How to navigate child custody and visitation during the coronavirus pandemic

Woman with covid mask walking away from playground

MARCH 25,2020—If you share custody or have a child custody case pending in Tarrant County, you may wonder how the novel coronavirus pandemic and government mandates will affect you and visitation with your kids. While the situation continues to evolve, we’ve compiled a COVID-19 “state of the union” and have addressed some common concerns of parents in light of the crisis. Here’s what we know now.

Don’t expect business as usual in the family courts

On Friday, March 13, 2020, Texas Governor Gregory Abbott declared coronavirus as a statewide public health disaster in response to the imminent threat of COVID-19 (the coronavirus disease) pandemic. In terms of Texas courts, the state also issued an emergency order to ensure all courts in Texas take steps to minimize the spread of the disease.

This emergency goes beyond pleas for six feet of “social distancing.” The reality is this: Only high priority concerns and emergencies will be addressed in the courtroom. If you’re hoping to duke it out with your ex in court, you’ll have to wait. (Again, emergency issues will still be heard.)

In the weeks and months to come, the courts will experience a backlog of cases. How can you keep your case moving along? Don’t panic, approximately 90 percent of our clients’ cases are resolved without a final trial.

The Texas temporary emergency orders also make exceptions for many in-person appearances, allowing parties to appear via videoconferencing and other means. Ask your attorney how this may apply to you and your case.

The Sisemore Law Firm team is also happy to speak with you via videoconferencing or phone. You don’t need to put off your family law concerns in Tarrant County. In fact, we’re already doing virtual consultations with clients and are set up to handle conferences and mediation with opposing counsel using cutting edge videoconferencing technology and tools like Zoom, Go-to-Meeting, Skype and the like.

Don’t have possession orders in place? Play nice or pay the price

Our Fort Worth law firm has already seen spikes in family violence, child custody disputes, international abduction, state abductions and other family law issues. While the world may be in a state of crisis, we’re not living in the wild, wild west.

To bring clarity to the situation, Tarrant County issued a temporary emergency standing order effective March 23, 2020, through May 30, 2020, affecting all suits related to divorce and the child-parent relationship. The order may be extended if necessary.

If you have a pending divorce or child custody suit in Tarrant County and don’t have existing orders in place, these orders apply to you.

Your attorney can walk you through the orders and explain what impact they could have on your case. We call it a “common sense/be a decent human order.” In other words, don’t harass, don’t threaten, don’t harm. The orders also prohibit the “hiding or secreting” of children, pets and other animals.

Keep in mind, If you don’t comply, you need to prepare for the consequences. In times of crisis, judges don’t have the patience for idiotic behavior and will penalize you accordingly.

Important steps to take when navigating child custody and visitation during the coronavirus pandemic

For parents who have existing possession orders in place: You need to follow the visitation schedule agreed to in those orders. If you or the other parent has tested positive for COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, ask your attorney what steps you need to take to keep your children safe and reduce risk of spreading the disease. Try to avoid violating your orders until you know your options.

For essential workers on the frontlines (doctors, nurses, first responders, hospital/clinic support staff, grocery store employees, delivery personnel, etc.): Many parents in these situations fear what will happen if they need to leave their child with the other parent longer than their possession and visitation schedule allows.

Will they need to pay more child support? Can the other parent refuse to return the child for fear of contracting coronavirus? Since this situation is very fluid, and the county is issuing new standing orders to address COVID-19 family law issues every week or so, the best step here is to ask your family law attorney what steps you can take today.

REMEMBER TO GET IT IN WRITING … Something parents should always do when they agree to a change to custody or custody exchange is to put it in writing. For example, if you want to give your child over temporarily because you’re a nurse, have those intentions memorialized in writing, explaining “This is what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how.” Even if the other party won’t sign it, at least you’ve memorialized the evidence so your intentions are made clear when you get to court. (Your attorney can help you prepare and submit this properly.)

For parents who have an unresponsive or ineffective divorce and child custody attorney: If you are having trouble getting your attorney to return your phone calls or respond to urgent requests, you CAN change attorneys.

Some smaller law firms are finding it difficult to keep up with the influx of calls and requests they’re getting right now. While it’s always nice to extend a little grace in times of crisis, especially for non-urgent matters, can your issue wait?

If you need to act now, changing attorneys may be the best option. Your new attorney will need you to sign a motion for substitution, which the attorney then will submit to the court.

As of March 25, 2020, we’re waiting to hear how the substitution process is actually going to be implemented in the courts. However, our firm has instituted its own process. During the COVID-19 crisis, our team will go to work for you as soon as you sign the substitution order.

What else can you expect from the Sisemore Law Firm during the coronavirus crisis?

We have a large, experienced team of family lawyers, paralegals and other support staff ready to serve your family law needs in Tarrant County. Our founder attorney Justin Sisemore is also working with local judges and other attorneys in the community to come up with proactive solutions to meet your needs as quickly and efficiently as possible. We’re not waiting for the government to act first.

Our firm is also sharing updated information with our clients (existing and prospective) as soon as we get it. For example, as soon as we hear about any new or revised Tarrant County emergency standing orders, we’ll email you with those updates. JOIN OUR EMAIL LIST HERE.

We also welcome you to share your questions with us and through our social media sites (see icons in the bottom right corner of this page). If you’ve got questions, we’ll do our best to get you answers ASAP.

Finally, if you live in Tarrant County and need the help of a reputable family law firm, please contact us. You can call our firm at (817) 336-4444 to schedule a confidential case review with our founder Justin Sisemore, or if you prefer, connect with us online.

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