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Red, red wine. When is it not fine?
Many parents enjoy a glass of wine or a cold beer from time to time. Cannabis use among parents has also become relatively common since its legalization in 2018. But what happens when a parent takes things too far?
In Ontario, the court’s guiding test for deciding child-related matters is to determine what is in the best interest of the child(ren). The court’s primary consideration is the child’s physical, emotional, and psychological safety, security, and well-being. In many cases, this raises some difficult questions for courts: Is flexibility more valuable than consistency? Is a child’s freedom to develop independence more important than security? Is more time spent in childcare best viewed as less time with a parent or more time to socialize? Clearly, problems like these don’t have one-size-fits-all solutions and need to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Substance abuse is different because there isn’t a “good” amount of substance abuse that a parent can engage in. Instead, substance abuse falls along a continuum, with the most important consideration in a family law proceeding being its impact on the child(ren).
How do allegations of a parent’s struggles with alcoholism or other controlled substances impact parenting disputes? Do these allegations put them at risk of losing “decision-making responsibility” or “parenting time” (formerly known as “custody” and “access,” respectively)?
Can a Parent’s Substance Abuse Jeopardize their Parenting Rights?
The short answer is yes. A child’s exposure to alcohol and drug use at home is a relevant factor when determining what parenting arrangement serves their best interest. Depending on the impact of the substance abuse on the child, a parent may lose decision-making responsibility and/or have their parenting time reduced to limited or supervised visits.
What Evidence is Required to Prove Substance Abuse Allegations?
Simply alleging that a parent is an excessive drinker or drug user is not enough for the court to intervene and strip someone of their parenting rights. There must be evidence that points to a parent actually struggling with alcohol and/or other substance abuse and that the abuse puts the child’s safety and well-being at risk. Such evidence could include that a parent:
- has a history of committing alcohol or drug-related offences (e.g., DUI);
- has been fired from their job due to alcoholism or other substance abuse;
- has been ordered to receive counselling or addiction treatment; and/or
- has been admitted to hospital or emergency care as a result of excessive drinking or drug use.
The court can also rely on witness testimony and expert evidence to support substance abuse allegations. Witness testimony can assist the court in understanding a parent’s consumption habits and the child’s home life. However, witnesses can only give evidence on what they have actually observed, not their own opinions on the matter.
Expert evidence, on the other hand, can include the expert’s opinion as long as it is within their area of expertise. Supporting opinions from medical doctors, addiction therapists, social workers and psychologists, among others, can be used to prove or discredit substance abuse allegations and any resulting concerns for the child.
Why Should You Speak to a Lawyer?
Being involved in a parenting dispute can be a very stressful and confusing time for any parent. Allegations of alcoholism and substance abuse only further complicate matters.
One way that I strive to assist my clients is to focus their concerns on the other parent’s behaviours and their actual impact on the children and not on the character of the other parent. This is important because courts are concerned with knowing what the parent does, not who they are. Labelling people as alcoholics and addicts will not assist them in getting treatment, it won’t help the children exposed to substance abuse, and it won’t impress the judge, who may need to decide whether to intervene.
In extreme cases, court intervention may not only be possible but necessary in order to protect the children who are exposed to substance abuse. It can be very difficult for many people to know if what they are seeing in their spouse or former spouse is such a case because they may have been dealing with the effects of substance abuse for a very long time. Speaking with a lawyer can help a parent sift through their case and assist in advocating for the best interests of the child(ren).
At Lerners, we understand the delicate nature of domestic and family-related legal decisions and appreciate the emotional toll they can have on those involved. Our team, located in Southwestern Ontario and Toronto, will work tirelessly to protect your interests and achieve the best possible outcome to get the closure you deserve. With a successful track record that includes some of Canada's most complex family law cases, we dedicate ourselves to achieving results and helping you move forward with your life. Contact us today to see how we can help.