The current circumstances are both unprecedented and difficult. This time of uncertainty is made more challenging by the need to juggle shared care arrangements of children.
The following is intended to be information that parents and caregivers may wish to consider in light of the fact that New Zealand is currently at COVID-19 Alert Level 4.
Best interests of the child
In respect of care of children during this time, the overriding consideration as always is for parents and caregivers to make decisions that are in the best interests of their children. However, it is now important to do this while remembering that the purpose of Alert Level 4 is to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
During this time, it is important to remain, as much as possible, in your self-isolating unit or “bubble”.
In cases where there is a shared care arrangement in place, parents and caregivers will need to consider whether the shared care regime should continue or whether a child should remain in place for the initial four-week lockdown period.
Parents and caregivers should discuss if shared care arrangements would allow COVID-19 to potentially spread without them being aware and reach an agreement between themselves. This may mean the child needs to stay with one parent/caregiver for the initial four-week period.
Maintaining shared care arrangements
The guidance from the Principal Family Court Judge is that children in shared care arrangements in the same community can continue to go between households unless:
- The child is unwell;
- Someone in either home is unwell;
- Someone in either home has been overseas in the last 14 days or has been in close contact with someone who has the virus or is being tested for the virus.
There is currently no definition of “in the same community”. Where the shared care arrangements involve caregivers in different towns, the guidance is that the safety of the children and others in their units should not be compromised by movement between those homes.
Parents and caregivers will need to use their judgement, taking a socially responsible and common sense approach, as to whether the households in a shared care arrangement are in the same community. It is possible that the government may put measures in place to restrict the movement of people other than those considered essential services for the purpose of carrying out those services. Parents and caregivers should consider that travel may be restricted before arriving at their own arrangements in relation to shared care arrangements, particularly if these involve travelling considerable distances to transport children between households.
Factors to consider
It may be possible to maintain the integrity of your bubble across two households for the purposes of maintaining a shared care arrangement. However, it remains important that the integrity of your bubble is not compromised further. The following are matters to consider when thinking about the integrity of your bubble:
- Are there only two households involved or are there people coming and going from more than two households (for example where there are children from two shared care families being cared for in one household)? The advice from the Principal Family Court Judge is that the safety of all concerned should not be compromised if there are more than two households involved.
- Are any of the people in either household vulnerable? If so, extra care may be warranted. If your care arrangements involve households where grandparents are also living, for example, consideration may need to be given as to whether people in either household should be going to the supermarket to shop. If online shopping is not possible for both households, alternative care arrangements may need to be considered.
- Are any of the people in either household essential workers? Essential workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Shared care arrangements where one of the caregivers is an essential worker (or has close contact with an essential worker) compromise the integrity of the bubble for all households involved in the shared care arrangement. Care arrangements may be need to adapted in the short term to ensure that the integrity of a household’s bubble can be maintained.
Consolidation of care arrangements
Parents and caregivers may also need to consider short term variations to care arrangements to limit the number of times children travel between homes. Parents and caregivers may wish to consider consolidating their care arrangements over this time into larger blocks of time for each caregiver. For example, it may be more appropriate for a child to spend the first two weeks of lockdown with one caregiver and the second two weeks with the other caregiver. This 14-day period would have the advantage of aligning with the recent self-quarantine guidelines for people returning from overseas and may provide some assurance that no one in either household has developed symptoms over that 14-day period. Other consolidation arrangements may also be appropriate.
Movement between households
Where caregivers decide that moving between households is appropriate, children should be accompanied by an adult when moving between homes. Private vehicles should be used to transfer children between households wherever possible.
We would also suggest that where parents are travelling between shared care homes, they have copy of the parenting order or agreement (if one exists) with them (either in hard copy or electronically on a device) in case they are stopped by police.
Indirect contact where children cannot go between households
The Principal Family Court Judge has indicated that where children cannot move between households, she would expect indirect contact – such as by phone or social media – to be generous. The same expectation would apply in cases where care arrangements have been consolidated over the four-week lockdown period.
Priority proceedings and enforcement of existing arrangements
The Family Court is an essential service and will continue to operate through all pandemic alert levels but on a reduced capacity, dealing with priority proceedings.
Priority proceedings in the Family Court relevant to children, include:
- Urgent matters of safety, such as to protect a person from family violence or to protect a child from unsafe parenting; or
- Urgent care and protection concerns that require Government intervention for a child via Oranga Tamariki.
Please talk to a member of the Haigh Lyon family team in the first instance if:
- You are unsure as to whether you have an issue considered a priority proceeding; or
- Any urgent issues arises for you during this period that may necessitate a priority proceeding.
Caregivers should be aware that the courts will have extremely limited capacity to address enforcement measures in relation to existing care arrangements or parenting orders during the lockdown period (outside of the priority proceeding referred to above). Parents and caregivers are strongly encouraged to reach their own agreements in respect of care of children during this time. However, if they are not able to do so the court will not intervene to uphold existing agreements for the time being unless the criteria for a priority proceeding is met.
Caregivers should nevertheless be aware that the court has indicated that the pandemic should not be seen as an opportunity for parents and caregivers to unilaterally change established care arrangements without cause or otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child’s best interests or the court ordered care arrangements.
Further information and assistance
Caregivers must put aside their conflict at this time and make decisions that are in the best interests of the child and their families and the wider community. We appreciate this may be difficult for caregivers who have been in conflict over care arrangement.
Further information and updates families are referred to the Unite against COVID-19 website (https://covid19.govt.nz/).
Should you require additional advice in respect of managing your share care arrangement during this time, a member of Haigh Lyon’s family team can assist. The Haigh Lyon family team remain available throughout this period working remotely, should you wish to discuss anything via email, phone or online video conferencing.