Pandemic Puts Co-Parenting Arrangements To The Test
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It's a sunny, spring afternoon and Holly Spriggs and her teenage son, Sawyer Michaud, are digging around in her giant garden outside of Lander, Wyo.
"We're working on planting some potatoes and onions before we get some moisture here," she says.
Spriggs is having a great time, but Sawyer would rather be snowmobiling.
"This is a chore," he says.
"But he's a good help," she says, laughing.
Spriggs has been taking care of both Sawyer and his older brother, Wyatt, for the past three weeks. It's a special circumstance. Normally, she and her ex-husband share 50/50 custody of the children. One week at their dad's house, one week at their mom's house. But like seemingly everything else in this world, COVID-19 has shaken up those plans.
"There's not really a user guide to co-parenting during a pandemic," Spriggs says.
Taking care of children is challenging enough without the novel coronavirus. But throw in stay-at-home recommendations, schools closing, the stress of maybe losing your job or working from home – it's a lot.
"The challenges that were present in co-parenting are generally more heightened by something like a pandemic," says Bobbie Batley, a family law attorney in Albuquerque.
Like an earthquake, the novel coronavirus is deepening all the cracks and fissures in parenting plans for those who are divorced or separated. For some, the cracks are small.
Parents who are good communicators, who are open, flexible, generous and supportive of their children's relationship with each parent, are doing fairly well, according to Batley. As for others, "this is a rare opportunity for us to see all the warts of people fully magnified," she says.
Those warts run the gamut between fights over how to homeschool the kids to situations where parents are taking advantage of these uneasy times to try and gain more custody. "They're using this as an opportunity to further restrict time and contact with that parent," Batley says. "I think those situations have been really sad."
Nate Hegyi produced this story for the Mountain West News Bureau as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative, using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You can follow America Amplified on Twitter @amplified2020.When these collapses in co-parenting occur, lawyers like Batley try to hold out-of-court mediations over Zoom. Family therapists are also travelling to clients' homes and visiting with both parents and kids, albeit through windows to keep the exposure risk low.
But if things really get rough and there are instances of violence or abuse, Batley says the courts in her state are available – even during a pandemic.
"Our Supreme Court has taken a pretty stringent stand on domestic violence and towards emergency custody orders," she says. "Our judges pretty much throughout the state in New Mexico are setting emergency hearings or having quick status conferences or phone conferences."
The same is true for other states in the Mountain West. Courts are available for emergencies. But Batley says most situations can be solved out of the court system. In fact, judges are encouraging families to be flexible and work with each other.
"For the most part, courts aren't going to follow you around and look and see what you're doing in your house," she says. "So if something makes sense to the two parents, and it's all about making the children in that family comfortable and happy and it's in their best interest, then I think a court is going to be very amenable to anybody doing that."
That's what Holly Spriggs and her ex-husband are trying to do. They are one of the luckier couples and have a good co-parenting relationship. They're being flexible. Back in mid-March, they thought it was best to split their two sons between both houses. Wyatt stayed at his mom's house and Sawyer stayed at his dad's place. That way, everyone could self-isolate.
"Even though that was really hard, it was the best thing we could think of at the time to slow the transmission," Spriggs says.
But now both children are at her house because she works from home and can help with schoolwork.
"Also, living a little ways outside of town helps with my teeangers wanting to run off and hang out with their friends," she says.
This means that Sawyer and Wyatt are – at least for now – stuck at home helping mom plant potatoes.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.
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