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A Manitoba Court recently examined the relationship between mental illness and parenting when it was asked to rule on the issue of custody with respect to the children of a divorced couple who were dealing with the mother’s Delusional Disorder diagnosis and the father’s violent temper.

In Ulloa v. Ulloa, the parties each took the position that the other parent should not have primary care of their three young children.

The Mother’s Mental Health Issues

The mother contended that the father has been sexually abusing the children on an ongoing basis, and that the children had made such disclosures to her.  A psychiatrist concluded that the mother’s belief was unshakable and was of delusional proportions.  Other than this particular delusion, she had no other symptoms, and she functioned reasonably well is all aspects of her life.  Notwithstanding a Child and Family Services investigation which found that the children were not sexually abused by their father (and which noted concerns in respect to the mother’s mental health), the mother would not waver from her belief.

The Father’s Violent Temper

The evidence supported the mother’s contention that the father had a violent temper.  The father admitted that the children had seen him angry, to the point where he punched holes in the walls.  The children indicated to third parties that they did not like spending time with their Dad as he yelled and “smashes and breaks stuff”.

In Whose Care and Control are the Children Best Situated?

In what must have been a difficult decision, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba held that it would be in the best interests of the children to give the mother and father joint custody, and for them to share physical custody of the children on a 2-2-3 schedule.  (Click here for our blog on the issue of Visitation Schedules).

The Court was convinced this was not a case of parental alienation by the mother (in other words, she was not using psychological manipulation to cause the children to fear, disrespect or be hostile towards their father), and that the children loved both their parents.  In spite of the issues facing this family, the Court noted that it was clear from the evidence that the “children are happy, polite and energetic children.”  The father conceded that the mother is “a great mother”.   And, notably, the agency and medical reports indicated that the mother’s concern about the father was sincere – ie. she was not being malicious in making such allegations against the father.

In support of its order for joint custody, the Court highlighted the following:

  • The evidence of the parties and the experts supported the argument that the children had not been affected by their mother’s delusion and were functioning well;  their emotional and psychological well-being had not been impacted by the mental illness;
  • The mother’s commitment to obtain care from a doctor and be monitored demonstrated her love and affection for her children;
  • Although the children were well cared for by their mother, it was not in their best interests to be primarily in her care given her state of mental health;  the father’s concerns about the mother’s issues were legitimate and needed to be addressed;
  • The mother would be living with her mother, who was a reliable and loving caregiver;
  • It was not in the children’s best interests to be primarily in their father’s care as the children would not do well if their contact with their mother was substantially reduced; the children were strongly dependent on their mother for support;
  • The father had work to do in order to deal with his anger issues so that the children would feel loved and safe at all times.

The Best Interests of the Children

As in all child custody decisions, the best interests of the children were paramount in this case.  It may seem incorrect at first blush to allow children to remain in the care of a parent who is battling a mental illness, but this case reminds us that it’s not that simple.  The illness may not be having a negative impact on the children.  Also, the illness may be contained to one very specific idea/action by the parent, which may not affect his or her ability to parent effectively and lovingly.

If you have questions about custody, access or any family law matter, please contact Gelman & Associates at (416) 736-0200 or 1-844-742-0200 or contact us online for a confidential initial consultation.