Are Exchanges of Children considered essential activities?

               On February 29, 2020 Governor Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the emergence of the Covid-19 virus in Washington state. On March 23, Governor Inslee’s initial “stay at home” order was implemented to limit the spread of the virus and reduce the potential burden on our hospitals and state’s resources. The Order, Proclamation 20-25, ordered all people in Washington to “immediately cease leaving their home or place or residence except: (1) to conduct or participate in essential activities, and/or (2) for employment in essential business services.

The Order generally defined the expectations for businesses within our state, but left many people confused about what familial activities and responsibilities were allowed under the Order. This confusion was immediately experienced by families with children whose parents are divorced or separated. Parents grappled with how to best protect their children and reduce risk of unnecessary exposure to family members while also avoiding unnecessary conflict with co-parents. For some parents, their inclination was to shelter in place with their child(ren) and temporarily halt all custody exchanges. The decision to stray from the provisions of a court ordered parenting plan by one parent, without the consent of the other parent, invariably led to conflict.

Governor Inslee’s March 23, 2020 Order included caring for family members in another household or residence and to transport the family member to obtain necessary supplies and services within the list of essential activities allowed to continue uninterrupted. The inclusion of the family care exception suggested that the transport and exchange of children could continue under the Order, but this issue was not directly addressed.

On March 26, 2020, Proclamation 20-33 was issued by Governor Inslee.  This proclamation applied to parent/child visitation in dependency proceedings and announced that the stay at home orders were not intended to prevent compliance with private parenting plans. Proclamation 20-33 did not unequivocally clarify expectations for families that were not involved in dependency proceedings.

Since entry of these initial stay at home orders, local courts have interpreted the orders and have provided guidelines for families. Kitsap County Superior Court issued an order on April 8, 2020 on the issue of expectations of parental conduct while the stay at home orders were in effect. The Kitsap County Superior Court defined child custody exchanges as essential.  Therefore, parents are expected to continue to exchange child(ren) for visitation.  While Kitsap County has issued the clearest guidelines, the consensus of the Superior Courts and the application of Proclamation 20-33 appear to support the Kitsap County interpretation: custody exchanges are expected to continue unless they are made impossible.

A second area of confusion for parents is which schedule to follow now that schools are closed for the year. Many parents understandably jumped at the chance to begin following summer residential schedules which often provide parents with more equal parenting time.  However, Kitsap County Superior Court has ordered parents to continue following the school schedule until school releases for summer break.

This is an unprecedented situation and has created conditions that were not contemplated and provided for in most parenting plans. The ambiguity has led to discord. This unrest has created an opportunity for co-parents to work together to determine a residential arrangement that is best for their children during this. However, if an alternative cannot be agreed to, parents should continue to follow their court ordered residential schedules.

If you need assistance with your parenting plan contact us for a free consultation.