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Jeremy Sutton: The Ex-Files – Can I stop my ex from letting our daughter have a sleepover on Labour Day weekend?

OPINION:

Q: My ex-husband and I both live in Auckland and share care of our children. During the lockdown they have been going between our homes as usual. He does not take the lockdown rules very seriously and has told me that he is going to let our 11-year-old daughter stay over at her friend’s house as a Labour weekend treat. I am not okay with this as it is against the lockdown rules and I have no idea whether her friend’s family are vaccinated against Covid-19. Can I refuse to let her go to his house this weekend?

Answer: Co-parenting during a pandemic is difficult. Parents are stressed and children are anxious. The situation is more challenging when parents have different opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic.

Children should not be having sleepovers while Auckland is under the current Alert Level 3 lockdown. However, some parents may not be in agreement about sleepovers even once the restrictions lift as they may feel differently about the risk to their child contracting Covid-19.

Compromise

Apart from lockdown, the parent who has the child in their care will decide how they spend their time with the child. They have the ultimate say as to whether that child has a sleepover.

However, every co-parenting relationship requires communication and cooperation. The relationship will run more smoothly when both sides are willing to listen to the other’s concerns and compromise if necessary.

The following are some practical options to resolve your dispute:

Resolution between yourselves

It is best to try to resolve the issue between yourselves. You may reach a compromise that you are both comfortable with. For example, allowing your child to have a sleepover if your ex-husband can confirm that the other child’s family has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Alternatively, your ex-husband may agree to have the other child stay at his home instead, so that there is greater control over who your child interacts with.

Communication counselling

Communication is a challenge for many parents who have separated. If you are struggling to communicate with each other effectively, you should consider communication counselling.

It would be helpful no matter which method of resolution you choose to pursue. You will have a co-parenting relationship for the rest of your child’s life, so it is important you try to communicate well.

Mediation

You could employ the help of a mediator if you cannot reach an agreement between yourselves. The mediator could be a trusted third party, such as a friend or family member, or it could be a professional. The mediator’s job is to facilitate a discussion between you and help you reach an agreement.

Formal mediation services are still available in lockdown. The mediations are conducted remotely using video conferencing software such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

A further option is family therapy through a psychologist. You could jointly engage a psychologist to work through your various issues. This would be more informal and could be less costly than other options. Your daughter is normally best to be asked her views in either mediation or family therapy.

Court Order

Although it should be kept as a last resort, you can apply to the Family Court for an Order to Settle a Dispute Between Guardians. The Court will hear from both parties and make a decision that must be complied with. Usually, this option will involve significant time and money.

Many cases are not resolved for six months or more and can cost the client $10,000 in legal fees alone. There are likely to be lengthy delays because of the pandemic. The prospect of the matter being advanced quickly through the Family Court seems unlikely.

Interfering with contact

If you and your ex-husband have a shared care agreement in place, you cannot unilaterally decide to keep your daughter in your care over the weekend.

Guardianship decisions

Guardianship decisions require the consent of both parties. The most important principle in any decision is what is in the best interests of the child in his or her particular circumstances.

Decisions about a child’s healthcare is a guardianship issue. While a sleepover may not be a significant issue for some parents, it may be more crucial to you if your daughter has underlying health issues that would put her at greater risk if she contracted Covid-19.

Given the age of your daughter, there may be other disputes such as where she is to attend secondary school or the use of digital devices that you also need to work through.

Summary

Lockdown this year has been tough on Aucklanders. Many children are finding it difficult to be away from their friends for such extended periods. But this is no excuse to breach the lockdown rules by having a sleepover.

You cannot withhold your child from your ex-husband because you believe he will allow your daughter to have a sleepover. I suggest trying to reach a compromise. If you have concerns about your daughter’s ongoing health, you may need to create a long-term plan for her.

Co-parenting during a pandemic is difficult. Parents are stressed and children are anxious. The situation is more challenging when parents have different opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic.

Children should not be having sleepovers while Auckland under the current Alert Level 3 lockdown. However, some parents may not be in agreement about sleepovers even once the restrictions lift as they may feel differently about the risk to their child contracting Covid-19.

– Jeremy Sutton is a senior family lawyer, specialising in divorce cases where there are significant assets, including family trusts and complex business structures.

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