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North Carolina Family Court Child Custody and Visitation Recommendations

By Rebecca L. Robison April 16, 2020

Family Law

The North Carolina Family Court Advisory Commission publishes child custody and visitation recommendations during COVID-19

Family law attorneys across the state are fielding increased calls from clients about their custody orders, particularly whether visitation can be withheld due to the fear of Coronavirus. On March 19th I posted a blog containing seven guidelines for coparenting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those guidelines were provided by the leaders from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). On April 14th the North Carolina Family Court Advisory Commission published its own recommendations which have been approved by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. These recommendations are specific to North Carolina and are offered to provide guidance to families with existing Chapter 50 custody and/or visitation orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The goal of the recommendations is to encourage the parties to follow their custody order as closely as possible to ensure a level of consistency and stability that is in the best interest of the child(ren). Parties should work together to ensure the best interest of the child(ren) while also following the advice of their healthcare provider(s).

Denial of Parenting Time

The spread of COVID-19, in and of itself, is not a reason to deny parenting time. Unless otherwise ordered by the court, parents are considered fit to care for their child(ren) and make decisions regarding the day-to-day aspects of parenting while the child(ren) are in their care. This day-to-day care includes following both local and state health directives regarding travel, social distancing, and hygienic measures (e.g., frequent hand-washing).

Supervised Parenting Time

If parenting time is ordered to be supervised and the supervisor is unavailable due to pandemic-related issues or other government orders, parenting time should be conducted virtually via videoconferencing (e.g., WebEx, Skype, or FaceTime) or by telephone. Examples of supervisor unavailability may include suspension of a facility’s services due to the pandemic or the supervisor is self-quarantined. Parties should review their custody order or consult with their attorney concerning alternate and appropriate supervisors for supervised parenting time.

Exchanges

Parties should review their custody order or consult with their attorney concerning exchanges. Additional circumstances may exist that would alter each party’s responsibilities as they relate to custody (e.g., if the parties are ordered to exchange a child through a facility that has suspended services due to the pandemic). During the exchange of the child(ren), all parties should follow the CDC guidelines for limiting the spread of the virus, which may mean choosing an alternate location for the exchanges that has fewer people congregating and less touching of public items (e.g., moving exchanges from a restaurant to a grocery store parking lot).

Parenting Time in Public Places

If the parenting plan states that parenting time will occur in a public place, parenting time should continue at locations that are permitted under Governor Cooper’s order and in accordance with health and safety guidelines, such as a large park. In accordance with Governor Cooper’s Order, individuals may engage in outdoor activity, provided they comply with social distancing requirements and the prohibition against mass gatherings, as defined in the order. Where available, individuals may go to public parks and open outdoor recreation areas. However, public playgrounds are closed since touching the equipment may increase the spread of COVID-19. Other public places where people routinely touch common contact surfaces should be avoided. Activities where parents and child(ren) can maintain social distancing and avoid such surfaces are encouraged. If following these orders and guidelines is not possible, parenting time should be conducted virtually via videoconferencing (e.g., WebEx, Skype, or FaceTime) or by telephone.

Definition of Spring Break, Summer Break, Vacation, and Holidays

While the schools are closed, parenting time shall continue as if the child(ren) are still attending school in accordance with the regular school calendar of the relevant district. School closure for public health purposes will not be considered an extension of any break/vacation/holiday period or weekend. “Spring break”, “summer break/vacation”, or other designated holidays means the regularly calendared breaks/vacations or holidays in the school district where the child(ren) attend school (or would attend school if they were school aged).

Safety-Related Issues

If a parent or party with custody or visitation rights is diagnosed with COVID-19 or displays symptoms related to COVID-19, or a member of his or her household is diagnosed with or displays symptoms related to COVID-19, the other party should be notified as soon as possible. If a current court order prohibits communications between the parties, the other party should be notified by some method other than direct contact between the parties. The parties should work together to protect the health and safety of the child(ren) by following the advice of their healthcare provider(s). Again, parties and families should work together to ensure the best interest of the child(ren) while also following the advice of their healthcare provider(s).

First responders must remain available for true emergencies and for support related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Please do not contact them for parenting-related disputes unless you are experiencing domestic violence, or you or your child(ren)’s immediate health and safety is at risk.

Transparency

Unless the parties are restrained from communicating by a court order, parents are encouraged to communicate about precautions they are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure the safety of the child(ren). A parent is not permitted to deny parenting time based upon the other parent’s unwillingness to discuss their precautionary measures taken, or a parent’s belief that the other parent’s precautions are insufficient.

Additionally, the NC Family Court Advisory Commission encourages parties who live in different states or counties to check travel restrictions that may exist, and to the extent possible, follow the recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For up-to-date CDC recommendations regarding caring for children may be found at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/children.html.

A copy of the NC Family Court Advisory Commission recommendations may be found at: https://www.nccourts.gov/courts/family-court.

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