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Coronavirus complicates parental custody arrangements

Nori and Sandy Lembree, who are divorcing during the most disruptive world event in recent history, said they worked out an arrangement that allows their 15-year-old daughter to be with both parents while staying safe during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mary spends one week at her mother's house in East Lyme, then goes to her father's house in Waterford for a week.

Nori Lembree, a 48-year-old Spanish teacher at Stonington High School, said in a phone interview that she and Mary, and her older son Joaquin Selmeski, are staying at home, except for Nori's weekly grocery trip. Selmeski, one of two children Nori had before marrying Sandy 16 years ago, is home from college. All three will be engaged in distance learning as of Monday.

Nori said they are considering Sandy one of the family members they are quarantining with, since he comes to the home a few times a week. A 49-year-old design supervisor at Electric Boat, Sandy switched to the second shift option offered by EB in an effort to reduce crowding. He has his own office, and said fewer people are around. This past week, Sandy picked up Mary and took her to play tennis, an activity both love that can take place while observing social distancing.

"We let our daughter take the lead on it, and she wanted to try going back and forth each week," Nori Lembree said. "That started March 1."

If she had told her daughter she couldn't see her father because he works at Electric Boat — where employees must continue to work in support of national defense while others are laid off or able to work from home — Lembree said her daughter would have probably said it was OK, but would actually be "a mess." Sandy Lembree also remains close with Joaquin and Lembree's older daughter, Ameilia.

"By taking a step back and thinking what's best for everyboody, you're also taking care of yourself, because you won't have the stress," said Sandy Lembree. "You're taking care of the kids and the ex-wife or ex-husband."

'Cooperation and kindness'

Not everybody can work out their custody and visitation arrangements as easily as the Lembrees, especially with coronavirus issues complicating what is already an emotionally charged issue.

Julie Liefeld, a family therapist and professor at Southern Connecticut State University, said some of her clients are maintaining home sharing, where the child goes back and forth between parents, with rigorous cleaning, washing of clothes and handwashing. They're switching their children between homes when not a lot of people are around and after everyone has showered and cars have been cleaned.

Parents should talk about the risk of contracting the virus, follow Centers for Disease Control recommendations, use common sense, and be  consistent, Liefeld said in a phone interview.  

In some cases, it may be best for a co-parent who gets exposure to the virus on the "front lines," at work to switch to virtual visits, using an application such as FaceTime or Zoom to visit with their children, Liefeld said.

"I tell clients, 'Remember, time with your children is very important, but if you get sick, you will not be seeing your children. And if you both get sick, what will happen? It's not a fight about custody right now. It's about being smart and your children having caregivers.'"

She said the absent parent can still check in on children in the morning, during homeschooling or at lunch time. Sometimes asking young children to have a long video or phone conversation isn't realistic, but the parent can be virtually present even during play sessions. Checking in with adolescents and even college students is important too, Liefeld said, since they also need consistency.

"What helps children is how we cooperate," she said. "They feel secure and reassured and parented when cooperation and kindness is consistently communicated. When we see deployed (military) parents, we know that children do very well when there's an explanation why parents aren't visiting and loving is communicated, maybe virtually."

Attorney Linda Mariani said clients have contacted her firm claiming the child or the parent has symptoms of the virus and that the other parent should not have visitation.

"The other parent claims that's not true, this is just being used to keep me from my children," Mariani said. "We're saying, nobody should have access right now, person to person. It's a very unusual time. We all need to think about the best interests of the children and not what we want. The best interest of everyone now is we maintain a distance, do things remotely with this technology. It's possible."

Mariani said that's her personal opinion, not one that's been articulated by any court or chief court administrator.

"My opinion is we need to abide by the guidelines that have been put in place by the CDC," she said. "Those guidelines are there to protect children and  adults as well."

Oftentimes, custody disputes work out after time passes, Mariani said.

"The advice of legal counsel is to kind of tamp down the emotions, which we do a lot of, to sort of reorient people's thinking toward what is the right thing to do vs. what they want to have happen."



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