PEOPLE spoke with certified family law specialist Steve Mindel about how custody arrangements might look and shift during social distancing

By Jen Juneau Kara Warner
March 23, 2020 02:35 PM
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Parents across the world are making the best of self-isolation when it comes to their families amid the coronavirus pandemic, but for divorced parents, custody arrangements could mean taking on a whole new set of tasks.

PEOPLE spoke about the process with certified family law specialist and FMBK Law managing partner Steve Mindel, who says that despite the fact that many divorced parents will “have wide differences of opinion on how to do things,” the most important thing is communication.

“We have to tell the parent who is not, at the moment, the custodial parent, that you have got to be flexible,” Mindel says — but that flexibility goes both ways: “If we’re talking to the custodial parent and [they] know the other parent does not want the child to see their cousin Ted or Sarah, don’t bring Ted or Sarah to the house.”

“Number one, talk through it. Two adults talking through it via Zoom, Skype, join.me, telephone, video conference, and try to work it out,” he advises. “I think the telephone tends to let people get pretty sloppy in their conversation but in the video conference, you’re looking eye to eye at somebody, so from that standpoint it might be better to keep everybody’s attention.”

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Mindel also touches on the 10 percent of cases he sees where one parent might “try to take advantage of the situation,” which could “result in the other parent trying to defeat that by using authority.”

“Let’s say Dad doesn’t want to bring the child back to Mom’s house … is it really smart to be moving children back and forth between parents during this time? The answer is it’s all dependent upon the two parents and the children,” he tells PEOPLE. “If you have one parent in New York and one in California and it happens to be spring break, no one will recommend you put the child on an airplane. That visitation won’t happen, so those two parents have to come up with an alternative.”

“We know that that visitation won’t take place so why create agitation between the two — why not create alternatives?” Mindel adds. “Maybe [you can] do video conferencing and play games with your child via video conference. Maybe you learn how to play video games and you get on one of the internet games where you’re playing together in two different places.”

For those parents who insist on calling law enforcement, “I don’t know what the police will do right now,” Mindel says. “And to think about right now using these really valuable resources for something they should be able to work out themselves is not a great use of the police department’s time.”

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Mindel says that his firm would be able to help in 90 percent of cases he sees, encouraging parents to reach out if they “can’t make a decision” together and need help finding common ground.

“Lawyers are working remotely now, too, so a call to your local mediator, arbitrator, retired judges office is going to get you a Zoom conference relatively quickly, within two to three days probably, to get a decision made,” he says. “You’re going to see more and more people going to a consensual dispute resolution, going to private judges or attorneys that act as arbitrators to resolve parenting plan differences.”

As of Monday morning, there have been over 33,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. (with cases in every state) and 428 deaths, according to a New York Times database. Globally, Johns Hopkins University reports there have been 354,677 total confirmed cases, including 15,436 deaths and 100,462 total recovered patients.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDCWHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.

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