Help: Making decisions now

Thinking about child arrangements during the lockdown

Courtesy of Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).

This article is separated into two sections. The first section gives a summary of the Court’s Guidance and the second section gives you 7 steps to help you decide how to make the best arrangements with your ex – or other carer – during the pandemic. Section 2 also includes a table, which you can fill out to help your thinking. It provides you with practical tools to make decisions that will help your family get on the same page about the Coronavirus restrictions.

Section 1: The Court’s Guidance  

Cafcass has received queries from parents seeking advice about how best to make child arrangements when there are also Covid-19 infection concerns about the child, parent or other family members. The President of the Family Division (who is the leading Family Judge for England and Wales) has issued guidance, which you can read here. We've also written a short glossary of terms, which helps explain some of the legal language used in the Court Guidance. The guidance sets out that:

  • It is the parents who have parental responsibility, not the court
  • That the Government rules on staying at home and away from others are very significant and that we are facing a public health crisis on a scale that has not happened in recent memory
  • That the guidance does allow for children to move between their parent’s homes, but this is a ‘can move’ not a ‘must move’
  • Decisions about this are for the parents to make, with the following guidance:
    • Parents should assess the child’s health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in either household
    • Parents should communicate to work out a good practical solution
    • Parents can agree a variation to an order, and it would be good to have a written note of the agreement, that is shared
    • Where parents cannot agree, they should be reasonable and sensible in forming their individual opinion looking at all the factors
    • There are alternative arrangements for contact vis the internet which should be considered
    • Parents should think about the spirit of the court order – what the order intended to achieve in the longer term, rather than the letter of the order

At Cafcass – where our Social Workers have been helping parents with child arrangements dilemmas for many years – we recognise that the current circumstances are particularly difficult for parents and children, both have new and some serious concerns about day to day life and the future. Living arrangements and relationships may have changed and may be under strain in all sorts of ways. We know also that it is harder to get help at the moment.

That is why we have put as much help as we can, online, and this is available in one starting place.

This includes online guides for making a Parenting Plan for yourselves , and other sources of help. It also includes advice about where to seek help if you think that Domestic Abuse or Coercion are issues for you . The guidance below is not intended for parents where there are issues of abuse and control.

One of the ways in which you can get help at the moment is through Mediation Services – many are offering online meetings for both parents, and they are already getting experience in helping people make and adapt arrangements for the new situation. You can read more about this on the CPH. The costs of Mediation are supported by Legal Aid, and you may qualify for this financial help.

We have had queries about the following types of situations:
  • Where one parent is a key worker, and the house cannot therefore be isolated
  • Where one household is not isolated because other children are moving between their parents
  • Where one parent is a health worker and the risk of the virus coming into the home is therefore greater
  • Where a partner has been or is being abusive and putting on unreasonable pressure
  • Where one parent is concerned about their health for good reason even where this does not meet the Governments list of serious conditions
  • Where the virus is used as an unreasonable excuse for stopping contact – the stopping of contact does not have any additional reasons behind it.

Cafcass cannot decide about individual cases, and we know that access to a Judge in court is very limited at the moment. 

Section 2: Steps that may help you make decisions about Coronavirus arrangements with your ex/other carer:
Rather than comment on particular scenarios, we are offering the following suggestions for how to get to a ‘reasonable and sensible’ decision as set out by the President of the Family Division.

We know that ‘reasonable and sensible’ can be quite hard to agree for separating families. In our view it means taking into account all the things that might affect the child, either in favour of or against a particular arrangement, and in this case thinking also about the safety of others. It also means thinking about some of the alternatives that could be put in place, and recognising that these need only be temporary arrangements, that can be reviewed in the future.

The President of the Family Division is keen also that you think about the spirit of the court order – not the letter. For us, this means thinking about what the order is trying to achieve long term, not the precise balance of the arrangements week by week.

Seven steps to reaching a workable arrangement during the pandemic:
Step 1: Consider your own emotional needs, your worries about the future, and whether you need to do some thinking about how to stay calm so that you can focus on the child’s needs. You may want to set this as a goal, which can show you related content.

Step 2: Think about how you communicate with your former partner and that you have a way to listen to each other’s concerns if you can, and that you will be ready to share your reasoning about what needs to happen. If there is abuse or coercion (feeling forced or obliged to do things) you should seek help elsewhere. 

Step 3: Think about your child’s needs. What is the spirit of the child arrangements order trying to achieve? Listen to your child’s views and concerns – there is help about how to do this here . Your child might have concerns both about missing out on time with a parent, and about increasing health risks for members of the family – it could be a serious burden for a child if they thought they had been part of bringing an illness into a house.

Step 4: Think about who is placed at risk of contracting the virus from the child moving between houses, and how serious this might be for them. How much does the child moving between homes increase that risk – are there already lots of other risks which you don’t have control over, and the child moving does not add much to these? Have you got concerns about a child not being properly shielded? What are the risks if the child arrangement does not take place as ordered?

Step 5: What might be available to reduce the risks? Is there an indirect contact method which could keep the spirit of the order alive while not increasing the risks. Many people are using secure online video meetings to keep in touch with vulnerable friends, relatives, and grandchildren. Might this work for the time being in your situation? Might having contact more often make up for having less contact overall? Might online sessions be a way to help share the burden of – and participate in – schoolwork? Might online sessions that include Grandparents be a way of enriching the experience for all? Does a reduced frequency of contact reduce the risks? Can arrangements be agreed which improve the shielding of your child?

Step 6: Both parents should communicate about their issue and concerns and take care to listen to the other parent and the child’s views. A temporary agreement could be written down. You could agree to seek help from a Mediator if you need some help to explore the issues further.

Step 7: Don’t forget that you can review and change your views about any step, and it can be helpful to go over each step more than once. Don’t forget also that this arrangement is only for now and can change and improve over time. Don’t forget also that if you listen to your child and make an arrangement which respects their wishes and meets their needs, you will get a lot of credit from your child – they know it is difficult.

The table below might be a good tool to work through with the other parent or carer, so you both have a record of what has been agreed to refer back to:

Stage
Things to think about
Notes and agreement

Me

What helps me to stay calm and focus on our child?

 

Communication

What communication do we have and what do we need to make a new arrangement?

 

Our Child’s needs

What is the spirit of our Child Arrangement Order? What are our child’s views and needs?

 

The risks

Who is at risk, in what ways?

 

Our options for managing the risks

What are our options? What can we test out? What might be the best way forward?

 

Our Agreement

What might our best available agreement look like? When should we review it? Do we need some help to make the agreement stronger?

 
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