I struggle with the words for this article on this the 9th day of April, 2020. As East Texans we are among the blessed. Certainly other regions across the globe have been more severely affected by COVID-19. I still sense a true dichotomy of thought and reason by the community. Some are truly afraid. Afraid of the sickness, afraid for their elderly, afraid for their jobs, afraid for our economy. Others still doubt the severity of the pandemic, whether it will ever really reach us, whether all the restrictions are necessary, whether we are shutting down profitable businesses for no reason, whether we can trust the media. All seem to feel empathy for our heroic medical community – the doctors, nurses and hospital staff who stand ready, who test the symptomatic, who see patients through tele-health, who go to work because they took the oath to “First do no harm”, and who ask us to stay home for the same reason.
Parents call the office constantly with questions about visitation schedules of their children. Should the children go back and forth between homes in this pandemic? Our Texas Supreme Court issued an Emergency Order on March 17th stating the order applies to and clarifies possession schedules in Suits Affecting the Parent–Child Relationship.
“For purposes of determining a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule, the original published school schedule shall control in all instances. Possession and access shall not be affected by the school’s closure that arises from an epidemic or pandemic, including what is commonly referred to as the COVID19 pandemic. Nothing herein prevents parties from altering a possession schedule by agreement if allowed by their court order(s), or courts from modifying their orders.”
So I advise clients the children must go visit the other parent just as if schools were open. But what if the other parent/ children/siblings/grandparents at the other home are sick? What do I say? How do I advise them? There is no caselaw on this topic to follow. No family code section that applies. Use your best judgment, I tell them, but be willing to explain to the Court your reasons if you deny access to the other parent. You could potentially be held in contempt for failure to follow a Court order. As a parent you have a duty to protect your child. More of the dichotomy… in mind and in heart.
We as attorneys are classified an “essential service” not required to close our businesses. Last week I began to see clients only by Zoom or telephone conference, allowing no “walk in” clients. Depositions have all been scheduled by Zoom. I practice in thirteen East Texas counties and most are requiring Zoom or telephonic hearings. Most allow agreed orders to be submitted by affidavit. Most of the Courts, you note, but not all. More of the dichotomy of thought and reason.
I am privileged to have a family law practice of seven people, including attorneys, paralegals and support staff. They are dedicated to our clients, they are strong, they are tenacious, they all want to work at the office, not at their homes. They all are busy and have work to do for our clients. This week, I took my first act of authoritarianism in 25 years of practice. I wrote a COVID-19 work policy mandating only two people could work in the office at one time based on the Lufkin Emergency Order of 1000 feet per person. Those not working in the office will work from home. Reactions varied and emotions were unbridled. I am confident that soon there will again be synergy, but for now, there is more dichotomy in mind and in heart.
Today according to the LDN the COVID-19 cases in Angelina County were up to 15. The Texas Health and Human Resources website shows county totals as 25 in Nacogdoches, 7 in San Augustine, 8 in Polk, 1 in Tyler, 2 in Jasper, 3 in Trinity, 0 in Houston, 6 in Cherokee, and 23 in Shelby. We hope and pray that no more cases are confirmed by the date of print but my fear is that our numbers will have grown.
I am sure you join me in prayer for the life we have grown to love in East Texas and for wisdom and discernment to make the best choices for our future and that of our children. If you have questions regarding family law issues, we’re still here to help.