Oklahoma, like so many other states, requires parents to maintain Parenting Plans and Custody Agreements, despite the COVID-19 crisis. If your child is required to travel to another city or state, your child must travel. Even a requirement to shelter-in-place does not permit abandonment of a custody agreement.

I know as a parent your concerns are many:  Has your ex-spouse or partner tested positive for COVID-19, have others in his/her household been tested, are local requirements for social distancing and wearing masks being followed, does anyone in the home work in the medical field, and are there requirements to sheltering-in-place. All great questions, all real concerns yet, by law you are required to do whatever is necessary to deliver your child to the home of your ex-spouse or partner.

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court Second Emergency Order Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster applies to visitation and parenting time schedules for minor children, whether in divorce, separation, paternity, or guardianship actions. Specifically, custody and visitation time based on school scheduling shall not be affected by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. The original school schedule shall control in determining visitation, parenting time or physical custody.” 

Today schools across the state are educating children in a variety of ways. Within the state of Oklahoma each city, country, and town are doing something different. If you child is being homeschooled or participating in distance learning in your home, requirements may be different where your ex-spouse or ex-partner lives. Concerns about internet access, assistance in schooling and/or childcare do not excuse compliance with custody agreements. You could be held in contempt if you fail to share physical custody of your child.

Community and lifestyle amidst COVID-19 can differ from town to town. Masks are required where you live, but not where your ex lives; your restaurants, parks, game rooms, and playrooms are closed, theirs are open, your sheltering-in-place, his/her community is not. These differences in handling the virus leaves parents and children feeling stressed, anxious, and fearful. Many parents, teens, adolescents and even toddlers experience symptoms of depression when living in two totally different environments. Yes, environments were different before COVID-19, yet not dangerously so. No matter how hard you try and protect your child from media, news, TV pundits, and COVID-19 reporting, they know something bad is out there. They hear it your voice and see the concern on your face. You smile and say don’t worry, but worry can be hard to hide.

“Nothing in the Oklahoma Supreme Court Second Emergency Order prevents parties from “mutually” agreeing to a different Parenting Plan. Visitation orders may be modified however, any changes must be in the form of a written agreement approved by the assigned judge and filed.”

Modifying a current agreement for holidays and winter break should have already begun. If you believe, due to the coronavirus your current agreement needs to be modified, be proactive. Many couples choose to sit down with a court approved counselor or therapist to work out an agreement. However, if you and your ex cannot agree call your attorney. The sooner you and your ex agree to changes, the sooner you can inform your child. Children, especially young ones require consistency to feel secure. They need to know as far in advance as possible where they will be spending holidays and winter break.

They also need to know they will be safe from the coronavirus. The psychiatric community suggests parents jointly communicate to their child steps being taken to complete any schooling requirements, to ensure COVID-19 compliance based on where the parent lives, and that safety in both homes and amongst in-home populations is of the highest priority, and most importantly, they are loved.

For some COVID-19 has become a weapon. In Oklahoma, dozens of emergency custody motions have been filed since the pandemic began. An Oklahoma clinic worker lost custody of her children during this pandemic. The holidays are fast approaching and every situation is different. Parents working together, crafting a new agreement avoid the stress of legal proceedings. Yet, for those who require legal proceedings, attorneys are working and Oklahoma courts are open.

What matters most as Parenting Plans and Custody Agreements are changed due to COVID-19 is communications. Technology makes it easy for your child to keep in touch with their non-custodial parent.  Telephone calls, Facetime, emails, posts to teens on social media sites, sharing pictures and Zoom are just a few ways of staying in touch. Many courts (judges) will approve online visitation if COVID-19 prevents in-person visits.

The coronavirus, social-distancing, sheltering-in-place, wearing masks, and distance learning have changed your life, the lives of your children and the life of your es-spouse or partner. I’ve written in earlier blogs about the many adjustments parents are required to make, and the many challenges of co-parenting – yet I never imagined a pandemic taking priority over a unknown person or children living in the home, or “you got him a dog and I don’t want a dog in the house.”

This virus by necessity or choice can lead to changes in Custody Agreements. Be cooperative, show empathy and concern. Open the lines of communication and know what your child is walking into. If he/she is more comfortable wearing a mask and masks aren’t required where your ex lives allow the child to wear a mask. If internet is a problem where your ex lives, talk to your child’s teacher, you’ll be surprised how cooperative they can be.

Lastly, be honest. Even if your child doesn’t relay or show fear, ask open ended questions – before they pack their bags and leave home. Your ex loves and cherishes your child just as much as you do and wants them to be safe, happy, and well cared for, throughout the winter break and the holiday season.

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