Very early on when the new coronavirus reached the United States, Sara St. Peter knew that the virus would be particularly dangerous for her.
St. Peter, who is quadriplegic with a history of severe respiratory illnesses, took preventive steps to keep herself safe at home beginning in February. But while she wasn’t leaving the house, her 4-year-old son was. Every three days, following a court-ordered visitation schedule, he switched between her home and his father’s.
The new coronavirus forced the 39-year-old Randolph woman to make what she described as “an impossible choice.” After a judge would not modify the arrangement between the two parents, she decided to say goodbye to her son for an unknown amount of time.
“I chose to be without him for a couple months or maybe longer to be able to be around for him for the rest of his life,” St. Peter said.
The coronavirus has fundamentally altered daily life for Vermonters in innumerable ways. For parents with court-ordered child visitation schedules, decisions about how to stay safe have been fraught and complicated.
The Vermont courts took the stance that parent-child visitation schedules remained in place after the governor issued his “stay home, stay safe” order in March, though judges could modify arrangements in case of an emergency.
Some separated parents made adjustments to their schedules by agreeing themselves on changes, without going through a court process. For others with more strained relationships, navigating court-ordered co-parenting arrangements was a challenge.
For parents like St. Peter who face heightened risk from the virus, the options can be heartbreaking.
“I had to kiss him and tell him I didn’t know when I was gonna see him or if I would ever see him again. And that’s not a position where any parent should ever have to be,” St. Peter said. She told him there are “buggies in the world” and that it’s not safe right now. He said that she was sending him away, St. Peter said. She said he didn’t want to hug her goodbye because he was angry.
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“He doesn’t get it,” she said. “He’s too little.”
St. Peter was paralyzed when she was 20 years old when her hair got caught in a glue mixer while working at a wood products company in Hancock. As a result, she is prone to respiratory problems. A common cold typically requires her to have albuterol nebulizer treatment. She gets bronchitis easily, and has been hospitalized for pneumonia, she said.
“For me, for the coronavirus, if I was to get that, it would damn near be a death sentence,” she said.
To protect herself, St. Peter no longer has an aide come into her home, but she still has round-the-clock care from her mother, who is a trained nurse. She’s continued her work with two nonprofits from home.
But her son’s normal visitation schedule worried her; by moving between two homes, he could be more likely to be exposed to the virus, she said. “It doubles the risk,” St. Peter said. When the state shut down in March, St. Peter kept her son at her house and asked the court to change the schedule.
In a court hearing held remotely in early April, she argued that the normal schedule should be suspended and the child should stay only with her, citing her level of around-the-clock care as well as health concerns.
But the judge maintained the status quo.
In an order, Judge Michael Harris noted that the child’s father was also conscious of guidelines to reduce exposure to the virus. According to court papers, the child would go to work with the father, but would not encounter other people there.
Though quarantining the child to one home may decrease the risk of transmission of the virus, Harris wrote, “that benefit is outweighed by the impact that attendant loss of in-person [parent-child contact] with the negatively-impacted parent would have on him.”
St. Peter disagreed. With her lawyer, she asked the court to reconsider. The judge stood by his initial decision to retain visitation rights — though he noted a parent could voluntarily give up their time with the child.
“The court didn’t want to make a decision between parents but they effectively did,” St. Peter said. “They forced me to make it.”
The father of St. Peter’s child declined through his attorney to comment for this article.
The state shutdown left many parents who share custody of their children confused about what was safe and legal.
Michelle Donnelly, a family law attorney at the South Royalton Legal Clinic who is not involved with St. Peter’s case, said that though the judiciary hasn’t issued guidelines for child custody cases during the coronavirus, judges and lawyers have become more used to the situation since the judicial emergency disrupted business as usual in March. Since then the courts have issued a directive clarifying what types of emergency hearings judges would hear.
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“I don’t necessarily think there’s agreement about one way to act across the family bar,” Donnelly said.
The coronavirus has not changed the standard judges use when making decisions in cases involving contact between children and parents, she said: what is in the child’s best interest? “That’s going to be the judge’s priority every single time.”
It has now been eight weeks since St. Peter last saw her child. St. Peter said a hearing was coming up, but does not hold hope the outcome will be different.
She misses her time together with her son — their movie nights with classics like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” She misses the “fantastic questions” he asked her during their days playing together, like how spiders make their webs. When she didn’t know the answer, they would look it up and learn about it together, she said.
Now, she speaks with her son over video chats, which she said are no substitute for in-person time together.
“I don’t even know if he thinks I’m real or not,” she said. On a recent call, he told her, “I want real mommy, not fake mommy.”
The outbreak of the virus is in decline in Vermont. Businesses in many sectors have been approved to reopen, and more can open their doors in the weeks ahead. But because the illness would be life-threatening for her, St. Peter expects to continue taking strict precautions to avoid the virus long into the future.
“We all know that there’s that hovering possibility of having a flare up again,” St. Peter said. “For me, even though everything’s opening, I don’t feel like I can change my life that much.”
St. Peter said the experience of being away from her child has been heartbreaking, and more difficult than her accident.
“A Sophie’s choice is not a choice at all,” she said.
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