Navigating Parent Child Contact (Visitation) Issues During the Pandemic
The Vermont Supreme Court has issued Administrative Order 49 during the COVID-19 crisis, which limits the availability of the Family Court for hearings in matters except for narrowly prescribed emergencies. As of this writing, A.O. 49 will remain in effect at least until the end of May 2020. “All nonemergency Superior Court hearings, whether evidentiary on nonevidentiary, will be postponed. This includes jury draws, jury trials, and hearings that have already been scheduled, except (for purposes of the Family Court) as provided below:
- Motions to suspend, modify, or enforce parent-child contact in juvenile cases, when the court, in its discretion, determines an emergency exists.
- Motions to suspend, modify, or enforce parent-child contact in domestic cases when the court, in its discretion, determines an emergency exists.
- Petitions to obtain orders for relief from domestic abuse.
We field many calls from clients asking whether the COVID-19 crisis is grounds to withhold parent-child contact (visitation). The general position of the Vermont Family Court judiciary is that there needs to be a specific threat to the health and safety of the child beyond the general conditions created by the novel coronavirus pandemic. A person seeking to justify withholding parent-child contact needs to make a specific showing that a situation exists that would support such an extreme measure. For example, if one household had a person that had contracted the virus, or if a parent was flagrantly violating the accepted protocols for social distancing, a family court judge might entertain a motion to suspend visitation. Again, these determinations are left to the sole discretion of the judge hearing the case. It is important to remember that you must abide by existing orders governing visitation schedules unless a judge has suspended the order. A person deliberately withholding visitation from the other parent without court approval is subject to being held in contempt of court.