Matt Gurney Jun 22, 2012
A man in Ottawa found out this week that his two sons, aged four and six, will be given up for adoption. He has not seen his sons in a year, and is estranged from his mentally troubled ex-wife, who had custody of the children but lost them after a nervous breakdown. They have spent years in foster care.
The father has certainly had some troubles of his own. He has a history of angry outbursts, and took anger management courses. He was a long-term marijuana addict (though now clean) and even operated a grow op. And, as has been widely reported, he is also severely obese. He currently weighs 380 lbs, down from 525 lbs.
His obesity and fitness were a key part of the ruling, a copy of which was obtained by the National Post, that he was unfit to be a father. Indeed, the court recognized that the father had cleaned up his act and achieved stability in his personal life, and that he loved his children and showed no signs of ever having been abusive to his children. It also noted, however, that, “(The father’s) weight loss regime is itself a full-time job. So is parenting two high-needs children. One will inevitably have to give ground to the other.”
It’s difficult to assess how much bearing the father’s weight had on the ruling. If the father, for example, didn’t have past behavioural issues and if the court didn’t find he continued to have problems with anger and limited family support, perhaps this would be different. But if taken at face value, it seems that the court determined that, in addition to the other admitted problems, the father simply couldn’t care for his children, given his own health issues and the need for him to focus on his own care.
There was another case in Ontario recently that, although wildly different in its details, stuck close to a similar theme. Maricyl Palisoc and Charles Wilton, of Mississauga, had to fight to keep their son, born in April, because they both suffer from cerebral palsy. Their baby is healthy, but the local Children’s Aid Society feared that Palisoc and Wilton, who both experience motor control issues and slurred speech, were not able to care for the infant. The Society wanted to remove the baby and place it into the foster-care system. Eventually, the new parents were told they would be allowed to keep their child, but only after demonstrating that they had sufficient professional and family support in their home to satisfy the Society.
Reached by telephone in Winnipeg, Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said that while there is no centralized tracking of such incidents, they are not rare. “It’s common that questions are asked about the ability of those with disabilities to raise their children,” Beachell said. “It’s a bigger issue around adoption, where a citizen with a disability might not be chosen to receive a child. But it’s an issue with children born to the disabled, as well.
Though Mr. Beachell did not speak directly to the case of the Ottawa father, or that of the Palisoc and Wilton baby, he did speak generally to the collision between child protection agencies and parents suffering from health problems. “There is a natural desire among child protection agencies to keep families together,” Mr. Beachell said. “But there is also an automatic assumption among many that a disabled person simply cannot raise a child. Depending on what support is available locally, or what help other family members provide, sometimes the protection agencies realize that the parents are doing just fine. Other times, it’s a real struggle to convince them that the child can be looked after.”
Most Canadians will never find themselves in a situation like Ms. Palisoc and Mr. Wilton, who chose to have a child even though they were both disabled from the outset. But, as Mr. Beachell correctly pointed out, none of us are immune from finding ourselves in a situation comparable to the Ottawa father, where a court finds that our own personal medical needs mean we cannot continue to parent children we already have had for years. A parent can be suddenly crippled, perhaps permanently, by accident or disease. “All of us are one slip away from having a court ruling on our fitness to continue being parents, not just become parents,” Mr. Beachell said.
The court’s ruling did indeed look into a variety of factors relating to the father’s petition to have his sons returned to him, and his obesity was just one element. His past issues, concerns about his ability to afford a proper home and a lack of local family support (his only nearby relatives already have four children of their own) were also factors. But it is certainly true that the court did pay particular attention to the man’s health and prospects of future health issues, while considering the father’s ability to keep up with his sons, both of whom have special needs.
The boys may indeed do better with an adoptive family. But it is difficult not to be unnerved by the ruling. While this particular man has a troubled past, there’s every reason to expect that any parent out there, if suddenly faced with a health issue that slowed them down and required a lot of time and energy to deal with, could find themselves fighting to keep their children from being adopted while they also work to regain their health and their independence. Imagine how you’d feel if, heaven forbid, having already lost your health, you then lost your kids and were ordered not to contact them … so that you can focus on your own recovery.
Recover you may. But without your family, what’s the recovery worth?