For divorced parents raising children in Sonoma County, coronavirus adds new pressures

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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.”

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“At (one) point my oldest daughter was symptom-free for 2 or 3 weeks but her doctor said that until my younger daughter was symptom-free neither could switch households,” she said.

So they made do.

John Halderman, 13-year-old Shayla’s dad, would show up at lunch time, eat outside and talk with his daughter.

“It was actually the longest amount of time I have not had my daughter in my house,” he said. “When I left I started the ‘COVID hug’ — we’d be apart and I’d put my arms out and say ‘COVID hug.’”

Kevin Bauer, 18-year-old Sage’s dad, brought load after load of groceries for the family. When he’d visit, he would park a chair out front.

“We would stay outside and talk and I’d have a chair and stay about 15, 10 feet away,” he said. “If she was 10 or 12 I would have been freaking out more. The bonds are a little tighter then. They are more dependent on their daddy.”

Bauer didn’t fight his ex over the lockdown, he agreed with it.

“Stephanie did all the right moves. She turned into mama bear,” Bauer said. “I was terrified for a while there.”

But not all families are navigating this new territory so easily.

A Petaluma woman, who asked that her name not be published, has barred her preteen son from visiting his father’s house for two months.

The woman, who has sole legal and physical custody but maintains a visitation agreement with the boy’s father, is in her third trimester of pregnancy. She said her son’s father has a wife and two young children and the family is not following safety protocols. She knows of trips out of the county, daily work schedules and other decisions she feels are unsafe.

“That is my whole basis,” she said. “I have absolutely zero control of how they manage their health in their household.”

She only barred the one day a week and every other weekend visitation after attempts to iron out safety agreements failed, she said.

Sole legal and physical custody “doesn’t necessarily give me the power to change visitation but it does give me the power to make the best decisions for the health, education and welfare of my son,” she said. “I think that it is in my son’s best interest that they are healthy and everyone is healthy. He needs that family.”

This week she was contacted by an attorney who notified her that her son’s father is now pushing for joint legal and physical custody.

“This is anxiety inducing, it’s stressful,” she said. “There is a terrible fear factor of me losing my child over me just trying to protect him and do what’s best for him.”

Roz Bateman Smith, who is not the woman’s attorney, said it’s not unusual for parents to use unusual circumstances to push for modifications in their agreement.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to make a complaint or cause friction between the parents if one parent is, say working at a grocery store and the other parent is not and there is concern that the one parent who works outside the home is bringing home the virus,” she said.

Relationships that were already fraught and in which communication is difficult can be put under extraordinary strain in times of significant stress, attorneys said.

Still, the pandemic may be extraordinary but conflict and its resolution is not, Estes said.

“This is really no different from any other family law situation because there is no one size fits all. Every situation has to be looked at on their own merits and their own risk,” she said.

Like she did before the pandemic, Bateman Smith urges parents to be reasonable and to put the child at the forefront of discussions.

“Just like everybody now, we are scared. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, we don’t know how long we are going to be out of work and if you are fighting with your spouse at the same time this is going on? These children are in trauma,” she said.

“You are fighting over them and all they want is to get comfort from that parent.”

You can reach staff writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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