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Separated Parents using Pandemic to reopen Custody Fights

By Caitlin Fitzsimmons – The Sydney Morning Herald

April 5, 2020

Divorces are likely to rise as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, while some separated parents are using the pandemic to renege on care arrangements, a leading family mediator warns.

Gloria Hawke, a Sydney-based mediator and co-founder of the Mediation Collective, said many long-separated couples are arguing over whether to vary care agreements because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve got parents who are just saying ‘look, it’s all too risky, I’m retaining the kids at my place, I don’t want to mediate, I don’t want to discuss it, the kids can have FaceTime, and we’ll talk about it when the coronavirus crisis disappears’,” Ms Hawke said.

“That’s not a great position for the other parent to be in, it’s obviously quite distressing for them and it’s not necessarily child focused.”

The Family Court of Australia put out a statement last month advising that separated parents should uphold custody orders and care agreements throughout the pandemic.

Ms Hawke said separated parents had conflict over issues that were not normally up for debate, such as whether a cleaner could visit the property or if the children could see grandparents for Easter.

She also had clients who were working well under pressure. One couple has tweaked their arrangement temporarily so the father could take on more of the homeschooling, while the children continued to live with their mother at night.

Professor Bruce Smyth at the Australian National University said most separated parents would be able to come to an agreement but those who strongly dislike each other might use the pandemic as a pretext to deny access.

Jackie Brady, the executive director of Family and Relationship Services Australia, said parents often had valid concerns that the other household might not be following the same rules about physical distancing and hygiene.

“Where younger children are involved it’s more complicated to manage because of course they want to be cuddling their parents,” Ms Brady said.

Services for separated parents would normally provide face-to-face assistance such as supervised access visits or a safe place for handover of children but Ms Brady said many had decided they would only facilitate virtual access during this time.

Professor Smyth said it was hard to tell if a rise in unauthorised variation of care arrangements would result in more cases clogging up the Family Court.

“I’m not sure what resources people will have on the other side of this – if people have lost their job, they might have trouble putting food on the table rather than going back to the Family Court,” Professor Smyth said.

Meanwhile, Ms Hawke said she was receiving more calls from people considering divorce since being forced to spend more time with their partners.

“We’re definitely going to see a spike,” Ms Hawke said. “It could come later when things calm and people feel like they are able to physically move out and when they feel like they’ve got the financial security to make that leap.”

Many separated couples would remain living under the same roof because of fears for job security and a practical need to share homeschooling, she said.

Christmas was traditionally a time for break-ups because the time together prompts people to examine their relationships. Ms Hawke said COVID-19 was similar, only more stressful and prolonged.

Professor Smyth said he was concerned about separated families living in the same house, as this led to “pressure-cooker environments” with higher risk of family violence. He believed this was more common in Sydney because of the high cost of housing.