should stay with her or come to him. The pediatrician said they needed to quarantine for two weeks with their mother as long as she was well enough to care for them — which, both McGowans said, strained an already tense co-parenting relationship.

John McGowan said that because his ex-wife had not been tested for the coronavirus, which is still difficult to get in many places across the U.S., he has questioned whether Cameron has the virus. He has also worried about his kids' health while they are with her.

"You still care for the person. You want to make sure they're healthy. At the same time, you don't want your kids exposed unnecessarily," he said.

'You owe it to your child to find ways to make it happen'

For some divorced parents, the fact that spring break came after social distancing guidelines were put into place confused matters further.

In Alexandria, Virginia, Erin Moffitt, 35, was supposed to get her 7-year-old daughter, Abigail, for Abigail's school break last week.

But Moffitt worried her ex-husband might not allow that. Moffitt works as a defense contractor for the Defense Department and is considered an essential worker, so she has not been able to stay at home.

"I just said to him: 'I want to make sure you're comfortable. Yes, I'm social distancing, but I still have to go to work at the Pentagon a couple days a week,'" Moffitt said.

Her ex-husband, with whom she is on good terms, agreed that Abigail should still go see her mom, but neither he nor Moffitt wanted to put their daughter on the 45-minute flight she usually takes from her dad's house in North Carolina. So Moffitt and her ex-husband drove, meeting halfway for the exchange.

"You owe it to your child to find ways to make it happen," Moffitt said.

Image: Ken Shuman
Ken Shuman with his children, Eli, 9, and Audrey, 7.Courtesy of Ken Shuman

For other split couples, the pandemic has provided opportunities to help each other out.

Ken Shuman, 44, of Marin County, California, has two children with his ex-wife, who lives about 10 miles away. Their children, ages 9 and 7, typically spend half the week at each house.

The kids have kept their normal schedule since lockdowns began, with one exception: Earlier this month, as a birthday present to his ex-wife, he invited her to send not just his kids to his house for the night, but also the 3-year-old daughter his ex-wife has with her current husband. Shuman has grown close to the little girl after spending time with her at sporting events for his own children and thought it would give his ex-wife a break.

"I gave her the gift of a quiet night," Shuman said.

Be proactive about coming to an agreement now

The pandemic is not going to be as rosy for everyone, so experts recommend that co-parents be creative.

If a child normally goes between homes every three days and one or both parents are hesitant about that, consider keeping the child at each home for longer — say, five days to minimize the back and forth, Myres of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers suggested.

She also advised co-parents to be proactive about how they will handle missed time — if the child is with one parent for an extra day now, perhaps the other gets a half or a full day later in the year to make up for it. Agreements should be in writing so they can be referred to later.

Co-parents also need to be aware that when courts reopen, parents can be sued retroactively if their exes felt they were being unreasonable about child custody, said Michael Stutman, a matrimonial lawyer at Stutman, Stutman & Lichtenstein LLP in New York.

"You could be deemed to be someone who is willfully and intentionally found to be interfering with the child's relationship with the other parent, and you could end up losing the child," he said.

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A court will not necessarily see a local shelter-in-place order as a valid excuse to violate a custody agreement, Stutman said. When courts are in session again, he said, he expects they will want to see that a parent made every effort possible to stick with the arrangement, including taking safety measures, such as wearing a mask and gloves, to transport the child to the other parent.

Co-parenting under one roof

The Drakes, the divorced couple in Ontario, have avoided those problems altogether by having Henry Drake stay in Lisa Drake's guest bedroom. During the day, Henry, an English as a second language teacher, helps Alex with homeschooling while Lisa works as a manager of a speech language pathology team; in the evenings, the three of them eat dinner and watch TV together.

Ten days into cohabitating, with no end to the pandemic in sight, the Drakes said the arrangement was working out.

"There's been a couple of snappy moments in the morning when we wake up and haven't had our coffee in the morning, but we've done pretty good," Henry said.

"I haven't killed him yet, so that's pretty good."

Having a strong foundation for their co-parenting has helped, Lisa said. Each day, she and her ex-husband have learned more about how to communicate with each other for the sake of their son — who is ecstatic to have both of his parents under one roof.

"Today is a good day. Let's hope tomorrow is, too," Lisa told NBC News over the phone, with Henry listening. "I haven't killed him yet, so that's pretty good."