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Lawyer: Judge will ‘come down hard’ on parents denying shared custody during pandemic


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The coronavirus pandemic has left parents with joint custody of their children unsure of how to proceed with their arrangements.

Eyewitness News has received dozens of emails and phone calls from parents asking about Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent stay-at-home order, and what it means for their children who are used to living in two households.

On Tuesday, R.I. Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott encouraged parents to limit a child’s travel by keeping them at one parent’s house and transitioning to virtual visits with the other parent.

But family lawyer Chris Heberg tells Eyewitness News it’s not only important to continue with court-ordered arrangements – but it’s also obligatory. He said judges fully expect people to use the pandemic as an excuse to deny access.

“Keep in mind the courts are required by law to maintain ongoing parent-child relationships,” he said. “It can be argued that, during times like these, it is even more critical that children maintain some sense of normality and therefore visitation will most likely be strongly favored by a judge.”

Heberg said he’s had several clients ask him if they can deny access to the other parent during these unprecedented times. He tells them he expects the courts to come down hard on any parent who tries to do that.

“If you deny access and do not have a real palpable reason for doing so you should be prepared to suffer the consequences when courts resume as normal,” Heberg said. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata, who is also a family lawyer, agreed that people should continue to follow their court orders. She said she’s working with Raimondo’s office and public health officials to get that point across.

“There are some circumstances that could warrant some change, and I think this is a time where parents really need to try and dig deep to try and talk to one another and make decisions together in what’s in their children’s best interest,” she said.

Lynch Prata said every situation is different and there may be cases where it’s clear a child is better off in one place over another — for example, she said one home may have better resources for the child to complete distance learning. She said another example would be if one parent has a high-risk job and the other has a compromised immune system.

She challenged parents to communicate and figure it out together, adding that the same rules apply even if the other parent lives in a neighboring state.

“There really should be no issue, say if one parent lives in Seekonk and the other parent lives in Providence or Pawtucket, as long as everyone is following the rules,” she said. “In a perfect world, everyone is following the same guidelines. There really should be no issue in transporting a child back and forth between two houses.”

If both sides can’t come to an agreement, the parents can go to family court, which is only open for emergencies. Lynch Prata said being deprived of the right to see a child falls under that category.

Overall, Lynch Prata said this is another example of why it’s important to practice social distancing. She hopes parents do not try to take advantage of the crisis to get the upper hand.

“These guidelines are meant to shield and protect the citizens, not to be used as a weapon against one party,” she said.

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