Fighting over child custody and visitation is painful under even the best of circumstances, but attorneys and parents say the coronavirus pandemic has brought more stress, more fear, and more "live ammunition" to the battlefield.
That has certainly been true for divorced Austin dad, "M," who asked that his real name not be used to protect his son's privacy.
M dropped his preteen off at the boy's mother's house after a regularly scheduled visit in March. Then M didn't get to see his son again until Independence Day.
Instead of returning the son to his dad two weeks later, as agreed in a hard-fought custody order, M's ex-wife refused to release the child, who has a medical condition that puts him at risk if he catches COVID.
"She said, 'You can't see your kid because of COVID. I'm not going to let you have him at all," said M. "The pandemic helped her use his health against me."
A high level of fear
Austin family attorney Robert Luther said situations like M's have become a regular occurrence.
"There's a lot of acrimony out there, caused by the philosophical and political positions relative to the pandemic," said Luther. "Everybody's fear level is super high, or their defensiveness is super high. It's one or the other."
And if it was bad in the beginning, when canceled schools in March threw custody agreements into chaos, then it's even worse now with the latest surge in numbers, Luther said.
Arrangements between parents who disagree on how to handle the pandemic—or who just don't trust each other—were uncomfortable, but the parents had resigned themselves to it for a few months, he said.
Now trust is eroding, he said.
"This new level of long-term fear has affected a whole different round of people, I think, who thought they were being optimistic," he said. "And now being optimistic is really hard to do."
Help from the courts
In April, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that— without hearings—custody agreements must be honored, regardless of pandemic orders or school calendars.
It helped M, whose relationship with his son had been relegated to texting and Zoom. In June, a judge threatened to hold his ex-wife in contempt if she tried it again, and said M could make up the lost time, according to court records.
The judge also directed him to have a COVID-19 test before another overnight visit with his son.
An uneasy arrangement
Austin mom Jodi has been uncomfortable for months about sending her two young kids to spend time with her estranged husband, who she believes is too cavalier about the virus.
As the numbers have spiked, so have her fears. But there is no written visitation agreement, and the uneasy cooperation that allows them fairly equal time with the kids is precarious. A custody agreement is likely in the future, when a divorce gets filed, and it's vital to her that they stay on good terms.
"I don't agree with how he's handling it, but I don't want to fight," said Jodi, who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her children.
New lines of communication
Some divorced parents have found a way through years of anger and hurt, finding that the pandemic has opened up new lines of communication that benefit the kids.
Anthony and My-Cherie Haley have worked hard to make things easy during this uncertain time, they said. A birthday party and a Pre-K graduation spent together with the kids during lockdown would have been unheard of in the five years since the divorce.
"It's not been bad for us, interestingly," Anthony Haley said. "All that's just been put aside, and we're just working together on all of it. It's the only way to make it through this."
Said My-Cherie Haley with a laugh: "Was it always hunky-dory? No. But we've been really flexible with each other because of this pandemic."
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President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law on Tuesday, a move that the White House says will unlock hundreds of billions more in semiconductor investment across the country.
Part of that investment could make waves in Central Texas, where semiconductor companies have laid the groundwork for more plants and jobs as a global shortage of semiconductors continues.
For example, Samsung already had a $17 billion semiconductor factory in Taylor on the way. Then in July, documents filed with the state showed that the tech giant is considering 11 chipmaking facilities in the Austin area that it’d build over the next two decades. The proposed $192.1 billion investment would bring more than 10,000 jobs.
\u201cThe CHIPS Act will supercharge our efforts to make semiconductors here in America. It will make cars, appliances, and computers cheaper and lower the costs of everyday goods. And, it will create high-paying manufacturing jobs across the country.\u201d— Joe Biden (@Joe Biden) 1659828240
Micron Technology is another giant that could make a multi-billion regional investment.
At the start of the year, Micron Technology was reportedly considering a new plant in neighboring Caldwell and Williamson counties, though California, North Carolina and Arizona were also being reviewed as potential sites for the plant.
On Tuesday, Micron announced plans to invest $40 billion between now and 2030 for chip manufacturing in the U.S.
