Adjusting to a new parenting schedule and regime after a divorce can be difficult for families, but it is important that parents follow court orders and shield the children from any conflict. When parents restrict a child’s time with the other parent and involve the children in the litigation, this is disruptive to the child’s best interests. If a parent persists in that harmful conduct, a court may decide that it is necessary to suspend parenting time with the children.

Parent’s Actions Threaten Wellbeing of Children

The case of McGrath v. Sheppard demonstrates the potential challenges a parent may face when they fail to prioritize the needs of their children. In this instance, the respondent father brought a motion before the court to continue the terms of an access suspension and restraining order against the mother. The main issue during the parties’ family law trial was mobility, as the mother planned to move to the United Kingdom to pursue a new relationship and sought the court’s permission to have the children move with her. However, the judge decided it was in the children’s best interests to primarily live with the father in Ontario, though the mother would have parenting time with the children in both Ontario and the United Kingdom.

For the motion judge, it was clear that the mother was disappointed by that order, and in the aftermath of the trial, she sought to undermine the children’s lives in Ontario. The judge noted that although it was the mother’s choice to move, she “argued repeatedly that the father and the courts have prevented the children from living their real lives with her.” It was also accepted by the Court that the mother tried to influence the children to move and referred to the United Kingdom as their real home, while criticizing all aspects of the children’s lives in Ontario.

Mother Encourages Son to Refuse to Return to Ontario

At the conclusion of the mother’s parenting time, she was not supportive of the children’s transitions back to their father’s care. On one occasion, the mother refused to return their son to Ontario. The child telephoned his father telling him he wished to stay with his mother in the United Kingdom, however, on the call, the mother could be heard manipulating the child. The court found that the mother was encouraging the child to refuse to return to Ontario, and in manipulating him, had placed him in the middle of an adult situation.

Ultimately, the father had to commence proceedings to compel the mother to comply with their court order. The outcome was that the court restricted the mother’s parenting visits to Ontario. However, the mother continued to make negative comments to the children and sought to disrupt their lives in Ontario. The court accepted that the mother destabilized the children in her quest to have them live with her and was “willing to sabotage the mental health and emotional well-being of the children in an effort to accomplish her future goal.”

Parenting Suspension May be Used to Return Stability

In response to the mother’s actions, the father argued that suspending the mother’s parenting time completely and obtaining counselling for the children was the only way to return some stability into the children’s lives. The court agreed with this sentiment.

The father sought to extend the suspension, and the court explained that the applicable test to consider before making a decision on the request, would require the court to determine whether the order would be in the best interests of the children. This meant the judge had to consider whether the mother was willing to provide the children with the “guidance, education and the necessaries of life and also meet any special needs of the children.” However, the judge found that the mother still could not look past her own needs.

Mother’s Communication With Children Caused Anxiety and Confusion

It was also worth considering whether the mother had proposed a plan for parenting time and the children’s care. The court looked to Zanewycz v. Manryk, where the court considered the issue of a parent proposing such a plan. In that case, the court held that “it is a very serious step to move from a situation of shared time with the children to no access whatsoever and something that is taken with a great deal of caution and consideration.” However, in that case, the party was asked to prepare a parenting plan with the expectation that he would consider the harm he was causing the children by including them in the family conflict. However, instead of taking that opportunity, the father in that case submitted a plan that showed he had no insight into the needs of his children or the negative findings the court made about his conduct.

Similarly, in McGrath, the mother did not acknowledge any responsibility for her conduct that led to the suspension of access and a restraining order. Instead, there was disregard for the needs of the children and no understanding of how her actions disrupted the children.The court looked at the permanence and stability of the family unit and the possible disruption that may ensue if the mother’s parenting time was not further suspended. The court had earlier accepted that the mother’s communication with the children caused anxiety and confusion, and that one child was refusing to attend school at the mother’s request. She also impeded the father’s attempts to get counselling for the children. In contrast, the children thrived during the period that the mother’s contact with the children had been suspended. Accordingly, the court found the mother was unable to act in the best interests of the children and that allowing communication between her and the children was likely to disturb their emotional well-being. Consequently, the restraining order was ordered to continue.

Past Conduct Can be Relevant in Deciding Parenting

In E.T. v. L.D., the applicant mother brought a motion before the court seeking to suspend the father’s parenting time with their three sons. This was a high conflict divorce, and the court ordered that neither parent was to discuss the litigation with the children or disparage the other parent in front of the children. The parenting plan provided that the parties were to have equal parenting time, but the father did not comply with the plan. The Children’s Law Reform Act states that appropriate parenting time to grant depends on the best interests of the child. The judge also noted that an individual’s past conduct can be considered if that conduct “is relevant to the person’s ability to act as a parent.”

In this case, there was clear evidence that the father had repeatedly disregarded the court’s order not to discuss the litigation with the children. He also failed to follow the parenting plan and used the children in his dispute with the applicant. The judge found that the father’s actions were unnecessary and caused the children harm. In fact, the family’s counselling service advised that they were pursuing an investigation to determine whether the children were suffering emotional harm. The court also looked at the father’s past conduct and considered a note from the parties’ mediator. The content of the note established that the mediator believed the father was attempting to exert leverage over the applicant which was contrary to the children’s best interests. It was clear that the mediator could not persuade the father to change his actions and that the mediator resigned knowing his advice would be ignored. As such, the court found that nothing had changed and it was, therefore, in the children’s best interests to suspend the father’s parenting time with the children.

Parents Should Show They Can Prioritize the Child’s Needs

Suspending parenting time with a child is a serious step, but the focus is always on the best interests of the child. Where a parent’s actions are destabilizing and the parent fails to act according to the child’s needs, courts may decide a suspension of parenting time is warranted. However, the court must be satisfied, based on the evidence presented, that the parent’s conduct is harmful to the child.

Contact the Family Lawyers at NULaw in Toronto to Protect Your Parental Rights

If you have children and are contemplating a separation, or are already in the process, it is important to consult with a family lawyer who has experience with decision-making responsibility and parenting time matters. At NULaw, our team of knowledgeable and compassionate separation and divorce lawyers frequently advise parents on their rights and obligations when it comes to addressing a new parenting regime. We provide every client with clear, practical advice so that they can make informed decisions about their parental rights moving forward. To schedule an initial consultation with a member of our firm, contact us online or call us at 416-481-5604.

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