Difficult times for split families

Holidays are a time of live and celebration for many but can also be a high cause of stress and angst in split families. 

With all of the Covid-19 regulations, there are a lot of misconceptions and conflicted reports about custody rules and visitation.

Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Jessica Chapman says the key aspect to remember is that while all regulations regarding COVID-19 have to be adhered to, that doesn’t mean it can be used as an excuse for one parent to withhold visitation or the ignoring of the divorce settlement agreement during this special time of what Legal Aid Alberta notes “Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or … other family traditions”.

“It is difficult more question to answer this year because there are so many variables and lots of times extended family can be a bit of a buffer between parents are not getting along but this year you can’t really have extended family involved. In terms of Christmases, it creates a lot of conflict every year. If people feel really strongly about the holidays, people will find something to question or fight over, explains Chapman in a phone interview. 

While this is all coming to light as Christmas has arrived, the legalities were studied earlier this year. Chapman explains that it all started all being an issue when the first lockdown happened in the late winter early spring, basically march.  

They had to figure out at that point what was going to happen with the pandemic itself and they also had to seek some early guidance from different courts. 

Chapman noted that the first related case was in Ontario where judges said that co-parenting arrangements need to continue if there is a pandemic. 

“It is not something where children are going to be prevented from seeing their parents like they normally would. You can take extra safety precautions but you can’t cut off the time,” explained Chapman. “Then other courts followed suit and so that means determining what to do about Christmas a lot easier. It was also very helpful that the government and (Chief Medical Officer of Alberta) Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw pointed specifically that restrictions did not apply. 

“To co-parenting arrangements and so that was very helpful guidance for them to offer that so people didn’t have to wonder if they were attending to apply to co-parenting. When we say co-parenting we mean any type of sharing of time; you don’t have to hit 50-50 level to be considered co-parenting. If you have one afternoon a week with your child or every second weekend, that’s still a co-parenting arrangement where you are sharing the time and parenting the child. “

Not living the same house has caused a lot of questions regarding the two side and new relationships which have unfolded since the two split. There has been conflict regarding whether the new people involved mean they are outsiders and make the pandemic rules override legal divorce agreements.

Chapman says this isn’t the case.

“Another big thing is that a lot of times when people break up they have new partners, and maybe their partners have kids from a previous relationships so people say well “if it was just you it wouldn’t be a problem but because you have your partner…” but the reality is, your partner is a person in our household and any kids that are going back and forth are members of that household so you don’t get to say that those are only there part-time so there are not part of the household so they can’t see my kid,” explained Chapman. 

“When you separate as parents, your kids have two households and anyone who lives part of the time in each house is part of that household. So you can’t prevent people form going back and forth. There are still a family. It maybe not the family you envisioned but they are still a family. 

Health is a major concern and if there is a lot of extended family involved, then it is up to the two sides to come up with a solution.

“This is the time to be creative,” says Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Jeff Keller in a statement. “If you celebrate Christmas, the kids may not get two big Christmases this year but you can still make it fun, even if grandma and grandpa can’t come.”

Keller recommends setting up video or phone calls with extended family on your parenting time so the kids can see everybody. It’s safer from a health perspective and also means “you don’t have to risk driving from house to house in winter conditions.”

It has definitely been an extra stress year as the pandemic has damaged a lot in regards to people’s socio/economic status and mental health. There have been some complicated and never before seen situations. Chapman says those in Legal Aid are handling it but they appreciate the hardship out there. 

“We are lucky we have a really supportive workplace that has helped us adjust (to the pandemic workplace rules),” explains Chapman. 

“I find working from home very isolating and I’d much rather be working in my office surrounded by people but that’s not possible right now. Things have been put in place where we have twice a day a 15 minute (virtual) coffee break where it is social in nature and we have group meetings depending in the area of law you are practising in and there are established mentorship programs within the organization so that helps a lot. It has been a bit of a struggle but at the end of the day when I look at the issues I am facing versus what my client is facing, so at Legal Aid we deal with the most vulnerable in the province so we handle a lot of the child welfare defence work where we are representing parents whose children has been broken from their care for a variety of reasons and who are struggling with non-parenting issues a lot of the time like homelessness and poverty. I look at what other people are going through and I just can’t help but feel fortunate to have a job where you can make a difference. .. we have been doing a lot of debriefing.”

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