Omicron and separated homes and blended families

After holding our breath for several days, the ACT Government has announced Canberra students will be returning to school as planned, but with additional testing and health measures to help to manage the spread of COVID-19 in the Territory.

But are we now sighing in relief? Many of us still feel anxious about the adequacy of those measures to combat the spread of Omicron and the disruption of schooling with staff and student absences that are expected.

With many younger children yet to receive vaccinations, the dramatic increase of cases in the ACT in recent weeks and more painful periods of isolation giving us flashbacks of previous lockdowns, it’s hardly surprising we feel fatigued and stressed by it all.

Throw in two years of disruption and many children are struggling socially, experiencing learning difficulties and suffering mental health issues at rates we’ve never seen before—we can all agree it’s a rare parent who is sailing through this cycle of COVID-19 in the Nation’s Capital.

For children of separated homes and in blended families, however, the complexities are even higher. Disagreements can flare up over interruptions to routines caused by illness and isolation periods. Tensions can boil over where there are differences in parents’ opinions about returning to school, COVID testing and vaccinations.

Even for those who have successfully co-parented their kids across two homes since separation or divorce, these are very testing times.

We’ve seen a big increase in requests for assistance from COVID-19 related parental disputes. Below are some practical ways you can improve your situation or lower the risk of getting caught up in a legal dispute.

Parenting plans

A Parenting Plan is an agreement reached between parents about the care, welfare and development of the children. Many parents put these in place after separation, but they can be implemented at any time.

A Parenting Plan is an agreed set of ‘rules’ and arrangements for raising your child after separation or divorce. It can cover issues such as:

  • The routine time that the children will spend with each parent. This can be extended to include other people such as Grandparents and extended family;
  • Long term agreements about the children, including what school they will attend, what religion they will be raised under if any, and where they will live;
  • How school holidays will work, including international travel for the children;
  • Medical treatments including vaccination of children;
  • Arrangements for special days such as Christmas, birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s Day;
  • How disagreements will be resolved if/when they arise;
  • How the children will communicate with the other parent when not with them.

Parenting Plans generally work best for parents that are reasonably amicable and can cooperate in relation to their kids. They can be tailored to your needs and be as detailed or as limited as the situation might require. They can be reviewed as the children grow and their needs change, and easily varied by agreement with limited legal formality. They are not legally enforceable.

School delays and isolations

Many Parenting Plans set out care arrangements (custody) for school terms and separately, arrangements for school holidays. It is a rare (or probably non-existent) Parenting Plan that predicted what the last few years have brought for us via COVID-19!

Until Omicron, we’ve been relatively fortunate here in Canberra compared to other states’ lengthy lockdowns, border closures and other restrictions. Now, however, our Canberra community is being directly impacted, with predictions that only a short time from now, 1 in 2 people will have had COVID-19.

If your child’s return to school is delayed, parents may need to discuss short term arrangements for their children, including if the child or a parent becomes ill. After a few months of lockdowns, you may have an agreed approach under your belt but if not, or you’re stuck working things out, getting early legal advice and trying mediation can be really helpful.

While Parenting Plans may attempt to cover all issues surrounding children, things are not as black and white we we’d hope when things like isolation and illness throw up questions about how to deal with make-up time, travel and flow-on effects to blended families.

Remember that it is often not a ‘one size fits all’ answer for separated families. What your friend or neighbour did or has done may not be appropriate (or legal!) for your circumstances. Getting informed early with sound and practical legal advice can make a huge difference to being able to quickly resolve these things as they evolve.

Vaccination disputes

Everyone in Australia aged five years and over is now eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccination. For some families there has been no question regarding their child’s vaccination status, while for others it’s been a source of high conflict. Check our blog on how courts have previously handled vaccine disputes.

If your Parenting Plan does not provide a dispute resolution mechanism, then you may wish to seek legal advice or explore attending mediation to resolve the issue.

If you need help with a Parenting Plan, or with a disagreement about your children, Parker Coles Curtis offer advice and mediation services to assist families with coming to a resolution.

Getting practical and legally-sound solutions, tailored for you and your circumstances, can be a game-changer for your situation and make the difference to easing your stress during challenging times in the community.

After hours and Zoom appointments are available to book online here or you can phone their friendly team on (02) 5114 2660 to find out more.