‘My partner’s being punished because I’m a doctor’

Shared custody of children between separated parents has become a flash point under pandemic lockdown rules, Teuila Fuatai reports. 

An Auckland doctor and her partner have been forcibly separated from their five-year-old son for the lockdown, in breach of a court-mandated 50/50 custody arrangement. 

The boy’s parents split three years ago. He usually spends every other week with his father Peter and his father's partner Angela*. 

When the lockdown was announced, the couple were informed by the boy’s mother he would remain at her house for the four-week period, citing Angela’s hospital job as a significant risk. A flurry of communication between the parents and their lawyers prior to the Friday deadline, including a letter from Angela’s District Health Board employer stating there had been “no recommendation” for her to self-isolate, did not resolve the situation. 

The exchange occurred as Principal Family Court Judge Jacquelyn Moran issued her own statement on shared-care arrangements. Moran requested parents refrain from using the state of emergency to their advantage. 

“This global pandemic should not be seen as an opportunity for parents to unilaterally change established care arrangements without cause or otherwise behave in a manner inconsistent with the child’s best interests or the court-ordered care arrangements,” Moran said. 

Angela, whose specialty does not involve her working with probable or confirmed Covid-19 patients, said a litany of information showing she was not on the “frontline” had failed to make any difference. 

Peter: “We’ve had to get the DHB involved, the DHB's lawyers involved, my lawyers, and just everyone, to prove to her that [Angela] is no more at risk to my son than people going to the grocery store right now.”

Despite that, the lockdown deadline and the pre-arranged exchange time for the boy passed without him being returned to his father’s care. Strict court processes in place for the lockdown also mean Peter and Angela have no obvious legal avenue to rectify what is effectively a breach of the law, and obtain care of his five-year-old. 

They are among a number of couples known to Newsroom whose essential service jobs have been cited as justification by former partners breaking custody and contact arrangements during the lockdown. 

Currently, the Family Court is only taking urgent and priority matters. These are cases where there are immediate safety and welfare concerns, and the uplift of a child – often with police involvement – may be warranted. The new rules were implemented for lockdown, and have severely reduced the number of active matters in the court. 

Peter says the situation has been “incredibly frustrating”. While he had access to his son through video calling, he believes his former partner was exploiting the lockdown to break their normal parenting arrangement. He understands why his family’s situation is not urgent, but raises concerns around prolonged enabling of cases like his through the lockdown. 

“As difficult as my situation is, I believe my son is relatively safe,” he says. 

He is not in danger and is being cared for in a safe home, he says. 

“But, also I feel completely helpless - although someone is directly breaking the law, I can’t do anything about it because there’s nobody to enforce,” he says.

Angela says the situation highlighted what happened when people refused to listen to accurate information and panicked. 

“I have nowhere else to go. My parents are elderly – I can’t stay with them. The DHB can only provide accommodation to workers who are high-risk, [not] workers like me, who are just propping up the rest of the hospital.

“I just think it’s really unfair to punish those of us who are going to work every day, trying to do our best to help the country during this time. My partner’s being punished because I’m a doctor – and that shouldn’t happen ever, whether it’s a pandemic or not. No one should be punished because their partner is trying to save lives.”

The couple were also realistic about what could happen. However, that did not justify breaking their five-year-old’s current living arrangements, they say. 

“The situation outside of the hospital may change,” Angela says. “There may be a huge spike [in cases] and community transmission, and our hospitals could get overloaded, and our frontlines might be depleted and I might need to step in. That is one of the contingency plans. 

“And if I became a high-risk worker, then obviously I would be separated,” she says. "But that hasn’t happened here.”

* Pseudonyms have been used to ensure anonymity.

*Made with the support of NZ-On-Air*

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