Many parents have struggled recently with the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine and the uncertainty regarding their obligations under existing custody orders. A parent’s innate desire to protect their child can cause conflict and anxiety during the recent pandemic when required to take the child out of the home to comply with their obligation for custody exchanges, particularly when a custody order provides for the exchange to occur in a public location. A party’s failure to comply with a custody order is a basis for a finding of contempt by the Court if it is determined to be willful, and punishment can be severe including fines, probation and imprisonment. Nevertheless, the recent COVID-19 quarantine has been asserted by parties in some circumstances as a basis to withhold a child from the other party in violation of their obligations under an existing custody order.
In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf’s recent “Stay at Home” Order has provided some direction to parents and parties regarding their obligations under custody orders during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Order provides that all individuals residing in Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Monroe, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties must stay at home except as needed to access, support, or provide life sustaining business, emergency, or government services. The Guidelines issued with the Order state that allowable essential travel includes travel to care for minors and dependents, travel required by court order and travel to return to a place of residence from an outside jurisdiction.
In Chester County, the Court of Common Pleas, Family Division has provided further direction to residents in the county by issuing a Policy regarding custody exchanges in response to the “Stay at Home” Order and in reliance on direction from the Governor’s Office of General Counsel that the Order does not prohibit necessary travel to effectuate an existing custody order. The Chester County Policy requires compliance with existing custody orders which provide for custodial exchanges of children, absent true exigent or emergency circumstances. The Policy provides that if the custody exchange is to occur in a public place that may create an elevated risk, the parties should consider exchanging at their respective residences (curbside, if necessary) or such other location as they may agree. Further, if a party believes emergency circumstances exist which would justify temporary suspension of custodial exchanges, the party must prepare an Emergency Petition for Temporary Modification of the custody order stating precisely the alleged exigent circumstances, which will be reviewed by a judge.
Navigating custody can be difficult even under the best of circumstance. As we continue to address the impact of COVID-19, cooperation between parents is essential to maintain the best interests of their children and the safety and health of the family. If you have any questions regarding custody or other family law issues, please contact Ashley B. Stitzer, Esquire at (610) 840-0243 or [email protected].