We’ve seen many changes in our courts over the past week including limiting in-person hearings to essential matters only. Over the past two days, many courts have issued Emergency Standing Orders regarding possession for both the “extended Spring Break” period and recent school closures.
Supreme Court of Texas
The Supreme Court of Texas just issued a Second Emergency Order Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster which states in part: “This 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 COVID-19 pandemic.”
On March 17th, Dallas County issued a Dallas County Family District Court Emergency Standing Order titled Dallas County Standing Order Regarding Possession Schedule During School Closures. Dallas County District Court Judges state: “For purposes of determining a person’s right to possession and access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule, the original published school schedule shall control in all instances.” The order goes on to give examples regarding Spring Break, Thursday possession, and school closure.
Collin County also issued a Collin County District Courts Emergency Standing Order on March 17th titled Collin County District Courts Emergency Standing Order Regarding Possession Schedule During School Closures. The Collin County District Court Judges also state: “For purposes of determining a person’s right to possession and access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule, the original published school schedule shall control in all instances.”
Denton County has not yet issued a standing order for school closures because Denton ISD is currently only closed through March 22nd. However, the District Court Judges have released the Denton County District Courts Joint Statement Regarding Spring Break Possession which states: “The Denton County District Judges take the position that any school district’s additional school closure following the week of Spring Break (whether the district calls it an extension of Spring Break or not) does not extend a parent’s period of possession beyond the week designated for spring break according to the school’s academic calendar and the possession schedule in the final order.”
Bexar County issued a Revised Statement Regarding Standard Possession Order for Spring Break on March 16th which states any delay in the resumption of classes for public health purposes is not an extension of a vacation period. The judges went on to say that “this Statement does not limit the ability of the court to hear and address emergency matters on a case-by-case basis.”
On March 16th, Galveston County took the step of issuing a Standing Order and Notice to All Galveston County Families with Court Orders Regarding Visitation for Spring Break stating: “For Parents who have NOT returned the children by Monday, March 16, 2020: YOU MUST RETURN THE CHILDREN IMMEDIATELY OR YOU WILL BE FOUND IN CONTEMPT OF COURT AND WILL BE FINED AND SANCTIONED.” This Order was signed by Judge Judge Anne B. Darring of the 306th District Court, Judge John Grady of County Court at Law #1; Judge Kerri Foley of County Court at Law #2; and Judge Jack D. Ewing of County Court at Law #3. No additional orders have been issued at this time.
As the Coronavirus continues to spread and more schools begin to close, it is expected that additional counties will issue Emergency Standing Orders. While courts certainly have the authority to issue standing orders, the impact of these possession specific standing orders is developing. Courts’ standing orders previously limited orders regarding possession to not disrupting the child. The importance of addressing children’s best interest is clear though given that the Texas Supreme Court and multiple counties have now issued emergency orders. The closure of schools on a widespread basis is new territory for parents, conservators, attorneys, and courts. The hope is that the best interest of the child will always be considered as we navigate these new emergency orders together.