Doctors and First Responders Losing Custody of Their Children Due to COVID-19 Pandemic
by Allie Parker
Health Impact News
COVID-19 continues to keep people in isolation, but it is also being used to separate mother’s and father’s from their children.
March 25, 2020, MedicalKidnap.com brought you the story of a mother who had her two children removed from her home for the simple fact that she worked in a healthcare clinic.
Armed with a removal order, signed by a judge, a Child Protection Services (CPS) social worker and police showed up at this Oklahoma mother’s home at 10:00PM to remove her two daughters.
Since our original story, more and more families are speaking out about how they have to fight to keep custody of their children when ex-spouses use the Coronavirus in an attempt to gain sole custody.
In most cases, the parent, doctors, firefighters and other first responders have no idea the ex-spouse is filing a motion, petitioning the court for sole custody, until it is too late.
Dr. Bertha Mayorquin is a physician in New Jersey. According to Twohey, Dr. Mayorquin had been providing treatment to patients by video as a precaution against the Coronavirus, but, after two weeks, Dr. Mayorquin told her soon-to-be-ex-husband she planned on resuming seeing patients in person.
Megan Twohey reports when Dr. Mayorquin,
“left work on a Friday to pick up her two daughters for the weekend, her husband, Wendell Surdukowski, presented her with a court order granting him sole temporary custody of the young girls. His lawyer had convinced a judge that Dr. Mayorquin could expose the children, 11 and 8, to Covid-19.”
Instead of celebrating her younger daughter’s birthday that weekend, Dr. Mayorquin spent the weekend assembling 50 pages of paperwork in hope of reversing the order, Twohey reports.
The story quotes Dr. Mayorquin saying,
“Many people working in the hospitals — doctors, nurses, so many of us — are parents,” said Dr. Mayorquin, whose hospital had asked her to start treating non-Coronavirus patients at an urgent care center to ease the burden of the pandemic.
“Are our children going to be taken away from us because we are on the front lines helping people?”
The author, Megan Twohey, writes,
“That question is arising across the country as a growing number of parents have begun to withhold access to their children from former spouses or partners over fears of infection, according to families, lawyers and judges. For health care or other essential workers, the battles are infused with heightened controversy. Some say they shouldn’t be punished for doing crucial services; their counterparts argue that the jobs pose too great a risk to other family members.”
In Dr. Mayorquin’s case, her soon-to-be-ex-husband told The New York Times,
“If there’s an imminent threat to the kid’s well-being, you must take action, whether that’s something like drug abuse or a virus,” Mr. Surdukowski said.
“Watching the news, looking at the cases of doctors being sick, you cannot tell me that they are not at a higher risk.”
According to Twohey,
“Mr. Surdukowski, who has an underlying condition, had told the judge that he was also concerned about his own health.”
“Families of medical workers aren’t the only ones affected. Other parents are arguing over who comes and goes from each home, whether children should be on the playground and if travel to more remote areas should be permitted.”
Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, told Twohey,
“What we are recommending is to figure out a way for visitation to go forward, and if there’s an emergency worker, to figure out how to salvage it as best as you can. We can’t make those people have to sacrifice more, but how do we do that custody safely?”
Courts Interfere with Family Custody
The New York Times story reports how some courts have addressed the Coronavirus by issuing administrative orders.
One example of such an order comes from the state district court in Davidson County, Tennessee, who, according to Megan Twohey, said,
“The ‘primary residential parent’ should take custody of the child within four hours of a shelter-in-place order and retain sole custody until the order is lifted.”
To the contrary, Twohey reports that the Chief Justice of Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, issued an open letter that states in part,
“Parenting orders are not stayed during this period of time. In fact, it is important that children spend time with both of their parents and that each parent have the opportunity to engage in family activities, where provided for by court order. In cases where a parent must self-quarantine or is otherwise restricted from having contact with others, both parents should cooperate to allow for parenting time by video conference or telephone.”
According to Conti Moore, an attorney in Florida who works on child custody cases is quoted as saying,
“It’s not like there’s case law or clear guidance. This is unprecedented. It all boils down to: How do you co-parent in a pandemic?”
Twohey points out how these orders are not directly addressing what should happen when one parent continues to work on the front lines, providing the example of the court system in New York,
“the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak, has not issued any written child custody guidance at all.”
Twohey also reports that when parents do seek help from the courts, there are different responses which include, holding emergency hearings online. But, according to Twohey, one jurisdiction’s definition of emergency may not be another’s.
Not Just Healthcare Workers; Firefighters are not immune
Stephen Thilmony, a firefighter in Florida, shares custody of his 21-month-old son with his ex-wife.
The New York Times story reports, a client of Conti Moore’s, Tabatha Sams,
“No longer felt comfortable sharing her 21-month-son with his father, Stephen Thilmony, a firefighter.”
Thilmony and his fiancée, an emergency room nurse, sought to assure Sams they were taking proper safety measures while at work, but as Ms. Sams watched the growing number of cases of COVID-19 across the country, she reached a breaking point, reports Twohey.
“I said, ‘I’m not comfortable with the situation,’” Ms. Sams recalled.
“I can’t roll the dice.”
On her lawyer’s advice, Sams filed an emergency motion asking a judge to grant her sole custody for the length of her state’s shelter-in-place order.
Sams’ attorney, Ms. Moore said,
“There are still first responders sleeping in cars to stay away from their families. It seems only right that the child stay with the parent with the least likelihood of exposure. The courts have to deal with this.”
