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Get the latest news about the novel coronavirus from Iowa Public Radio and NPR News.

Child Custody Issues Increase As Iowans Try To Avoid COVID-19

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As Iowans try to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, more families are facing issues related to child custody arrangements.

Joan lives in eastern Iowa and has a blended family that has ties to multiple households. IPR has agreed to use her first name only to protect her children’s identities.

One of Joan’s children was taken on a trip out of state in March, after the state recommended that schools close. The child had to self-isolate with the other parent after the trip, so Joan didn’t get to see them for weeks.

And Joan doesn’t want her kids to go for their regularly-scheduled stays at households where she knows others have a higher risk of getting COVID-19 at their workplace. She said this is undermining her efforts to protect her family during the global pandemic.

“Other families that are not blended certainly would not be prompting sleepovers every two days, or every third day, or every other weekend during quarantine or shelter-in-place,” Joan said. “That would completely defeat the purpose. But that’s our reality.”

Joan said she has been staying home as much as possible since mid-March to prevent COVID-19 exposure. And she said she is willing to defy existing court orders if she feels it’s necessary to protect her kids from the virus.

“It’s kind of hard when other people’s choices—which would be different from your own parenting choices—when those can result in potentially serious illness or death,” Joan said.

Joan said her kids haven’t shown any signs of illness as of Tuesday. But she wishes the state or the court system would do something to intervene in issues like this as they’re happening, instead of after the fact, and after a family member could have been exposed to the new coronavirus.

The Iowa Judicial Branch has suspended most in-person functions but is still conducting some hearings by phone and video conference, so some child custody matters can still be heard by a judge.

Tyler Coe is a family law attorney with Whitfield & Eddy in Des Moines, and he said he’s getting a lot of calls from former clients with concerns similar to Joan’s.

Coe said child custody court orders remain in place even amid a public health emergency. He said the best thing parents can do is talk to each other and find a compromise that could include parents making up lost time later in the year.

But he said lawyers are getting involved in trying to find solutions, and some are even filing contempt actions for alleged wilfull violations of court orders. Coe also said it might be necessary in some cases to seek a temporary suspension of a custody order if a parent is not taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously.

“The real issue long-term is if the parent is willing to take such risks during a public health emergency, how are they able to co-parent? So if parents act unwisely during these times, it could result in a modification of child custody further down the road,” Coe said.

He said this will “likely cause family turmoil” for the next year or longer.

Coe said he has never seen an event that has been so disruptive for child custody agreements. And he is working on language for future custody agreements that would detail what should happen in case of a public health emergency if something like this happens again.