The effects of sheltering in place due to COVID-19 is creating a paralyzing and confusing environment for parents trying to decipher how to comply with existing child custody orders.
On March 16, 2020, governor Gavin Newsom issued a directive for all citizens of California to shelter in place and only go out for essentials such as groceries medicine and supplies. For a period of time, parks and public places remained opened to afford access to the outdoors for exercise. Just recently, however, a number of state and local parks and other public places were ordered closed in response to their overpopulation. This measure was taken to keep COVID-19 viral infections from spreading.
In this new and unpredictable environment, parents are faced with determining whether or not they should comply with existing court orders on travel and exchanges of their children. Local parenting exchanges typically require traveling in vehicles with possible stops along the way. Longer distance travel may involve the use of ground travel as well as airline flights. Daily news releases warn the public of the health dangers of travel and of the growing national travel limitations. Airlines are canceling flights and are dramatically reducing their services.
Fortunately, many parents faced with these challenges are working together and are creatively solving the problems surrounding how to best address the protection and needs of their children in relation to custody exchanges.
For parents who cannot reach agreements on how to best manage this new parenting environment, the consensus among family law practitioners is that, unless you acquire court ordered modifications to the current custody and parenting orders, you are obligated to follow those existing orders.
A parent planning to return to court for protective orders to modify the custody plan will be met with new difficulties created by the COVID-19 shut down: limited accessibility to the family law courts.
As of this writing, the Contra Costa County family law courts are completely closed. Court administrators are feverishly working on plans to allow for limited access for emergency requests by utilizing a dropbox outside of the court building. The courts are developing a filing and hearing plan for all other matters so business can resume in some fashion.
Alameda County family law courts currently have an emergency dropbox outside the Hayward family law building for use only for matters that are considered serious emergencies. The court personnel here, like in Contra Costa County, will implement continued access to the family law courts as soon as practical and in conformity with protecting the court personnel and public.
Plans for both of these counties will consist of non-contact court access for some period of time. Submission of pleadings via dropbox will require careful preparation of all documents in conformity with local rules and judicial council forms. Clerks are not authorized to practice law and cannot change or modify pleadings to assist a litigant on the submission of their papers to court. As a result, there is a strong likelihood that self represented litigants will suffer delays in having matters processed if the pleadings are rejected.
Complications with getting a matter set before the court may be compounded by the fact that pending matters were waiting to be heard while the courts were closed and those matters will be continued with some level of priority to new dates. Unskilled self represented litigants will be competing with each other on trying to gain access to court and, if unfamiliar with court pleadings and policy, may find their paperwork rejected. In child custody cases, time is always of the essence. Suffering delays due to the inability to understand the world of the court process can result in devastating outcomes.
In order to properly protect your legal rights and the rights of your children, it is best to retain experienced family law representation, thereby ensuring the best possible outcome on navigating through the new child custody challenges we now face in our courts.