In 'normal' times, when considering arrangements for children, the Family Court will look at each family's unique circumstances and deliver a bespoke judgment on the basis of their precise situation and needs. At the moment, however, we are working with many separated families who are having to make difficult decisions quickly about whether, in their particular circumstances, it is sensible for their children to move between their households, especially during lockdown.
Guidance regarding children arrangements has been released to help separated families and those with Child Arrangement Orders decide on the right approach, but is the guidance clear enough, and could it be exploited or misused?
In short, the guidance recommends that separated families use their common sense to decide where children should live during the current lockdown period. It also suggests that they consider how their actions might be perceived by the Family Court, if disputes over behaviour arise and arrangements are reviewed by the court at a later date.
It is helpful to have this guidance – it provides support for separated families who are working together to assess whether children can or should move between homes during these unprecedented times. However, given that government advice changes so rapidly, it is difficult for parents to assess whether moving their children between homes poses a risk of infection, not only within their own family units, but to wider society.
For those parents who are unable to communicate and co-operate in the absence of clear rules about what they should do if sensible agreement cannot be reached, the situation is even harder. This is a time of huge stress for everyone, and it is easy to see why parents might find it hard to reach compromise. Minimising the risk of spreading the infection is important for the safety of each family and society as a whole, and maintaining contact with both parents is inevitably crucial to the child's well-being. The good news is that the two are not necessarily incompatible – thanks to technology and social media, if physical contact cannot take place then indirect contact (through telephone calls, skype, house party etc) can and must happen, as often and in as many ways possible.
Here are some suggested principles to bear in mind when trying to find the right solution for your family:
- When making any decisions, consider first the safety of your family units, your children, and the wider community
- If you have experience of the court system, also consider how the Family Court might view the decisions you are making
- If deemed necessary, take legal advice on whether a decision is sensible and would be approved (or not) later
- Always act with your children's best interests at heart. The Family Court takes the same approach, and will have an eye to this in any circumstances.
- Try to establish trust and communication to enable discussion, cooperation and joint decision-making
- If it is decided between you that children need to remain in one home, find ways for them to communicate with their other parent and vice versa and do this as soon as you can
- If there is extended family, e.g. step-children, multiple carers etc. establish 'circles' of family, and try to determine the risks to health and safety on that basis. This is not only the right thing to do, but will demonstrate that decisions have been carefully thought through
- In cases where the family includes vulnerable or shielded people keep in mind that social distancing and self-isolation is likely to continue for much longer than for most people
You might also find it helpful to listen to episode 2 of our podcast series with Mariella Frostrup, Kate Landells and Penny Mansfield of relationship researchers OnePlusOne, to learn how to communicate and manage disputes and to Episode 1 – in which David King, Deputy Head of Croydon High School talks about how parents can cooperate.