The rules under current NSW Public Health Orders have been labelled confusing for separated or blended families attempting to follow custody and visitation arrangements.
Under the Orders, a person may leave their home or temporary accommodation to facilitate arrangements for access to and contact between: ‘parents and children or siblings; or children under the age of 18 who do not live in the same household as their parents or siblings, or one of their parents or siblings’.
Some are suggesting the rules are allowing children to slip through the gaps and allowing parties to deliberately avoid responsibilities set out in shared custody arrangements.
One local mum said she feared her child would bring home the COVID-19 virus from being exposed to different environments at her ex-partner’s household.
“I’m fully vaccinated with Pfizer and am adhering to all the restrictions with my son, staying indoors,” she said.
“However, every time he goes to his dad’s place, he is exposed to two half-brothers who are old enough to drive around wherever they want.
“He is also then exposed to the brothers’ other household and their mum …the exposure my son receives every time he visits is massive.
“My preference would be to keep him at one place for both his and everyone else’s safety.”
Lee Pawlak, an Accredited Specialist in Family Law at Woy Woy-based Tonkin Drysdale Partners, said the lockdown rules had made it more challenging for separated families to comply with orders.
“This is especially so for parents who live long distances from each other or even interstate,” he said.
“The lockdown restrictions can cause a great deal of emotional distress for both children and parents.
“It can also be a difficult thing for parents who are separated by reasonably long distances to keep connected with their children.
“There’s telephone and audio/visual means, but it’s not the same as maintaining a connection in person.”
Pawlak said the local firm had noted an increase in family violence since the lockdown.
“We have seen a concerning increase in reporting of family violence that might occur during lockdown for parents that haven’t separated or are in the process of separating, and trouble for victims to access help,” he said.
“Parents are struggling with competing priorities – wanting to comply with court orders, to ensure connection between the children and the other parent, ensuring they are abiding by public health orders, and trying to protect their family from getting the virus.
“It is all of these completing priorities that can pull parents in different directions … it’s definitely a challenge for parents to juggle.
“The Chief Justice has given written guidance to help parties and family lawyers navigate how to comply with a parenting order during lockdown.
“It’s definitely more of a challenge for people to access legal advice and representation, but the Courts and family lawyers are using technology to keep justice accessible to Australian families.
“The Courts are trying to help parents maintain access to the law.
“Courts are running telephone and audio-visual hearings – so the Court is still able to provide an avenue by which issues with the care of children and other financial disputes can still be determined.”
Both the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia have established court lists dedicated to dealing exclusively with urgent family law disputes that have arisen as a direct result of the pandemic.
Pawlak said more resources need to be made available to parents during this time.
“Both in lockdown and also at any other time, we have a stretched family law system, so the more resourced Courts we have, the better it will be for Australian families,” he said.
For more information or guidance, the Family Relationships Advice Line is available on 1800 050 321 or at the Family Court of Australia’s website.