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How divorced families are managing during the Covid-19 pandemic: an international review

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Yoa Sorek

Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Jerusalem

yoal@jdc.org

Dafna Haran

Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Jerusalem

dafnah@jdc.org

Aya Almog-Zaken

Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, Jerusalem

ayaal@jdc.org

Philip Marcus

Retired judge, Jerusalem Family Court

philipmarcusjurist@gmail.com

 

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the widespread outbreak of Covid-19 to be a pandemic. It was expected that a significant proportion of the global population would be infected. Countries around the world declared a state of emergency and issued a variety of restrictions and directives aimed at implementing a policy of social distancing to contain the spread of the disease.

These restrictions limit interpersonal physical contact and, with the exception of healthcare personnel and those in other essential services, prohibited all persons from leaving their homes. The situation creates particular challenges and difficulties for families with children in which the parents are separated or divorced and live in separate households. The main questions that arise, and which are examined in this article, are:

  • How do divorced families cope with contact arrangements – the times that the children spend with each of their parents, how they move from one home to the other, and how supervised visits are conducted –while complying with social distance practices and ensuring the children’s physical and mental health; and

  • What are the ‘soft’ (non-binding) guidelines for inter-parental relationships on how to divide the children’s time with each of them when there is no court order defining the division?

To discover how different countries and states are addressing the issue, the Family Research Group at the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, with the assistance of contacts established by retired family court judge Philip Marcus, conducted an international review, which included Israel, the US states of Arizona, Virginia, Vermont, Texas, Nevada, New York and California, the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, Australia, England, Ireland, Spain, Italy and Sweden. Those countries were chosen because most of them had well developed care services for children and families that are divorced or separated in the ‘normal’ times before the Covid-19 crisis. We were able to obtain substantial data on the subject, with an emphasis on countries where the spread of the epidemic and the scale of the crisis, in terms of illness and mortality per population, were greater than in Israel (Spain, England, the US, and Italy).

The review was conducted at the beginning of April 2020 and was largely based on open sources. These included websites, official documents, opinion columns written by experts, and articles in the media, and particularly the websites of local social services and NGOs or private companies that provide legal advice in family court hearings. Responses from professionals working in the social services and family courts in these countries were also included in the review. The following is a summary of the findings and recommendations, which can be found in the full report, published in Hebrew at https://brookdale.jdc.org.il/publication/divorce-during-corona/.

The main findings

  • Most of the states/countries in the review are contending with high illness rates of Covid-19 and all have issued government emergency regulations with restrictions on the freedom of movement and on leaving home for non-essential purposes. The restrictions imposed in Sweden did not limit the freedom of movement or going outside the home.

  • In all of the countries/states with emergency regulations limiting the freedom of movement in the review (apart from Spain), children whose parents are living apart were exempt from the restrictions. The emergency regulations permit parents to travel with their children so as to divide the time the child spends with each of them according to court orders.

  • In all of the countries/states in the review, there are recommendations that the parents be open to changes in the division of time spent with them according to circumstances, such as changes in employment or the need for isolation.

  • In every country/state (apart from Australia) the most common instruction is for the parents to reach an informal agreement either directly between themselves or through an intermediary or mediation, and to document it in writing so that it can be reviewed when life returns to normal. In extreme cases (where there are allegations of domestic violence or child abuse), it is possible to apply to the family courts, which are now working in a reduced format, for a legal ruling as to how to divide the time with each parent.

  • In Australia, by contrast, the family courts are working online, and all families can submit an online request for a court to approve an agreement regarding a change in the division of time spent with the parents or for alternatives to existing orders.

  • Apprehensionhas been expressed that the situation could be exploited and that some parents would take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to have a restraining order placed on the other parent, or interfere with contact between the child and the other parent, without justification. In Ontario, England and Ireland, it was noted that such cases would be dealt with, and sanctions placed on parents who relied without justification on the pandemic to obstruct contact between the child and the other parent.

  • In countries for which we found information about the activities of supervised visitation centres for parents and children during the pandemic, efforts are made to continue activity. However, face-to-face meetings between the child and the non-custodial parent are not held due to the large number of participants at the meetings and to respect the principle of social distancing. Instead, efforts are made to hold supervised and semi-supervised meetings online.

  • In most of the countries/states in the review, government assistance and social services for families in separation or divorce situations operate a reduced emergency service, and some volunteer and private sector organisations offer assistance in these areas. In contrast, in Australia and Canada, government assistance to these familiesis to be increased.

  • All of these countries/states have issued ‘soft’ (non-binding) guidelines for inter-parental relationshipson how to divide the children’s time with each of them where there is no court order defining division of time. At the present time, flexibility, transparency, compromise and adaptability are recommended and each parent is asked to act fairly towards the other parent both emotionally and legally, while taking full account of the needs of the children, including protection from harm.

Recommendations for parents

In light of the above, the recommendations arising from the review are as follows:

  • To ensure maximum care of the child’s health by a full exchange of information and mutual updating between the parents about the health of the child and respective family members with whom the child is likely to come into contact.

  • Where tensions between the parents are serious and volatile, to carry out the transfer from one home to the other by means of a neutral third party, such as a friend or relative.

  • To maintain open, ongoing and frequent communication by electronic and other means between the child and the parent that they are not staying with at the time.

  • To reduce the child’s exposure to parental conflict.

  • That each parent be considerate of changes in the other’s economic circumstances.

Recommendations for adjustments of the social service and support systems

The following recommendations are to provide maximum support to families where the parents are living apart:

  • Increase assistance from the professionals to mitigate the intensity of parental conflict.

  • Strengthen channels of assistance, counselling and guidance for parents living apart.

  • Provide counselling and other services for children.

The authors are grateful to colleagues from many countries and states who provided information for the preparation of the review.

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