For divorced parents raising children in Sonoma County, coronavirus adds new pressures
The shelter-in-place order in Sonoma County has put extraordinary pressures on local families dealing with online school lessons, social distancing, and working — or not working — from home.
For families that share children but not the same household — those who are divorced, separated or broken up — these strains are bringing some families closer together but driving others apart.
Even families with strict adherence to social distancing can see children’s contacts increase as they move between their parents’ homes, increasing, in many cases significantly, the family’s risk of exposure to others outside their household.
And if one parent is considered an essential employee and out working with the public every day? Or if another is less likely to follow social distancing rules or mask-wearing protocols? The potential for coronavirus-based conflict in sometimes already-strained relationships can escalate quickly, area family law attorneys said.
“I have seen situations where (one) parent is being extremely cautious, thoughtful, sheltering in place, masks — and the other parent is laissez faire, not following the shelter-in-place, allowing play dates, allowing other children to come over. There are so many varying levels,” said attorney Robin Estes.
Suddenly, a straightforward shared custody agreement can feel much more complicated.
“I have situations where you have a parent who is a first responder and a parent who is not and there is obviously a concern for the parent and then concerns about the child as well,” she said. “What is the child’s exposure?”
In the early days of the shelter-in-place order, many parents expressed concern that moving kids between two homes might honor a custody directive but break an emergency prohibition against unnecessary travel. But if a parent broke a custody arrangement to honor the shelter-in-place order? That risked putting them in contempt for violating a court order.
For parents who live in the same city, the answer seemed fairly straightforward. But for those parents who live in different cities or counties, many were left scrambling to find answers.
“When the shelter-in-place order came down, everybody was ‘What does this mean exactly?’ Taking them to the other parent is not technically essential,” Estes said. “Some attorneys were saying ‘Follow the current court order and go back and forth,’ and some were saying ‘No. Stay put.’”
“Reasonable minds could differ,” she said.
For Stephanie Renee, a Santa Rosa mom of two teenage girls, the decision of how to honor custody agreements with the dads of her two girls was largely rendered moot when all three got sick.
“My daughter got tested for COVID on her 18th birthday,” Renee said.
Renee, a diabetic, and her two daughters were all tested for the coronavirus. The tests were negative but doctors instructed Renee, who made multiple trips to the emergency room, to quarantine all three as if the results were positive.
That meant breaking the shared custody agreement she has with both fathers.
“That was very hard on their dads because their dads couldn’t see them for so long,” she said.
“My oldest daughter’s symptoms showed up on March 11 and they did not have the clearance to go to their dads’ houses until May 4,” she said. “That was how long we were in complete quarantine and isolation even with the negative swab test.”