Saturday, May 14, 2011

Custody and Cancer

This week a woman in North Carolina was told that she has to relinquish custody of her children to her ex husband who lives in Chicago, IL. The woman in question has been the primary caregiver for the children since birth and she is also a cancer patient.

By all accounts the marriage was a miserable affair. Evidentally affair is the operative word in this case as both parties had sexual relationships outside of their marriage, there are also allegations of physical and emotional abuse and both parents spent a night in jail after a fight turned physical.

So let's skip that part of the story. They both kind of suck, and clearly, as is the case in many marriages ending in divorce, they are not quite done shitting on each other yet. Unfortunately their two offspring are in the way and being used as pawns in the 21st century game of custodial chess.

The reality here is that these kids are facing a lot of misery-but maybe not any more or less than if their parents had stayed together in a miserable marriage. There are unfortunately millions of children like them here in the U.S. being shuttled between homes and parents and used as bait in everything from financial to psychological negotiations. I have a wee little girl asleep in my house this weekend who is one of them, and we don't pretend to be a perfect family either.

What terrifies me about the judge's ruling in this case is the fact that a parent with a diagnosed illness has been given a shelf life and an expiration date for parenting. The judge in this case heeded testimony from a forensic psychologist that stated children in these situations do better with more contact with the "non-ill" parent. While I don't doubt that the judge and psychologist could be very well intentioned. I don't believe they thought about the precedent being set by removing children from a parent due to their medical diagnoses.

There are certainly cases where an ill parent cannot successfully or safely parent a child-but by all descriptions, this is not that kind of case. This is a case where a patient has been classified as Stage IV by her oncologist and now the court system has determined that means she is actively dying. But she's not.
She does have metastatic breast cancer and it is in her bones. In all likelihood she will die as a result of breast cancer. But when she will die is anybody's guess. Because of the research and treatments available she is likely to survive 5 or 10 years, quite possibly more and there is no oncologist who will tell you she is dying.

She is living with cancer. Just like parents who are living with heart disease, diabetes, bipolar disorder, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease, and HIV. Custody matters should be based on the parenting ability of the parents in questions-not their medical diagnoses. In her decision Judge Nancy Gordon stated that, "Children want a normal childhood, and it is not normal with an ill parent."

Normal for whom? Is it idyllic? No, but real life very often isn't. Children deserve the opportunity to be raised with loving committed parents. Those parents can be of either gender, any race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, and they can have a chronic medical condition that does not hamper their ability to love and nurture another human soul. In many cases it may very accentuate their ability to do so.

There is a balance of course, and I am not suggesting children should spend their every waking moment cleaning up vomit after Dad's chemotherapy treatment. But I do know that my own sons learned a lot about caring for others from helping their grandfather when he was unable to do something because of his Parkinson's disease, or walking with their Great Grandmother to and from the sanctuary at church when she needed a little more supervision because of her dementia.

In retrospect some of their funniest memories are of the way Grandpa terrorized people at the hardware store on his scooter, and the way we had to move the salt away from Great Grandma because she would vigorously cover the same plate of food with it three times due to her forgetfulness. The boys were part of the family journey. Grandpa didn't just disappear one day. He died at home, and they held his hands before and after, and they grieved his loss with all of us.

The judge in this case is forgetting that children live in the real world, not in a Disney movie. The real world has flawed parents with crappy marriages, and sometimes those parents get sick. But that doesn't mean they stop being a family and shame on anyone who tells a child they have to lose their mother twice. First, to a court decision that ignores the flawed uniqueness of every family. Second to a disease that doesn't discriminate against anyone-including judges or parents.

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