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Editorial Advisory Board: Front-line workers and child custody issues

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a growing number of child custody issues are arising among parents who share custody of their minor children. The most looming is whether parents who are considered front-line workers pose a health risk to their children.

This question raises even more questions: Should these parents be prohibited from seeing their children during the pandemic? Are there legitimate standards parents can use to cooperatively assess the situation? How will a remotely working judiciary address situations that arise in an emergency, such as parents being denied access to their children because the other parent fears COVID-19 contagion?

The Maryland Judiciary has issued a statement on its planned response to motions involving custody and parenting time:

“With schools closed and courthouses restricting operations to reduce exposure to COVID-19, custodians who live apart might be confused about changing family situations and their court orders. This statement is intended to clarify concerns you may have regarding these matters.

“All court orders for a child’s custody, parenting time and child support are still in effect. In some situations, if permitted under the court order, custodians can jointly adjust their shared parenting responsibilities in ways that they agree are best for the children. If custodians are not able to agree, the court order controls.

“Working with limited staff, the Circuit Courts are only hearing family law emergencies (custody, child access, visitation, and support) where there is a credible risk of imminent and substantial physical or emotional harm to a child or parent.”

The Maryland Judiciary’s tough-love message is clear: During the COVID-19 crisis, Marylanders with custody disputes need to work it out like adults or have a very good reason for calling their issue an emergency.

Yet the courts have provided no practical mechanism for parents that do not agree on custody during these times and who are not willing to follow any court’s orders pertaining to their minor children. Under these current guidelines, if a child’s parent denies access of the minor child to the other parent because he or she is a front-line worker — such as a police officer, nurse or doctor — the denied parent has no remedy. The result becomes parents and children ripped apart from one another, indefinitely, at the discretion of only one of the parents, with no protection for the children that suffer.

Certainly the Maryland Judiciary did not intentionally create this social harm, but inaction cannot be the solution to sharing custody during this time, as it not only punishes parents for being considered essential, it also opens the door for parents to arbitrarily deny access to minors at any time without any legal remedy.

Thus, this board recommends that the Maryland Judiciary broaden its guidelines regarding child custody hearings during COVID-19 to include any attempt by a co-parent to deny access by an essential worker in contravention of a court order.

Editorial Advisory Board members James B. Astrachan, Susan Francis, Leigh Goodmark and Debra G. Schubert did not take part in this editorial.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

James Haynes

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

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