As pandemic-related restrictions ease, Alabama parents and guardians sharing custody of children have many questions about supervised visits. Here are some answers regarding safety guidelines and supervised visitation.
Basic Rules for All Visitation
The general rule for parents has been to follow the Court order regarding visitation. During the early days of the pandemic, Alabama’s statewide stay-at-home order did not override existing custody and visitation orders. When parents jointly agreed to temporarily exercise parenting time different than what was ordered or when there was not yet an order in place, the Court did not have a problem with such arrangements. The Court recommended that parties informally commit to such agreements in writing.
Working With Supervised Visitation Centers
When a parent has a concern about safety protocols at a supervised visitation center, the parent should contact the center in writing to request that protocols be followed or certain changes be made to increase safety. An email, letter, or text suffices as a writing. The parent may also report the center to local law enforcement authorities.
If the parent believes the child is in danger of contracting COVID-19 at the center, they should talk with the other parent about the concern. The parties should see if they can agree on holding visitation at an alternate supervised visitation center that follows the appropriate safety protocols. If any communication does not result in a change that benefits the child, the parent should reach out to the Court as soon as possible.
The parent can request that the Court order the visitation center to make changes. The parent should document whether the child exhibits any health concerns because of the way the visitation center is operating its facility. The first parent should share documentation of medical concerns about the center with the other parent.
Altering Visitation Orders
During the early days of the pandemic, the Court did not alter visitation and custody orders based on mere speculation and unsubstantiated fears. A parent had to present admissible facts to support an assertion that the other parent was acting in such a way as to put the health and safety of minor children at risk. As of summer 2021, the Court will still require adhere to this standard.
Alabama’s most recent Safer Apart Order ended on May 31, 2021. The state of emergency ended July 6, 2021. Children between the ages of 12 to 16 are now eligible for vaccines to prevent COVID-19. Children under the age of 12 remain ineligible for such vaccines.
A parent seeking to alter a visitation order because of matters related to COVID-19 should talk to their attorney about presenting information regarding a minor child’s health. A parent may want to show that the child is vaccinated. It may also be relevant to show when the child was vaccinated.
If a child is unvaccinated, the parent may want to show that the child remains unvaccinated. They may want to explain the reason the child is unvaccinated. They may also want to state which vaccine they would prefer the child to get when the child becomes eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination.
It may be important for a parent to present information about their child’s medical issues, such as the child’s having an auto-immune disorder that would make them more susceptible to contracting the virus. Yet the parent may want to keep certain information out of court records. For example, a parent may want the fact of the child’s auto-immune disorder in the court record. Yet the medical record also contains information showing the child has a behavioral disorder. The parent wants this second piece of information out of the court record.
Editing documents can involve blacking out certain parts of a medical record. A parent should present the pertinent medical record to your divorce attorney in Montgomery or whatever part of Alabama you reside. They should then work with that local attorney to determine what edits to make. A parent or guardian usually has the right to get a minor child’s medical record up until the child reaches the age of 19.
Child Support and Visitation
Changes in visitation are unlikely to affect child support. The parent with visitation still must pay child support. The obligation to pay child support was temporarily stayed early on in spring 2020. It has since been reinstated.
If a parent or guardian loses their job or source of income or sees a substantial reduction in hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, they can elect to have child support deducted from their unemployment benefits. Federal unemployment benefits such as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) are set to end September 11, 2021. A parent who is having trouble paying child support because of COVID-19 should request that the Court modify the order for child support.
It is a good idea to put all parenting time arrangements in writing. The Court will not prejudice either party by mutual agreements regarding parenting time that the parties made during the early days of the pandemic. The Court assumes the parties will intend to return to the terms of their original court order once the pandemic has been resolved. Parents who have missed parenting time or will miss parenting time due to the COVID-19 pandemic should reasonably work together to work out alternative arrangements. The arrangements may include but not be limited visitation, frequent video chats, and telephone calls.
Best Interests of the Child
Alabama puts the best interests of the child front and center. A party should examine each of their actions regarding visitation separately and in sum affect the child. If the child is old enough and has the ability to understand changes in visitation that could affect their health, it is a good idea to consult the child about what they would like to change.
For example, say a child of 11 is unvaccinated. One of the parents invites other minor children who are unvaccinated to their house while the child is in their custody. This situation places the child at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Both the child and the other parent could request that the child only visit the parent that is exposing the child to the virus through supervised visits until the child reaches the age of 12. A party should talk to their attorney about how to organize documents to submit as evidence. They should also discuss arrangements for the child to give testimony.