Shared Custody Raises COVID-19 Concerns as Kids Travel Between Households for Holidays

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Even though many Americans are skipping the big Thanksgiving dinner this year, plenty of families will still have their youngest members traveling between households. Millions of kids split their time between parents every week and even more so during the holidays, but concerns over COVID-19 can make that time even more stressful.

Making decisions about how to handle pandemic precautions is tough on any family, but add in parents who couldn't agree on much when they were together — with research identifying kids as silent spreaders — and families can have a real battle.

"It's an impossible situation," said Ann Wyborski, a Fairfax County mom who says her family went into full lockdown mode in March as the pandemic took hold.

She worries about how COVID-19 would affect her little boy with asthma and her teenage daughter whose immune system is compromised.

"We sacrificed so much as a family to keep her safe for six months," Wyborski said.

But in September, her daughter was due to fly across the country to visit her father.

"She loves him. She wanted to see him so bad. She begged him to come here," Wyborski said.

Wyborski got a note from a pediatrician that said her daughter is "high risk" and that air travel was "not recommended. And a judge held a hearing, where Wyborski’s ex-husband outlined the steps he is taking to keep their daughter safe. In the end, the judge left it to the parents to work it out. Wyborski's ex bought a plane ticket and she said she felt she had no choice but to send her daughter because of their custody arrangement.  

Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia

COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia

Source: DC, MD and VA Health Departments
Credit: Anisa Holmes / NBC Washington

"It's upsetting that as parents, we can't come to an agreement," Wyborski said.

Wyborski’s ex could not be reached for comment.

Like so many families, dealing with child custody in the age of COVID-19 has become even more complicated.

"Obviously there's a whole new crop of issues that we really didn't see coming that families are dealing with, and we're having to help them figure out how to navigate," said Barbara Burr, a family law attorney for nearly 20 years. 

Burr says it's especially challenging for newly separated couples trying to agree on a child custody arrangement now. And she says there are a lot more of those after eight months of quarantine.

"People are realizing that they're really, ya, you know, not meant to be together and that they can't take it anymore," Burr said, adding that issues relating to co-parenting can be especially volatile.

She says if the couple has differing opinions about the severity of COVID-19 and precautions to take, the parents must realize that one household's behavior will affect the other.

Obviously there's a whole new crop of issues that we really didn't see coming that families are dealing with, and we're having to help them figure out how to navigate

Barbara Burr, family law attorney

"Figuring out how to make decisions from two separate homes where you weren't doing so well making decisions together in the same home, it's challenging," Burr said.

But that's exactly what Dr. Meghan Delaney says parents must do to keep the kids and each other safe. As chief of pathology at Children's National Hospital, she's seen case after COVID-19 case show up within the same family.

"A household contact is a very good way to get COVID," Delaney said, adding that research shows kids can be asymptomatic and spread COVID-19 silently for weeks without even knowing they have it.

Delaney said it's more important than ever for parents to avoid downplaying a cough, runny nose or fever and to share that information with a co-parent.

"Could this be something that could end up passing to especially an adult or someone who has a real risk factor for a severe disease? That changes the way you feel about having kids around that might have it," Delaney said.

She likens the situation to what a parent might do before planning a play date with another family. They should discuss the precautions each has been taking and make sure both households are on the same page.

Your Chances of Encountering the Coronavirus at an Event This Thanksgiving

This map, based on a model by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, uses real-time data to show the risk of attending an event given its size and location. The risk level refers to the probability of encountering at least one COVID-19 positive individual, and the model assumes there are at least five times more cases than are being reported.

Source: COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Since kids don't wear masks inside the home, she says they would likely be in close contact with stepsiblings, who might then return to their other parent, affecting a third household and so on. This could potentially have a domino effect through multiple families.

"If you have a family that's already divided and somebody is already partnered with somebody new and maybe they have kids, that's just a whole extra layer," said Burr.

Burr said 90-to-95% of custody issues are settled without a judge, which is a good thing because months of closed courtrooms has created quite the backlog. Cases getting heard virtually are usually emergencies.

"Obviously the kid not seeing a parent is not a good solution, but keeping the kids safe is essential. And so it's difficult," Burr said.

Families who do have kids traveling also need to take into account any quarantine or testing requirements when they return from another state.

Burr says the best advice is to put the kids first and try to keep them out of any conflicts. She says there are plenty of mental health professionals and therapists who specialize in helping co-parents navigate these issues if needed.

Wyborski's daughter made it back from her September trip with no problem, but she's now away again for Thanksgiving.

Wyborski says she just hopes all families will think about each other when making decisions.

"It's a big issue," Wyborski said. "There's a lot of communication that needs to take place. And you're going to have to all be on the same page to protect both families."

Reported by Jodie Fleischer and shot and edited by Evan Carr and Jeff Piper. Katie Leslie contributed to this report.

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