In a written response, according to Twohey’s report, Mr. Thilmony’s lawyer told the court Ms. Sams had not cited anything specific he was doing to put their son at risk. She was seeking to deny him the agreed-upon time after a battle over parenting issues unrelated to the Coronavirus.
Mr. Thilmony declined to speak with Ms. Twohey for the story, but his attorney is quoted as writing to the court,
“The father should not be denied contact by the mother, through the emergency motion, due to his position as a firefighter.”
An online hearing was schedule by the judge allowing both parents to attend and have time to prepare.
“Rejected Sams’ request in an order Wednesday, writing that there was no evidence Thilmony was failing to take proper safety precautions or otherwise acting in a way that would endanger Dawson. The judge noted Thilmony’s testimony that Osceola County Fire Rescue (OCFR) ’employs extensive policies and procedures to avoid exposure to COVID-19,’ the disease caused by the Coronavirus.”
The New York Times story reported on another firefighter, Steven Biakanja, from Monterey County, CA, whose ex-wife, Lisa Chu, filed an emergency motion seeking sole temporary custody of the pair’s 11-year-old twins and 9-year-old son. The story claims,
“He would have to produce a negative result from a Coronavirus test every time he was scheduled to see the children — an impossible demand, given the limited availability of screening.”
Twohey reports, given the shared spaces in the firehouse, and the possibility of asymptomatic carriers, Ms. Chu was worried her ex-husband could unwittingly transmit the virus to their children, and quotes Ms. Chu saying,
“I know this is hard on everyone, but it’s a decision that we have to make.”
Mr. Biakanja became increasingly angry as one week turned into two and told Twohey,
“This is an attack on anyone who is helping with essential needs of this country.”
According to the report, the children are back with their father due to the judge denying Ms. Chu’s request for temporary sole custody. Twohey wrote,
“Unless Mr. Biakanja exhibits signs of Covid-19, the previous court order remains in place.”
Courts and Judges across the nation are not aligned when dealing with custody issues regarding Coronavirus
Megan Twohey reported how family law, which already varies across the country, has become more uneven amid the pandemic, and there are few guidelines that address the current safety concerns of children.
While Mr. Thilmony was able to keep the original custody arrangement, Dr. Mayorquin, in New Jersey, was not as fortunate.
Mr. Surdukowski, Dr. Mayorquin’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, was able to get an emergency hearing the same day his lawyer filed the motion, which was late on a Friday afternoon. Dr. Mayorquin’s lawyer could not be reached by phone which is when the judge issued the order granting sole temporary custody to Mr. Surdukowski.
Twohey explains, Dr. Mayorquin was “distraught at the separation from her daughter” and told her,
“I didn’t want to fight,” she said. “I just wanted my kids back.”
The safest course for the doctor, according to Twohey, was to meet the demands of Mr. Surdukowski, and not see patients in person.
In an online hearing the following Monday, the judge reversed the order, the story reports.
The most recent example of how misaligned the family court system is regarding the Coronavirus epidemic comes from Florida, where an ER doctor has lost custody of her daughter due to the virus.
Dana Kennedy with the New York Post, April 11, 2020, reports on the story of Dr. Theresa Greene who has tested negative for COVID-19 but has lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter until the pandemic is over.
Kennedy reports, according to 6 South Florida, Dr. Theresa Greene said,
“She faces an impossible and ‘cruel’ choice between working in the emergency room and seeing her child.”
According to court documents, Dana Kennedy reports, Dr. Greene’s ex-husband filed for custody of the their daughter,
“Due to mother’s significantly heightened exposure to COVID-19.”
The story claims Judge Bernard Shapiro granted the request and is quoted as saying it is,
“in the best interests of the child” because of the pandemic in Florida.”
According to the New York Post, Dr. Greene called the decision discriminatory against divorced parents and has filed an appeal. She is quoted as saying,
“How can you tell me because I’m divorced that I can’t come home — obviously I have to shower — but that I can’t come home and hug my daughter?”
“I was just shocked that the judge would take this stance without talking to medical experts and knowing the facts and take it so lightly, take my child from me and not think of the effect on her, her mental and psychological well-being.”
The story concludes,
“U.S. healthcare professionals across the U.S., overloaded with COVID-19 patients, have been compared to those fighting on a battlefield, with protective gear in short supply.”
“I know I’m not alone, first responders, nurses, so many people in this position who, because they’re divorced, their children are suffering and they’re being told they can’t see them, and it’s just not fair.”
USA TODAY reports,
Before the pandemic, Dr. Theresa Greene split custody time with her ex-husband, Eric Greene, for nearly two years. He requested full custody of their daughter last week via an emergency order in light of the Coronavirus outbreak, which was granted by Judge Bernard Shapiro of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida.
“In order to protect the best interests of the minor child, including but not limited to the minor child’s safety and welfare, this Court temporarily suspends the Former Wife’s timesharing until further Order of Court,” Shapiro wrote in the order, according to WTVJ-TV in Miami and CNN. “The suspension is solely related to the outbreak of COVID-19.”
According to the report by Joshua Bote, USA TODAY,
“Greene told CNN there’s no way to know when she’ll reunite with her daughter, given that it remains unclear when this pandemic will be over.”
Is this the way first responders fighting the COVID-19 pandemic should be treated?
About the Author
Allie Parker is a Family Advocate and mother. She is a surviving victim of a false Child Abuse Pediatrician’s accusation. Read her story here.
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