While the entirety of the past year has been difficult, many people may be finding themselves dealing with increased mental health concerns as we near the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 protocols in Canada. Not only do we live life differently in public now, but we are also largely much more isolated. As new variants take hold, there is worry about how long this situation could last, and whether it could worsen. Many adults are finding themselves increasingly affected by depression and anxiety. But we may not consider how much the situation also affects the mental wellbeing of children.

An Ontario court recently had to weigh in on a parenting matter between two former spouses after one of their children began to exhibit signs of increased anxiety related to the pandemic.

Holiday Visit to East Coast Extended Due to Child’s Discomfort at Home

The circumstances involved questions pertaining to both parenting arrangements and mobility. The parents, both lawyers, shared three children aged 13-18 and had an established parenting arrangement as part of their 2018 divorce. The children resided primarily with their mother in Hamilton and stayed with their father at regular intervals each week.

The mother had a tradition of taking the children to Newfoundland for the holidays each year, and in 2020 asked the father if she could take an extended trip to make up for the time needed for quarantine upon arrival. The parents agreed the trip would begin December 7, and that the mother would return with the children on January 7.

However, the children found they were much happier in Newfoundland, where the pandemic was not as widespread, and where they could spend time with extended family and participate in extra-curricular activities without worry. In particular, the youngest child was thriving there. Prior to the trip, he had been suffering from anxiety related to the pandemic and became very upset when people around him failed to observe the social distancing protocols. In addition, he had stopped using the bathroom at school out of fear, instead rushing home each day to relieve himself.

The mother said the child was terrified of returning to Hamilton where infection rates were much higher. She knew she would need to bring the children back eventually, however wanted to allow her children to enjoy the safety and freedom they enjoyed in Newfoundland for a longer period of time. The father filed a motion for their immediate return to Hamilton.

Courts Must Consider the Effect of the Pandemic on Children’s Mental Health

The Ontario Superior Court adjourned the motion until February when in-person classes were set to resume in Hamilton since the children could continue their education remotely in the interim. The court also ordered the parents to arrange for counselling for the youngest child to help him with his anxiety and to develop a plan for the family’s return to Ontario.

The court acknowledged that sensitivity was needed given the effects of the pandemic on the children, particularly the youngest, saying:

Most of the COVID-related caselaw has focused on physical protection of children, parents and others with respect to exposure to the coronavirus. 

As the pandemic has dragged on, however, there has been increasing community recognition of the impact all of this is having on our mental health.  And if adults are having trouble coping with life-threatening dangers, just imagine what it’s like for children.

Ultimately, the court asked the parents to work together and focus on their children’s’ wellbeing first and foremost in deciding how to resolve the matter. Preparing the children for a return to Ontario was key, as was maintaining sensitivity around the youngest child’s fears.

The court also pointed out that the parents had a dispute resolution mechanism outlined in their divorce order to assist them when a dispute arises, and they failed to make use of that option. In an unusual move, the judge asked the father to have a conversation with each of his children during a midday break in the proceedings, since he had not spoken with them directly about their feelings on the matter.

When the matter resumed in the afternoon, the father said he was shaken by hearing from his youngest son that he was ‘terrified’ to return to Ontario and wanted to remain in Newfoundland as long as he could. The court refrained from ordering the children to be returned home immediately, instead encouraging the parents to work together to make a definitive plan while also doing everything they could to help their children manage their fears of returning to Ontario.

The family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman are exceptionally experienced with respect to parenting plans and child access arrangements following the breakdown of a relationship. Contact our office today by calling us at 403-910-3000 or contact us online.

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