When parents go through divorce or separation, it’s not uncommon for there to be disagreements in how to parent their children (of course, this is true for parents who remain together as well). How much can one parent impose on the other? When it comes to diet, can one parent be required to cook gluten-free meals for the children? This exact question was recently addressed in a decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
The mother and father were married on July 31, 2004 and separated over the Christmas holidays in 2013. At the time of the separation they were residents in Bermuda, where they signed a separation agreement without the advice of a lawyer. The couple have four children, who were 13, 10, 8, and 5-years-old at the time of the hearing. Most of the trial dealt with how much child and spousal support the father would have to pay. Since the agreement was drafted without legal advice, there was ambiguity throughout as well as sections that contradicted one another.
The question of diet
Three of the couple’s four children have special needs. One has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. She also has a medical report indicating she is intolerant to fructose. Another of the children has Opposition Defiance Disorder and ADHD as well as general issues with aggression. A third child also has also exhibited signs of autism and speech delay.
The mother testified that she invested a considerable amount of time and energy in learning how to support the children’s special needs, including stabilizing their symptoms through medication and diet. She arrived at the conclusion that a gluten and casein (milk protein) free diet showed positive effects on the children with ADHD, and she asked the father to adhere to the dietary restrictions she put in place.
The father, while acknowledging the special needs of his children, disputes the effect of gluten on their behaviour. He has spoken to the children’s family doctor who told him that gluten was unlikely to produce behavioural effects in the children. He testified that the mother has an obsession with food and correlates everything about the children’s behaviour with what they eat.
Another doctor, who served as the family’s pediatrician, provided a letter contrary to the opinion of the other doctor’s, writing “with respect to gluten, there is some evidence that this type of diet can be helpful for children who fall into the (autism) spectrum.” He specifically mentioned one of the children, stating “She has also, to the best of my knowledge, been on a gluten-free diet, certainly with Mom and Mom feels that she is doing much better….”
The court’s opinion on the pediatrician’s letter
While the pediatrician’s letter seemed, on its surface, to be helpful to the mother, the court pointed out that no prescription came from it, and that the doctor was simply reporting back what the mother had told him. The court wrote,
“He does not prescribe a gluten-free diet. Dr. James’ letter only reports what the (mother) has told him; this is double hearsay and has very little probative value. I am reluctant to make the (mother’s) dietary demands a term of any order without more persuasive evidence. To do so would expose the (father) to allegations of a breach of a court order. At the same time, the children are spending most of their time in their mother’s care and it is problematic if the (father) ignores her concerns altogether. This is a high conflict case. The parties do not need to be looking for new ways to antagonize each other.”
Ultimately, the court did not impose any dietary obligations for the father to follow, ordering instead that he “respect the children’s dietary regime within reasonable limits.”
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