Appeal Court Warns Parents That Ongoing Conflict Can Cause Psychological Damage to Children
November 1, 2022
In the recent family law case of Ting v. Ting, the Alberta Court of Appeal urged a divorced couple to consider the potentially devastating effects their ongoing conflict could have on their child. The litigation involved the mother’s request to relocate to South Carolina with the child and involved years of animosity and antagonism between the parents.
Parties’ marriage plagued by acrimony
The mother in Ting was originally from South Carolina, while the father was born and raised in Edmonton. After they married, the parties settled in Edmonton. The mother alleged that the father was verbally and physically aggressive and controlling from the start of the marriage. The father stated that the mother became physically violent and increasingly antagonistic toward him during her pregnancy in 2018.
The parental conflict worsened after their son was born in February 2019, including multiple incidents of physical violence alleged by both parties. Although the parties separated in the spring of 2019, they continued to fight through text communications and during exchanges about the baby. Their anger escalated to the point of necessitating police involvement on multiple occasions.
Family restructuring therapy unsuccessful
Post-separation, the father sent copies of the parties’ divorce pleadings to their mutual acquaintances. The mother believed this was done to alienate her from her friends. She was ultimately diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The parties underwent family restructuring therapy, which eventually broke down due to the father’s adversarial behaviour. The father subsequently engaged in parenting coaching with some success, although he refused to seek out professional psychological counselling.
Mother sought to relocate to South Carolina with the child
At trial, the mother requested an order granting her the ability to move to South Carolina with the child. She proposed a multi-faceted plan for facilitating regular parenting time with the father and sharing information about the child between the parents. In response, the father requested the child be ordered to remain in Edmonton, arguing that the child would have more cultural, linguistic, and educational opportunities there.
The parties consented to have a parenting assessment conducted. At trial, the judge found the assessment helpful on the topic of parental absence and its impact on children. However, she ultimately found the report incomplete and failed to thoroughly consider the mother’s circumstances and perceptions.
Best interests of the child determined through the lens of status quo and potential relocation
At trial, the judge conducted her analysis by “assessing parenting, viewed through the lens of both the status quo and circumstances should the child be permitted to move with his mother, in accordance with the child’s best interests”. The child’s best interests, the judge noted, would be assessed in the context of the factors set out in the Divorce Act.
To that end, the trial judge made the following findings:
- The child would thrive whether living in Alberta or South Carolina.
- Unlike the father, the mother actively promoted the child’s relationship with the other parent’s extended family.
- If the child were to remain in Edmonton, he would receive exposure to his Chinese heritage through his father’s extended family.
- Both parties had provided sufficient plans for the child’s care.
- The father’s coercive behaviour would have a serious and detrimental effect on the child.
- The mother was committed to doing everything she could to perpetuate the relationship between the child and his father.
Balance of best interests factors favoured child’s relocation with the mother
Overall, the trial judge found that the balance of the factors impacting the child’s best interest weighed in favour of the mother. Further, the mother had provided a reasonable proposal for facilitating the father’s parenting time and contact. The Court expressed concern with the father’s refusal to commit to maintaining any positive relationship between the child and his mother or the mother’s family.
As a result, the Court granted permission for the mother to relocate to South Carolina with the child. The trial judge also set out rules for the mother to consult with the father on major parenting decisions and provided a parenting time schedule.
The father appealed the trial judge’s decision to the Court of Appeal for Alberta.
Court of Appeal found no error in the trial judge’s ruling
On appeal, the father argued that the trial judge erred in refusing to accept the report of the parental capacity assessor, which suggested it was in the child’s best interests to stay in Edmonton. The father attempted to submit new evidence about the parties’ post-trial circumstances. In response, the mother alluded to difficulties she was having in trying to co-parent with the father.
The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge had not erred in concluding that it was in the child’s best interests to relocate to South Carolina with the mother. It further found that the trial judge was not required to accept the parental capacity assessor’s opinion and that the trial judge had properly identified concerns with the gaps in the assessor’s findings.
The Court of Appeal also rejected the father’s request to submit new evidence. It found that this new evidence would not have affected the trial result.
Parents must adhere to the spirit of the trial judgment
At the conclusion of the Court of Appeal’s decision, it cautioned the parents to keep their son away from their conflict. Noting the devastating effects parental animosity can have on a child’s well-being, the Court stated:
“We urge the parties to bear in mind that ongoing inter-familial and parental conflict risks causing the child irreversible psychological damage. Children must not be put at the centre of adult acrimony and should never worry that the adults most important to them, their parents, will choose to perpetuate their personal conflict over their child’s well-being.”
The Court encouraged the parents to put their issues aside so they could co-parent better, directing them to “do everything in their power to remove the child from conflict and to adhere not only to the letter of the trial judge’s judgment, but to its spirit.”
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