If you’ve met with a doctor in the past few weeks, chances are it was over the phone or computer. Most doctors’ offices have moved to telecommunication sessions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, when Dr. Bertha Mayorquin, a New Jersey physician, agreed to move from meeting with patents virtually to meeting with non-COVID-19 patients face-to-face at an urgent care, she was also presented with a court order by her soon-to-be ex- husband granting him sole temporary custody of their young daughters. Megan Twohey detailed this story in the New York Times, along with the stories of several other front-line workers faced with similar child custody dilemmas because of their jobs.
All of this raises some serious and very difficult questions about co-parenting in the age of COVID-19. Most medical providers working on the front lines right now are making a pretty dramatic sacrifice of potential exposure to COVID-19, working long shifts, often without proper personal protective equipment. But unfortunately, that fight isn’t reserved for hospitals and doctors’ offices. Obviously, it follows them home as well.
As a father myself, this is a difficult issue to take sides on. I cannot help but be so very grateful to anyone who is risking their life by going into work at a hospital every day during a pandemic. At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the risk of a potentially infected doctor, nurse or healthcare worker passing COVID-19 onto their children during a shared custody visit. This exposure also potentially puts the health and safety of their other family at risk as well, once they return home. It’s complicated, and worrisome, situation with potentially deadly consequences.
I want to say that were I on the front lines, I would also fight for the custody of my children. I mean, wow. How can you not? Parents want to see their kids.
At the same time, if my ex-spouse working the front lines, I would really think twice about allowing my children to spend time with someone who may very well have contracted a virus that is bringing many states, and nations, to their knees.
I’d like to think there could be a temporary middle ground to be found, so that nobody had their custodial rights stripped away for working to save lives and promote public health. Co-parenting is founded in compromise, and some co-parents are far better than others in their ability to work together, but I can’t imagine anything more challenging than fighting for custody during a pandemic in an effort to protect my child’s health. I mean, I would do it, but I hope it would never have to get to that point.
Naturally, this is a new stage in the game of shared custody, and many courts do not have a precedent to lean on when making a decision, causing rulings to be inconsistent across states. Per Twohey’s article in the Times, there are few guidelines to address the current safety concerns around co-parenting and COVID-19. Families of medical workers aren’t the only ones affected, either. Parents all over are arguing over who comes and goes from each home, whether children should be on the playground, and if travel to more remote areas should be permitted. And of course this is all on the heels of how difficult it is to negotiate any of the above with an ex-spouse, especially when you don’t share the same interpretation of the word ‘social distancing.’
I have to assume these questions are weighing heavily on any worker who has been deemed essential — from plumbers, to grocery store clerks, to fast food workers. Anyone placing themselves at an increased risk of exposure due to their profession is also placing themselves at an increased risk of exposing their children and/or losing shared custody of their children, and this must be one of the most difficult realities they currently face.
However, the real question is how to share custody safely under these circumstances?
Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, has some ideas about how to do this. Myers shared some thoughts with the Times: “What we are recommending is to figure out a way for visitation to go forward, and if there’s an emergency worker, to figure out how to salvage it as best as you can. We can’t make those people have to sacrifice more, but how do we do that custody safely?”
Many parents who work in an area of increased risk to exposure are choosing to self-quarantine, particularly front line doctors and nurses. Angie Mireles is a nurse at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura California who cares for COVID-19 patients three days a week. According to the VC Star, a local resident loaned her a camper trailer. It is now parked in her driveway. She stays there to create a buffer between her husband and two children to prevent passing the virus on to her family.
I’ve seen numerous stories online of doctors visiting their children through bedroom windows and Zoom meetings. But let’s be real here: though we hear these stories of good hearted strangers loaning a camper to a nurse or a doctor, that same sort of generosity may not be extended to grocery store clerks or other retail workers who are also placing themselves at increased risk of infection.
In the end, though, there was good news for Dr. Bertha Mayorquin. The Times reports that Dr. Bertha Mayorquin did initially lose custody of her daughters. At that point, she was left to make a decision: continue to work face-to-face with patients and not see her children, or seek an alternative arrangement. She chose the latter, and requested to be moved back to telecommunication visits. Her employer granted it, and she was then given back her shared custody rights.
Of course, not everyone in a similar situation will be lucky enough to find an option to continue working in a manner that will protect them from increased infection — which leaves divorced front-line workers from all types of professions in a similar, heartbreaking quandary. The reality is, until the COVID-19 crisis stabilizes, essential employees who are also co-parents will be faced with additional custody challenges.
Let’s be real here, co-parenting can be difficult enough on a regular day, and it will be very easy for those outside the relationship to take sides. Many will side with the parent who is trying to keep their child away from a potential contamination, leaving a front line worker with one more hardship on top of a mountain of hardship. This creates even more challenges for parents who escaped toxic or abusive marriages, and are now forced to face down their ex-spouse once again.
We can only hope that most co-parents will be able to discuss all of this rationally, for the sake of their shared children.