As the country hunkered down to fend off the coronavirus, Carolina McAuley expected her middle school-age kids would continue to shuffle between her house and her ex-husband's — until she got sick.
Suddenly, her long-standing custody arrangement unraveled as she came down with a fever and chills and lost her senses of taste and smell — all presumed symptoms of the coronavirus.
Her 12- and 13-year-olds couldn't go to their father's house, lest they spread the illness further. So the parents agreed the kids would have the run of her house while she holed up in a room, and he would drop off deliveries and talk to them over FaceTime.
"Of course he wants to see his children, but he understands the point of this is not to be spreading this stuff back and forth,” said McAuley, of New Jersey's Bergen County.
The coronavirus is upending divorced families’ custody arrangements as parents get sick or exposed to the illness. In other cases, it is driving already feuding exes to battle over how seriously the other is heeding stay-at-home orders.
Some divorcees are unilaterally altering custody arrangements as many courts are closed except for emergency matters. Once the crisis settles, family lawyers — who said they've been inundated by calls and emails from distraught clients — said they expect to see pandemic clauses in future divorce and custody agreements.
“It's creating tremendous havoc on everybody,” said Marilyn Chinitz, a matrimonial lawyer at Blank Rome in New York. “These are times where parents have to be thoughtful, they have to think of the best interest of the children and not their own selfishness.”
Squabbles over mundane tasks such as shopping for groceries have become common. One parent may never be leaving home, having all items delivered, while their former spouse is working as usual or less worried about the virus. Another issue is schooling now that parents are on the hook for guiding their children’s at-home learning, said David Steerman, chair of the family law group at Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg LLP in Philadelphia.
And as millions of people lose their jobs, some divorced parents are starting to ask to modify their child support arrangements, and those who rely on those checks are worrying about how they’ll get by, he said.
Adding to the problem is that many courts are closed for all but emergency matters.
T.J. Sjostrom, a 36-year-old researcher in Virginia, said he was getting ready to pick up his 10-year-old son when his ex-wife said she wanted the boy to stay with her for the duration of the stay-at-home order. He said he had already been waiting for a court hearing to revisit their custody plan and now doesn’t know when he’ll get one.
“She basically used this to indefinitely halt my custody with my son,” Sjostrom said, adding the order allows for child custody transfers. “I really don’t have any recourse. What is my recourse if I am not granted an emergency hearing?”
Sjostrom’s ex-wife declined to be interviewed.
Once the courts reopen, judges probably won’t look kindly on divorcees who unilaterally altered custody plans without a legitimate safety concern such as a child with a weakened immune system, said Marcia Zug, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who teaches courses on family law.
“For you not to return the child, you need to have a really good reason,” she said.
Many split families are working things out. Chinitz said one former couple decided to rent a home outside of virus-ravaged New York City for their child and they each take turns staying there and in a smaller home nearby.
In another case, a mom who is a doctor agreed for her daughter to remain with her ex-husband, who is working from home, to reduce her chance of exposure and further spreading the illness, she said.
That's what McAuley was thinking when she decided to keep her kids in place. Her ex-husband has since remarried and his wife's children from a prior marriage toggle back and forth between their home and their dad's.
“It becomes a giant chain reaction” she said.
Melissa Biddle, a 35-year-old from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, said she's caring full-time for her 20-month-old son because her ex-husband has been working to repair heating and air systems in grocery stores, and they both agreed this carried too much risk.
Her current partner has a 12-year-old son who splits his time with them and his mom, who has a partner who has adult children. Biddle said she sometimes wonders if everyone is following public health orders.
“We're sort of like a blended family," she said, "Revolving doors on both ends."
Lisa Herrick, a psychologist and divorce coach in Washington D.C. and northern Virginia, said keeping a routine is important for children, especially during a turbulent time. That usually means preserving existing custody arrangements. When concerns arise, parents should seek guidance from a neutral party, ideally the child's pediatrician, she said.
While the outbreak is causing stress for many households, divided families can help children cope in some ways others can't. With some kids relishing the extra time with their parents and pets and their siblings stressed out and yearning for school, split couples can work together — if they choose — to help them cope, she said.
“They're able to say: 'Look, send me the 13-year-old and I will deal, and you keep our 8-year-old, and you will deal, and we'll overlap them,'” Herrick said. “They actually have a little bit of opportunity.”
This version corrects the spelling of the Virginia researcher's last name, which is Sjostrom, not Sjostrum.