Coronavirus causes childcare access disputes over face masks and Zoom calls

Family law cases reveal ‘unanticipated impact’ of pandemic on access with children

Coronavirus has caused disputes over access to children in family law cases. Photograph: Alan Betson

Coronavirus has caused disputes over access to children in family law cases. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Coronavirus has caused disputes over access to children in family law cases and complaints about face masks, physical distancing and foster parents listening in on Zoom calls.

Complications caused by the pandemic in family law proceedings and proposed novel solutions to cope are revealed in details of three cases highlighted by the Child Care Law Reporting Project, led by Dr Carol Coulter, which analyses childcare proceedings before the courts.

The project found coronavirus restrictions were having “an unanticipated impact on children in care or requiring protection and support” for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

In one case, a father refused to wear a face mask – as directed by the agency – because he had asthma, anxiety and ADHD and it could cause a panic attack.

The court was told that the parents were “very stressed” and in particular the father because he has not had access with his child since March.

The father rejected a suggestion that he could watch his child play at a playground because “he would not want a grown man standing outside of a playground watching his child play and that it was not right for him to have to do that in order to see his child”.

Threats

A social worker said that the father and the mother had made threats against social workers and access workers involved with the family.

The worker said that in response to the pandemic, Tusla has prepared a risk assessment outlining how families could have access in line with Government guidelines to help reduce the risk for households and vulnerable people.

She told the court that the plan included requiring all parties to wear face masks, that distancing be maintained and that the parents have access separately. This particular case involved vulnerable people at a greater risk from the virus such as the mother, who is pregnant, and the foster mother, who has asthma, the court heard.

In another case, a mother with an alcohol addiction, who has been sober for 10 months, complained about only having access to her daughter via Zoom calls because the child’s foster father’s health condition prevented visits due to the risk posed to him from the virus. The mother felt that access with her daughter, who is of primary school age, was unreasonably restricted during the lockdown.

She told the court that “the foster family listened in to the Zoom calls and would not give her and her daughter space”.

The mother told the court that while she was denied face-to-face contact with her daughter due to the foster father’s health condition, her daughter told her that the man’s brother had visited the house several times and that the foster father was back at work in an office.

Her daughter also told her that she had visited the beach, a cafe and a chipper with the family. This led to the matter being investigated, the solicitor for Tusla told the court.

Face-to-face access was later resumed in a park but the mother complained that everyone was required to wear masks and gloves and her daughter was not permitted to eat food she bought.