Staying connected: contact for families during the Coronavirus pandemic

by Aimee Baker

The coronavirus (‘COVID-19) outbreak and the measures enforced by the Government to close schools and nurseries and place the UK on lockdown has severely impacted contact arrangements for a lot of separated parents and their children.

Many separated parents have been concerned about their capability to meet the requirements of previously agreed Court orders in a safe manner due to the current unforeseen COVID-19 circumstances that the UK is experiencing.

Separated parents may also be worried that they may not be able to see their child for a sustained period of time, for example if the child goes into isolation while with the other parent or when one parent is using the coronavirus as an excuse for the child not to see the other parent.

Local Authorities are also under pressure to facilitate contact arrangements for those parents who usually enjoy direct face to face contact with their children who are in care. Many local authorities have had to suspend direct contact at this time due to the risk posed to the children, contact workers and social workers. Many are offering alternatives such as video call via skype or Whatsapp, video message, exchange of photographs to continue the relationship between the parent and child however, this can be difficult if a child of young age or a baby where they are unable to communicate for themselves. We understand that nothing can quite compare to direct face to face contact.

Many local authorities and professional bodies such as CAFCASS are offering guidance and advice to children, young people and parents on how best to deal with the current crisis where it concerns maintaining contact and staying connected to your loved ones.

The primary focus of all those involved with facilitating and arranging contact are focused on keeping children safe above all else. It is a fine balancing act against children being prevented from their face to face contact with their parents or family members and keeping them safe. Birmingham Children’s Trust released a policy providing the following general guide for facilitating contact for children in care and these are as follows;

“Social workers will liaise with parents, relatives and carers on a child by child basis to agree durations of virtual contact, but the following is provided as a general guide:

  • 0 – 2 years old: A video of the child will be sent to parents by the social worker, this is on the basis that a video call will not provide much opportunity for meaningful interaction between parent and child.
  • 2 – 4 years old: Up to 10 minutes in duration. If the child disengages with the call, the carer will seek to encourage engagement but if this cannot be achieved the call will be ended.
  • Infant school children (Reception – Year 2): Up to 20 minutes in duration. If the child disengages with the call, the carer will seek to encourage engagement but if this cannot be achieved the call will be ended.
  • Junior school children (Year 3 – 6): Up to 30 minutes in duration. If the child disengages with the call, the carer will seek to encourage engagement but if this cannot be achieved the call will be ended.
  • Secondary school children: Up to 40 minutes in duration. If the child disengages with the call, the carer will seek to encourage engagement but if this cannot be achieved the call will be ended.”

Here at Greens we are able to offer advice and assistance to help explain and navigate you through the constant changes to government policy and local authority policies with regards to contact.

Guidance issued by the Government initially was unclear on child contact arrangements during the coronavirus lockdown. However, further advice has now been published by the courts and judiciary providing greater clarity to parents;

  • “Parental responsibility for a child who is the subject of a Child Arrangements Order [‘CAO’] made by the Family Court rests with the child’s parents and not with the court.
  • Parents must abide by the ‘Rules on Staying at Home and Away from Others’ issued by the government on 23rd March [‘the Stay at Home Rules’].
  • The Stay at Home Rules have made the general position clear: it is no longer permitted for a person, and this would include a child, to be outside their home for any purpose other than essential shopping, daily exercise, medical need or attending essential work.
  • Government guidance issued alongside the Stay at Home Rules on 23rd March deals specifically with child contact arrangements. It says:
  • Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.
  • This establishes an exception to the mandatory ‘stay at home’ requirement; it does not, however, mean that children must be moved between homes. The decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.
  • Where parents do not agree to vary the arrangements set out in a CAO, but one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with the CAO arrangements would be against current advice, then that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the arrangement to one that they consider to be safe.
  • Where, either as a result of parental agreement or as a result of one parent on their own varying the arrangements, a child does not get to spend time with the other parent as set down in the CAO, the courts will expect alternative arrangements to be made to establish and maintain regular contact between the child and the other parent within the Stay at Home Rules, for example remotely – by Face-Time, WhatsApp Face-Time, Skype, Zoom or other video connection or, if that is not possible, by telephone.”

The guidance and rules around family time and contact is likely to vary during these unprecedented times. It is important to remain child focused at this time and to keep yourself safe as well as others.

If you are experiencing similar circumstances to those set out above and you require some legal advice on how to manage contact which has been ordered by the court or in relation to spending time with your children who are in care or even if you are a family member seeking to spend time with a child whether they’re involved with social services or not then please do contact one of our specialists here at Greens who will advise you of your options. Greens solicitors remains fully operational during this crisis and we are here to help. To help you stay connected.