Here’s one we don’t often see (Calgary Herald, 7/25/10). It seems that, years ago, Shirley Anderson was one of the worst of mothers. Her children, now aged 52, 50, 48 and 46, call their upbringing by her “harsh” and “brutal.” But for one of her sons, Ken, it was worse than that; she abandoned him outright 31 years ago when he was 15. He had to drop out of high school, get a menial job and crash on friends’ couches. He never completed high school and never attended college.
Sadly, as despicable as Shirley’s behavior was, it’s not the worst thing a parent can do to a child. But now, at age 71, she’s upping the ante; she’s suing her children for support. In fact, her suit began a long time ago, back in 2000. It all stems from a British Columbia law passed in 1922 that requires offspring to support their “dependent” parents. So back in 2000, Shirley Anderson asked for and received a court order requiring her children to pay her $50 a month, or $10 each (she has five children, but one is not part of the suit). Now she’s asking the court to increase the amount to $300 – $350 each per month. Not surprisingly, they’re resisting the whole idea of paying to support the woman who abused them. Shirley’s daughter,
Donna Anderson, who left home at 18, put herself through college and is the mother of two kids. She says she won’t pay a dime. “They can take me to jail.”
They may do just that. The law Shirley is suing under was passed at a time when circumstances in Canada were entirely different from what they are now. Then there was no state pension and no guaranteed medical care. So the law that placed responsibility for the wellbeing of the elderly on the shoulders of the children, has clearly been superseded by subsequent laws and policies. But it’s still on the books and Shirley Anderson is trying to cash in. My guess is that the legal issues are pretty cut and dried. My guess is that Shirley will win. The law is the law and however unfair it may be to Ken Anderson and his siblings, it still applies to them. Still the case raises some obvious moral issues, if few legal ones. Ken and Donna Anderson ask, “what is a parent?” I’m not informed on the intricacies of this statute, but it probably assumes a parent to be the biological one, and Shirley Anderson is certainly that, if little more. But in other areas of the law, a biological mother can have her rights terminated if she proves herself to be abusive or neglectful of her children. Apparently the law requiring children to support a parent has no such provision to relieve children of the obligation when the parent is unfit. If I were Ken Anderson though, I’d argue abandonment. A mother can also have her rights terminated if it’s shown that she abandoned a child. Her unilateral act can, by itself, result in the loss of her parental rights. I would argue that she did just that when she left him behind with no support, no home, no money, no food, no love, no companisonship and no guidance. If that happened today, CPS would waste no time in terminating her parental rights. I would argue that the court should do so today in Ken’s case. The irony of a law that’s meant to prevent children from abandoning parents being used to require support of a mother who abandoned her child is surely lost on no one. But the larger question is again, “what is a parent?” Depending on the situation, a parent is either a biological one or the active caretaker. Most often of course, the two are the same, but increasingly, not always. Our confusion about that and about to whom to give enforceable parental rights has, for many years, caused considerable grief, consternation and conflict. But the answer to the question is not difficult. All law relating to parents and children should adhere to the following basic principles. With one exception, a parent is the biological one until that person demonstrates that he/she is unfit, unable, uncaring, etc. Only after that demonstration has been made following due process of law, can a biological parent be deprived of his/her rights and another person substituted. Therefore, a father who has been prevented by the mother from knowing about and/or caring for his child, is still a father with enforceable rights. The only exception is in the case of paternity fraud. Where a man has been falsely or mistakenly led to believe that he is the father of a child and who has cared for and contributed to the support of the child, that man, though not the biological father, has rights. So does the biological dad whose ability to care for his child was denied by the mother’s fraud or mistake. His parental rights should not be compromised by anything but his own informed actions or inactions. Meanwhile, the law under which Shirley Anderson is suing should either be repealed altogther or amended so that it benefits only parents who have acted the part. Thanks to Jeremy for the heads-up.