All Karina Sellhorn wanted was to see her children — but the Ardmore mother had traveled abroad in March, and their father insisted she self-quarantine for at least two weeks, just to be safe.
“I reached out to my lawyer,” Sellhorn said miserably. “The advice was, I wasn’t going to be able to argue.”
But after weeks of separation, she was feeling desperate. “I [may] do a drive by their dad’s house to see them, because I can’t stand it," she said in an email last Friday. Later, she decided that would just be too painful. “I want to hug them!” she said.
It’s just one instance of how the coronavirus — and the seemingly ever-tightening leash of restrictions to curb its spread — are upending families navigating the already slippery terrain of co-parenting after separation or divorce.
Some parents have mournfully ceded custodial time to keep kids out of harm’s way, bonding as best they can via FaceTime or Zoom. Others are contemplating arrangements that once seemed impossible — like “sheltering in place” together with their exes. And still others lament that co-parents are taking advantage of the situation to keep them from their kids, even in violation of custody agreements.
With the courts closed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, lawyers say, there’s little recourse but to work it out if they can — or wait it out if they can’t.
Stephanie Stecklair, a family law attorney with the firm Klehr Harrison Harvey Bransburg, compiled a guide for her clients, with helpful tips like, “DO NOT assume anything about the other parent’s household or exposure,” and, “DO memorialize any changes to your regular custody schedule in writing.”
“I’m hoping for our clients’ sake that people pump the brakes on the nonsense and recognizes that this is serious,” she said.
“Anything, absent an emergency, is not being filed. Even [if your co-parent] did not follow their physical custody schedule, you have to demonstrate willful noncompliance. I think you would have a hard time given everything going on."
One Gloucester County man who shares custody of two kids, ages 10 and 12, said he’s in just that position.
“I had a conversation with my son, and his mother interjected and said, ‘Look, they’re not going anywhere,’" he said. “Yet, I see videos online of them out playing with their friends.”
The man, who declined to be named for fear it would worsen the situation, consulted a lawyer, but was told there’s no recourse.
“I feel like the rights have been stripped away,” the man said. He asked his ex, “'When am I allowed to see my kids again?' She said, ‘I’ll let you know.’”
Many parents may be in that same position because of closed courts, said Sarah Katz, who runs the Family Law Litigation Clinic at Temple University.
“It empowers almost this vigilante justice," she said.
Worse off are parents who already have limited access to their kids through supervised visits at Philadelphia’s Family Court. Those visits have been canceled. And parents whose kids are in child-welfare placements can now connect only by teleconference — assuming they have working phones or internet.
“There are lot of folks in pretty desperate situations,” Katz said. She’s doing her best to help clients make reasonable accommodations. “But I don’t know how you even judge what’s reasonable in these circumstances.”
The more complicated the family dynamic, the harder those calls can become.
One Philadelphia woman acknowledged she’d shipped her kids off for an extended visit to her mother’s house, out of state, to avoid having to negotiate custody with her ex. A Narberth man, Eric Davenport, said he was considering staying with his ex-wife in Florida rather than be trapped far away from his children if flights are grounded.
It’s not his preference, he said. “But that’s just what you do in the age of COVID-19. You make exceptions.”
Melissa Biddle of Rose Valley, in Delaware County, decided reluctantly to assume sole custody during the pandemic because her son’s father is at high risk of exposure, in his job maintaining supermarket refrigeration units. Her 20-month-old son is confused by the absence, becoming tearful when his father pops up on FaceTime.
And it’s one of many tough calls she and her family are making. She and her current partner have also been debating arrangements for her partner’s 12-year-old son, who has been staying in their home.
“It’s tricky because his mom has a partner who has children in their 20s, and that generation doesn’t seem to be taking anything seriously," Biddle said. “It’s really hard to know who is being exposed to who, and if people are following the rules.”
Given the uncertainty, she’s debating whether to insist that the 12-year-old stop going back and forth — and instead, pick a home and stay there for the duration of the pandemic.
Sue Cornbluth, a parenting coach and host of the 860 AM radio show Real Divorce Talk, said she’s encouraging clients to recognize that they may have to compromise to prioritize their family’s health — even if it means swapping FaceTime for visits, or adjusting to the idea of a socially distanced visitation with your own child.
The important thing is to maintain the connection. “And always ask the other parent’s opinion about what to do. What helps in these situations is positive communication.”
But this moment of uncertainty is rocking even uncoupled people who previously felt secure in their co-parenting routines.
Rae Spotts, of East Mount Airy, and Jamil Gaines, of Conshohocken, are keeping to their standard custody schedule for her 8-year-old daughter, to preserve a sense of normalcy.
Spotts, 31, thinks that’s for the best. But, she added, “The fear we’re both grappling with is: What if we’re told to shelter in place really suddenly, and she’s at one of our houses, and one of us has to go without seeing her for a really long period of time?”
To be safe, Gaines, 42, has been gently advocating for all three of them to shelter in place together at his house until the restrictions are lifted.
“This is an emergency situation, and I know I would feel a lot better knowing that whatever went on, I would be able to take care of my family," he said. "That’s a question mark now.”