Isabella Margolis was already mourning her graduation ceremony from high school and her last season of hip-hop dance when she realized there was something else the spread of the coronavirus was taking away from her — precious weeks and months with her dad before she moves to Boston for college.
Usually she splits time 50-50 between her parents, who are separated. But with state health officials calling for extreme social distancing measures to protect from the virus, the family decided it would be safer for the time being for her to stay with her mom, whose job doesn’t put her in contact with as many people.
“It does hit once in awhile, where I’m like, in a couple of months, I’m not going to see either of them,” she said. “To have to lose out on those last few months with my dad is a really hard thing to come to terms with.”
It’s a challenge for thousands of shared-custody families across the state navigating arrangements that require children to split time between homes with executive orders that direct people to stay in one place unless absolutely necessary.
Like Margolis, some children are staying with one parent over the other to limit their exposure to the virus, particularly in situations where one parent works in health care or emergency response.
Other cases have been less amicable, where the parents fundamentally disagree about the severity of the pandemic and the need for social distancing.
The pandemic has also closed businesses and put hundreds of thousands in Minnesota suddenly out of work, limiting some parents’ ability to pay child support.
Those disputes are increasingly challenging to resolve, with courtrooms mostly shut down to prevent further spread of the virus. Family lawyers in the state have been flooded with calls from confused and conflicted parents.
“A lot of questions about, what happens if one of the parents is not feeling well, even if it’s not necessarily the coronavirus, if they are just sick, should they be around the parents that are sick?” said Tifanne Wolter chairwoman of the Minnesota Bar Association family law section. “There’s been situations where one parent doesn’t necessarily want to be in the city. I’ve got a couple of cases where the parent took the kid, went up to the cabin and isn’t returning the kid.”
Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which has been extended until May 4, specifically exempts people who need to leave their homes for the “transport of children pursuant to existing parenting time schedules or other visitation schedule.” Under law, those court-ordered parenting schedules aren’t supposed to change except under extreme circumstances. But in the midst of a pandemic, parents are struggling with what exactly constitutes an extreme circumstance, especially when their children could be put in situations where they are exposed to the virus.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) said children should not stay with a parent who tests positive for COVID-19, but it does encourage parents to return to their normal parenting schedules as quickly as possible.
Rebecca Dessonville’s ex-partner works in a hospital, so she has taken over more of the day-to-day parenting while her ex has been busier than usual at work. She’s on good terms with her ex, but Dessonville said she’s talking to other divorced parents who have far less amicable arrangements.
“There are parents who said the other parent is still having parties, or they are having people over when the kids aren’t there,” Dessonville said. “These other parents are literally deciding for their kids’ health to not let them see the other parent.”
Lawmakers are already trying to address some of the challenges, passing a law this week to extend a May 1 deadline for people who pay child support to file a motion to contest an automatic 4.7% cost-of-living increase. That deadline is now bumped to June 30.
“Adding an adjustment of 4.7% right now as people are continuing to lose their jobs, having reduced hours, needing to stay home with children, maybe being ill or taking care of ill relatives, that deadline to contest having an extension is really important,” said Melissa Rossow, director of the Human Services Legal Division at the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office.
Katy Graves, a family law attorney at Henson Efron in Minneapolis, said she reminds clients how hard the pandemic is on children, who have already been taken out of their classrooms and thrown into new distance-learning plans. They’re also seeing the news every day reporting more infections and deaths, causing worry about their family and friends.
“I tell my clients that the kids need both of you right now, especially right now,” Graves said. “There are emotional tolls they are dealing with in addition to their physical well-being, and being able to see both of their parents and know they are both OK is common sense.”
She said any parent not seeing a child regularly should bond with them through FaceTime, Skype to talk, or do shared activities like watch movies or play a game.
Dan Israel, a musician, lives a few miles from his ex-wife in St. Louis Park, so they’ve been able to maintain their regular parenting schedules. Already being isolated from other people, he couldn’t imagine also being separated from his two children.
“I’m basically not seeing any other humans other than my kids,” he said. “When they’re not here, it just means I’m in 100 percent solitude.”