Addiction is a serious problem in Canada, and far more widespread than one may want to believe. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, roughly 6 million Canadians, or 21% of the population, will meet the criteria for an addiction disorder in their lifetime. Alcohol is the most common substance for addiction disorders, followed by cannabis, opiates and prescription drugs, cocaine, methamphetamines, and gambling (in no particular order).
Even if you have never suffered from addiction yourself, those statistics suggest that several individuals within your close circle may be affected without your knowledge. The symptoms may be hard to recognize if you are unsure of what to look for, and those affected often do not realize they have a problem, yet the short-term and long-term consequences can be serious. Impaired judgment and decision-making, cognitive damage, and associated mental health disorders can all have a life-changing impact on an addicted person’s ability to function.
But what about one’s ability to parent? What happens when a parent going through a parenting dispute is themselves an addict, or is seeking help for an addiction disorder? How does it impact their ability to parent, and how should it impact their relationship with their children?
The answer always starts with one simple question: what is in the best interests of the child?
Best Interests of the Child
As we have discussed in this blog before, the ‘best interests of the child’ test actually stems from the federal Divorce Act, R.S.C 1985, c. 3, which outlines how a child’s best interests should be determined when a court decides how parents will divide parenting time (formerly known as ‘access’) and decision-making responsibility (formerly known as ‘custody’).
Within this list of factors, most of which revolve around the children themselves, one such factor the court looks at is “the ability and willingness of each person in respect of whom the order would apply to care for and meet the needs of the child.” A court is not supposed to take any past conduct of a person into account unless that conduct is relevant to the exercise of parenting time, decision-making responsibility or contact with the child. These are the key determiners when it comes to dealing with parenting time for a parent dealing with addiction. Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and a parent with an addiction is not inherently a bad parent. Rather, it is simply a question of that parent’s ability, in light of their illness, to properly provide care for their children.
A parent with addiction is also not inherently an unfit parent. They may be able to manage their addiction at least as far as their children are involved, such that they’re not impaired during their parenting time. This of course is not the case in all situations, but it may be possible.
What happens if addiction makes a parent unfit?
Unfortunately, some individuals are so deep into their addiction that they are unfit to parent their children unsupervised. For example, if a person cannot control their intoxication, then they are likely unfit to drive a car period, let alone drive their children in a car. Parenting or supervising a child requires an individual to be present and engaged at all times, and with addiction this may not be the case.
One of the most restrictive things that a court can impose on a parentis the loss of unsupervised parenting time. However, if a judge has reason to believe that a parent is unfit to supervise their child on their own, the court can issue an order that parenting must be supervised. This is very serious order and can be demeaning to one’s sense of self as a parent.,
In extreme situations, the Children’s Aid Society may become alerted to the situation. Under the Child, Youth, and Family Services Act, 2017, there is a duty to report concerns to children’s aid when:
There is a risk that the child is likely to suffer physical harm inflicted by the person having charge of the child or caused by or resulting from that person’s,
i. failure to adequately care for, provide for, supervise or protect the child, or
ii. pattern of neglect in caring for, providing for, supervising or protecting the child;
iii. there is a risk that the child is likely to suffer emotional harm … resulting from the actions, failure to act or pattern of neglect on the part of the child’s parent or the person having charge of the child.
Fortunately for parents, supervised parenting time does not necessarily mean it is a permanent requirement. Courts are always looking to restore parental relationships with their children, and if a parent can prove that their health has improved sufficiently, and they are no longer at risk, then they will likely regain unsupervised parenting time at such time in the future.
Start With Honesty
Addiction is still heavily stigmatized, and those suffering from addiction will often go to great lengths to hide the extent of their illness because they fear the potential consequences. General knowledge about addiction has improved, but it is still too often seen as a moral failing rather than a medical illness.
If you suffer from addiction, it is important to be honest with your lawyer about the nature and extent of your illness so that they can help you make the best possible decisions about your case. Aside from recommending resources for treatment, their goal is to find workable solutions that will help you both improve your health and improve your parenting. This may include an undertaking (agreement) that a parent with addiction will not use substances within certain hours of their parenting time. These sorts of solutions help maintain healthy parent and child relationships while still allowing individuals to improve their health and overall lifestyle.
We pride ourselves on being trusted family lawyers within the Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo region. We’re here to help, not judge or stigmatize. We want to help our clients put their best foot forward, and sometimes that means helping clients in trouble get back on their feet. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.