A North Anson man hasn’t seen his two daughters in three weeks, despite a court order granting him weekend visits.

He and his ex-wife had been abiding by their agreed joint custody arrangement since the fall of 2018 with no problems.

The trouble started last month when the coronavirus struck Maine.

The man’s current wife said the girls’ mother went into quarantine at her home in mid-March with her daughters, who are 4 and 7 years old.

When the father called to schedule a time for him to pick up the girls for the weekend at the end of March, his ex-wife had balked.

Shortly before the normal pickup time, his ex-wife texted him to say she wouldn’t be letting them leave her home.

“This is the first time she’s asked that they not come to see him,” the man’s wife said.

Their mother worries that he might bring home the virus from his job, she said. He’s considered an essential worker, packing up animal vaccines in a warehouse in Somerset County that will be shipped around the world.

He and his dozen fellow workers receive full health screenings everyday that include temperature checks before entering their workplace, she said.

When he gets home, he changes out of his work clothes and showers, she said.

The father, like many parents who share custody of a child with that child’s other parent, is seeking to navigate the uncertain world of co-parenting in the time of coronavirus.

The pandemic has not only forced people to stay at home, it has triggered the suspension of family court, a place where normally parents could go to hammer out their differences as they share custody.

“Legally, I’m aware that if she chooses not to let them come visit us our only option is to file a motion for contempt because it is a civil matter,” the man’s wife said.

The girls’ mother had later offered, on the advice of her attorney, to let their father stand at the end of her driveway and wave to his children.

But the father, who would normally pick up his daughters from their day care for his weekends with them, opted not to go to his ex-wife’s house.

As soon as he is able to leave work early and get the necessary paperwork witnessed by a notary public, the father plans to file a motion of contempt in an effort to resume seeing his children as the court order allows. He could file a motion to enforce the current court order instead, an action that requires a lower threshold of proof.

Although those motions are not scheduled to be heard and acted upon until after May 1, according to an emergency order and notice by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the father could seek an expedited hearing, according to a Farmington District Court clerk.

If a parent believes that action might put a child in jeopardy, that parent can file for a protection from abuse order. Although those cases are considered civil matters, judges are continuing to hear them in keeping with the high court’s emergency order and notice.

Courts also are scheduling hearings in protection from harassment and protective custody cases that involve removal of a child by the state.

Otherwise, judges are only scheduling criminal cases that involve detention.

Jason Dionne, an attorney at Isaacson & Raymond, P.A. law firm in Lewiston who represents parents who share custody, said the coronavirus threat is making difficult situations for parents even harder to figure out.

Although the courts announced they’ve stopped hearing family matters until May 1, except in emergencies, Dionne said there is “growing concern” that date may be extended.

“The economic and emotional toll combined with fear for the safety of family members, particularly children, are creating major issues for families right now,” he said.

“Parents who share custody are terrified about exposure in the other parent’s home or even through the child exchanges,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, waiting months for an opportunity to address issues in family matter cases feels like a lifetime for clients. Under the current circumstances, its excruciating.”

Dionne said attorneys have been seeking creative solutions in an effort to “keep cases moving and to give relief to those in need.”

While attorneys may be focused on the competing interest of their respective clients, “we all have a mutual interest in helping our clients get through a difficult process as quickly, productively, and inexpensively as possible,” he said.

One of those approaches is private mediation.

Heather Seasonwein, a partner at the Lewiston law firm of Paradie and Rabasco, has been providing mediation services to parents since 2016.

In that scenario, one or both of the parents can reach out to her as a neutral third party to help them hammer out a compromise solution to a problem they’re experiencing with shared custody arrangements.

Normally, they would all meet in a room where they would engage in discussion facilitated by Seasonwein, who would represent neither parent.

These days, because meeting face to face isn’t safe, she has been relying on videoconferencing software to meet virtually instead.

Ordinarily, Seasonwein would make sure no one is in the room who shouldn’t be. In the virtual world, she would need to have each parent attest to that fact. And no one may record the discussion, she said.

With few exceptions, what is said during the mediation can’t be used against either parent later,” she said.

The parents would split the cost of her services, she said, preserving the neutrality of her role.

“My job is to help people reach a resolution,” she said. I don’t take sides.”

She’ll listen to each of the parents and offer ideas aimed at resolution.

Seasonwein said she recently served as mediator for parents who were each represented by their own attorney. They were also joined by the guardian ad litem who had made recommendations as to what she thought was in the best interests of the children.

After familiarizing themselves with the software, they were able to conduct the mediation through videoconference. The software allows for all parties, the mediator and lawyers to meet in the “same room” but also allow for breakout rooms, which are like private rooms.  The mediator can move from room to room. They all were given each others’ cellphone numbers so they could also communicate through texting in addition to communicating through the videoconferencing.

The software even allowed them to share documents online.

“It worked well,” Seasonwein said.

If the parents are able to reach a mutual resolution and sign off on it, “those agreements are generally enforceable,” she said.

Susan Wiggin, a social worker and facilitator at Kids First Center, a private nonprofit group based in Scarborough that serves the children of divorced and separated parents, said in a recorded advisory on the group’s website that court orders for shared custody are “still in full force and effect.”

She said “nothing is suspended even though we are in the new, strange time of co-parenting together.”

Although the judges who signed the court orders in effect likely hadn’t anticipated a pandemic while structuring those orders, she said “the order does exist to prevent endless haggling over shared parenting time.”

When judges are set to resume hearing family cases, Wiggin said they’re likely to look closely at the behavior of the parents during the time of the pandemic to see whether they exhibited signs of caring, kindness, generosity, respect and collaboration.

Those are the qualities parents should be focused on while “engaging with your co-parenting partner during this very difficult time,” she said.

 

Heather Seasonwein is a family division attorney who represents parents dealing with family matters. She is shown here working in her office in Lewiston on Wednesday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


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