The Creative Disruption of the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Courts

By Guest Author Matthew J. Sullivan

Unified Family Courts Connection | Fall 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic—which engulfed the entire world like a brushfire out of control—has changed the practices of fam- ily courts and all the judges, attorneys and practitioners who help families traverse the court system.

I work with parents in high-conflict, shared-parenting situations. My clients have typically become court involved due to conflicts in developing their parenting plan and/or ongoing conflicts that arise as they implement those plans. My practice, which includes court appointments to provide coparent counseling, mediation and parenting coordination services, was profoundly disrupted in early March when shelter-in-place was ordered in California to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an immediate shutdown of the courts and my practice but, within a few weeks, business was booming.
Interestingly, I have not been back to my office since the shutdown.

I would like to reflect on this abrupt disruption in the normal course of my practice which likely mirrors the disruptions to the larger family justice system. I suspect that some of the changes that I have made in my service delivery in response to COVID-19—such as providing remote, virtual or “Zoom” services to my clients— will persist after the crisis is over.
I had made slow shifts in the structure of my services delivery to high-conflict coparents over the last few years based on my experience that utilizing technology to move their necessary engagement as coparents (information sharing, dispute resolution, etc.) into cyberspace was an effective intervention. As part of that progressive shift, I was providing coparenting services increasingly from remote platforms (telepsychology). My younger, internet-savvy clients and the
increasing transportation burdens present in the major metropolitan area where I work combined to have them welcome virtual services.

Finally, my ability to work from the convenience of home, or Hawaii for that matter, was personally attractive. In fact, the geographic proximity of the service provider to the client(s) is less and less relevant to our work and even jurisdictional/licensing restrictions to remote work are  evaporating at a fast pace.

For example, in June 2020, the Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact now permits licensed psychologists that are part of a rapidly expanding 14-state network to practice in any of those states. Similarly, remote, tele-forensic services are increasing access to psychological and legal services for lower income clients who often struggle with barriers to obtaining services such as transportation and childcare issues when services are provided face-to-face. The COVID-19 pandemic disruption to the family justice system has accelerated these trends, some of which will likely become the new normal post-COVID-19.

This technologically-driven disruption to our work was created by the perfect storm of courts temporarily closing down while the stressful impact of COVID-19 on our clients, in some cases, drove the need for more services. Professional services have had to be delivered remotely, requiring an instantaneous pivot from the in-person, office context to phone, internet and video conference formats.

As courts and society continue to navigate the torturous, uncertain process of “reopening,” I believe the family justice system will not go back to pre-COVID-19 business as usual and instead will institutionalize some of the creative and innovative responses to the challenges we continue to face during the pandemic. These changes provide the promise of greater access to more cost-effective legal and mental health services for court-involved coparents and potential benefits
to service providers as well. The brick-and-mortar structures of our field – courthouses and professional offices – may well become a thing of the past.

An example of a prescient and innovative pre-COVID-19 court administrative set of programs was described by John Greacen, who received the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) Meyer Elkin Essay award this year for the best article published this past year in the Family Court Review (Greacen, John (2019), “Eighteen Ways Courts Should use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers,” Family Court Review, Vol. 57 No.4 pp. 515-538). The article addressed the shift in emphasis of technology’s use in the family courts from streamlining internal processes, such as
information management and storage, to external service provision. This program’s innovations now have even more relevance given COVID-19’s disruption to the family justice system.

Similarly, the trend to triaging and channeling the higher conflict sub-population of coparents out of the more adversarial processes of the courts (e.g., litigation and child custody evaluation) has been occur- ring for many years.

The pre-existing lack of access to services that was punctuated by the COVID-19 court closures has had a couple of notable impacts on mental health professionals who work in the courts. First, the demand for alternative dispute resolution processes has increased as attorneys and self-represented litigants cannot yet turn to the courts to assist them with their disputes in many jurisdictions. Secondly, there are challenges to conducting the traditional investigative and evaluative processes, such as guardian ad litem (GAL) investigations and child custody evaluations, due to COVID-19 that are forcing jurisdictions to find creative solutions to providing both the courts and other dispute resolution processes with the essential information they need to do their job.

For example, professional standards of practice for conducting child custody evaluations (CCE) require in-person procedures such as parent-child observations and sometimes home visits and psychological testing. These procedures are currently precluded by COVID-19. This impact alone has resulted in some jurisdictions rethinking whether to continue to use of CCE altogether and to explore other service models, such as non-confidential, recommending mediation, brief-focused assessments and more active judicial case management (or delegation of that case management to parenting coordinators). These innovations and others generated by the COVID-19 disruption may ultimately add useful tools to the family justice system spectrum of services.

The shift in service delivery from in-person to remote is not without challenges and risks to both professionals and their clients. For example, professionals who do coparenting work on virtual platforms are scrambling to deal with poorly developed professional practice guide- lines and standards addressing competence, informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, fee structures, etc.

Questions such as what the impacts on the professional client working relationship are and the efficacy of virtual service delivery are poorly understood. The pandemic has created a large-scale ad hoc experiment about remote services in our field. Working with a client or coparents you have never “met,” entering into each other’s homes with exposure to their personal “background,” including their children and other aspects of our personal spaces, are experiences we are all now
discussing, including the pros and cons.

There are, without question, professional practice skills necessary to provide competent coparenting services remotely that are different from those most of us have obtained as a result of training and practice pre-COVID-19. For example, recently, domestic violence experts have raised concerns about providing mediation services virtually. They caution mediators about the risks of the online environment in terms of confidentiality, safety and security for victims of intimate
partner violence who utilize these services (see Top ten tips for online dispute resolution and domestic violence, Gabrielle Davis and Tracy Shoberg, AFCC E-News, Vol. 15, No. 5, May 2020).

Professionals providing services remotely have unique personal challenges such as increased isolation, Zoom fatigue (interacting several hours a day with clients via a computer screen) and a further breakdown in the boundaries between work and personal life. Being a parent homeschooling a child(ren) while doing Zoom sessions with clients in a home office can be overwhelming (see “Conversations about Coparenting for Professionals during the COVID-19 Crisis,” Drs. Robin Deutsch and Matthew Sullivan, covid-19-resources).

On the brighter side, access to continuing education for professionals has increased dramatically. When the AFCC cancelled its annual conference in New Orleans this spring, which would have attracted over 1,000 participants, it offered a webinar series provided by authors of the Family Court Review special issue on child/parent access issues that had over five times as many registrants as the conference. AFCC is gearing up to provide its next conference “virtually” with
not only substantive programs but also social and networking opportunities as well. It is a new, virtual world and everyone is working to adapt to it.


Matthew J. Sullivan, PhD, is a forensic psychologist in private practice in California. He is the immediate past president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) and co-founder of the non-profit organization, Overcoming Barriers, Inc. His website is

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