In a public video statement, CEO Sanjay Mehrotra noted how semiconductors are essential to many tools that are a part of everyday life such as computers, smartphones and cars.
“Today is a proud moment for the global Micron team and a strong step forward for American high tech manufacturing leadership,” Mehrotra said. The company said specific plans for the investment will be made available in the coming weeks.
\u201cToday, we announced plans to invest $40 billion in the U.S. through the end of the decade to build leading-edge memory #manufacturing. Our investment will create 40k American jobs and strengthen U.S. supply chains. Watch this space! #jobs #innovation https://t.co/WPePuDVJs6\u201d— Micron Technology (@Micron Technology) 1660050842
Recently, the city has made efforts to train Austin residents for the kind of roles companies like Micron and Samsung would try to fill. A couple of months ago, the city announced a “hire local” plan with Workforce Solutions to help people in fields like manufacturing and information technology get training to move up in their careers.
The bipartisan bill includes $52 billion in semiconductor subsidies. Nationwide, these incentives could create thousands of jobs and multiple fabs, the Semiconductor Industry Association estimates. Some of that could happen in the Austin area from companies looking to expand.
NXP Semiconductors is weighing a $2.6 billion expansion and Infineon Technologies is looking at a $700 million expansion. Respectively, those two could add 800 and 100 jobs.
Central Texas has a reputation as a major hub for semiconductors, and the competition with other areas could ramp up in the coming years as others like Qualcomm and Intel consider new facilities. Dallas-based Texas Instruments also celebrated the passing of the CHIPS Act.
“TI has an exciting manufacturing investment roadmap and these provisions will be meaningful to the development of our 300-mm water fabs in Texas and Utah,” the company said in a Tuesday Twitter post.
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It’s slowly but surely becoming easier to buy a house in Austin.
According to the Austin Board of Realtors, the median house price in the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area is $537,475 as of July. Take a look at what that price range can get you.
This two-story brick home is the biggest on the list, with four bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms across 2,156 square feet in Round Rock. Characterized by its sky-high ceilings, large windows and newly updated fixtures, the home has a spacious backyard with mature trees, a wooden deck, a lounge area and close proximity to a nearby greenbelt.
This listing is held by Drew Griffin with Compass.
This recently updated three-bedroom, two-bathroom home was built in 1983 but fits in perfectly with the design standards of today. On top of newly-updated floors, roof and windows, this home comes complete with a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, a spacious open floor plan and plenty of natural light. The biggest gem of this house is its vaulted and covered back patio, which gives way to a large backyard on a corner lot. At 1,280 square feet, the home is just a few minutes away from The Domain and Q2 Stadium.
This listing is held by Jennifer Buterick and Nicole Marburger with Compass.
Another retro find, this 2,098-square foot home has character to go around and is looking for a caretaker who will love it as much as the last. With four bedrooms and two bathrooms, the house has plenty of room for a home office and is colorfully painted throughout, including bright blue kitchen cabinets. On a third of an acre, this home comes with 12 fruiting trees in the backyard, solar panels, rain-catching barrels and a converted garage with living space.
This listing is held by Niki Duncan with Compass.
This three-bedroom, two-bathroom South Austin home has a wide-open floor plan and sparkling white interiors. The vaulted ceiling in the living room gives height to the room while the fireplace will keep you warm. An airy master suite comes with double pedestal sinks and two walk-in closets, so you don’t have to worry about sharing space with your partner. Enjoy the Texas weather with a private yard, screened-in porch, and fire pit.
This listing is held by Michelle Hendrix and Khani Zulu with Compass.
A retro-on-the-outside, single-story home was built in 1973 but has been given a full modern update on the inside. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,676-square foot home is situated on a half acre of land, complete with an above-ground pool and covered porch to keep you shady during the oppressive heat. Inside, you’ll walk directly into an open living and dining area, which features a floor-to-ceiling tiled fireplace, that leads to the breakfast nook, and kitchen with mosaic-tiled backsplash and a built-in wine rack.
This listing is held by Derek Peterson with Compass.