COVID-19 is not considered a reason to ignore the terms of the Pennsylvania child custody order. As a general rule, the Pennsylvania courts are requiring parents with a child custody order to follow the schedule set forth in the order despite concerns that a parent might have to the child traveling back and forth between two households. This is true even when the governor enters a stay-at-home order for non-essential activities. Governor Wolf’s first stay at home order went into effect on April 1, 2020. At that time, all Pennsylvanians were only allowed to leave their residences for essential activities. In addition to buying food and medicine, the list of essential activities included the need to care for a family member in another household. There were travel restrictions put in place, but certain essential travel was allowed. This included travel to care for dependents, and travel allowed by court order. The Pennsylvania courts construed these exceptions, allowing travel from one parent’s residence to the other parent’s residence as being essential. This is consistent with the general rule that it is in the best interest of the child to have the love and support of both parents and to have regular and frequent contact with both parents.
The courts are free to look at individual circumstances and can determine that safety concerns outweigh the need to follow the court-ordered custody schedule. However, the safety concerns need to be great for the courts to determine that a custody schedule need not be followed. These circumstances include cases where a parent, child, or other family member has COVID like symptoms or has tested positive for COVID. The courts generally reject more speculative concerns, such as the other parent lives in a COVID hotspot or works in a nursing home with COVID patients. With that being said, judges are given wide discretion in custody cases and there are some close calls where different judges will view safety concerns differently. This does make things confusing for parents with custody cases. The general rule is to follow the custody order unless there is an immediate and serious COVID safety risk.
Of course, parents are encouraged to establish their own COVID policies that will work best for their children. This could include less frequent custody exchanges and longer periods of custody. It could also include the use of technology such as Zoom and FaceTime virtual visits. So long as both parents agree, it is not a problem. The problems exist when parents do not agree. Then attorneys must advise their clients to follow the custody order as written.
Creating or Modifying Custody Order
For parents who do not have custody orders or for parents who want to modify an existing custody order, the Court of Common Pleas of York County is open for business. Custody cases may be filed just as they were prior to the pandemic. However, the court is using far more technology than in the past. Custody conciliation conferences are now being scheduled by Zoom or by telephone. Similarly, court-ordered mediation and custody workshops are being held by computer access. When a custody case finally goes to trial, only the parties and their attorneys appear in the court room. Everyone is socially distanced and must wear a mask. Other witnesses for the trial must appear by Zoom or their testimony is taken by speakerphone. Some judges are even willing to conduct the entire trial by Zoom, so long as both parties consent.
New COVID Restrictions
At the present time, COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high time in most of the country, including Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf recently announced new COVID restrictions that require people who travel out of state to quarantine for ten days upon return home to Pennsylvania or to quarantine for seven days with a negative test on or about the fifth day of quarantine. There are numerous exceptions to this rule. One of the exceptions applies to individuals traveling out of state to comply with a court order for child custody.
Tom is the Chair of the Family Law group with CGA Law Firm. He has been specializing in family law matters for more than 30 years. He enjoys working closely with others and finds satisfaction in handling complex matters. Tom has litigated hundreds of cases during his career. More importantly, he has resolved thousands of other cases, sparing his clients the expense and uncertainty of trial. Tom is also a certified divorce mediator.
His philosophy is to resolve the divorce and family conflict sensibly and efficiently, while minimizing stress and the financial burden for all parties.