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Divorced parents struggle with joint custody during quarantine

(Photo by Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

For many divorced parents, the quarantine has put a wrench in their normal custody schedule.

“My ex-wife and I have joint custody right now, a number of years back she moved to Yakima,” said Eatonville’s Ian Jones. “We haven’t exchanged my daughter since the last weekend in February. So I haven’t seen her in well over a month at this point.”

Jones still works outside the home as a farrier, but his ex-wife is not working, so they thought it was best to keep their daughter in Yakima for now. Jones remarried and has a young son.

“My biggest fear every day I come home from work is bringing something home. I’m taking a lot of extra precautions, but it is scary,” Jones said.

Danielle from Seattle is in a similar situation. She’s a working single mom and the coronavirus shutdown put her ex, her son’s father, out of work. They thought it would be best to send her 7-year-old son to his dad’s place on the Olympic Peninsula, where he has lots of outdoor space to play and a parent to help him with school work.

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“Now it’s been over three weeks,” said Danielle, who usually has her son the majority of the time. “Somebody that I spent time with thought that they were exposed to COVID-19, so I spoke with my son’s father and we decided that we were going to add an extra 14 days onto my son’s stay over there to make sure that I didn’t have any symptoms.”

Luckily, these parents have been able to work things out themselves, but Bellevue family law attorney Kristilyn Reese has been getting plenty of calls from parents who need help.

“Probably 75% of my calls related to this are parents who have a history of not getting along and find joint decision making a difficult thing,” Reese said. “Definitely the majority is people who, you know, we understand why they got divorced.”

The calls tend to stick to two main themes: scheduling and safety.

“Typically, parenting plans in Washington have a residential schedule that’s split into school and not school time,” Reese explained. “But now that we don’t have physical school anymore, a lot of the parents are trying to figure out if, by agreement, they can switch to a different schedule that makes sense for the kids.”

The other calls are from parents who don’t think their child is safe in their ex’s home, or don’t think the other parent is taking quarantine measures seriously.

“Typically, we always have the availability of what we call the family law court. But because commissioners and our court staff need to be protected, the courts are closed,” Reese said. “We have a new term in family law called ‘mission critical.’ If something is deemed mission critical, we can take it to the courts if we believe that a child is actually exposed to true harm, and it’s a pretty high burden. It’s not just, ‘I don’t think the parent’s wearing a mask’ or something like that. We do have the ability to go to court right now, but the court is saying, ‘Please, really try not to.’ So please do what you can to figure out something beyond that.”

For most families, there is nothing they can do but wait this out.

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“It’s been really hard,” Jones said. “We have a very good relationship, my older daughter and I. My son is 5 and they’re very close. My son has really been missing her and asking about her, and it’s hard to explain to a 5 year old.”

Danielle hopes to spend a little time with her son soon, but then it’s back to his dad’s house.

“I don’t have the baseline for managing home schooling while working from home. Unfortunately for me, it means far less time with my son this year. We don’t know how long this is going to go on for.”

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