Is the Party Over? The Crossroads of Substance Use and Parenting

By Sheri Ferguson, Senior Calgary Family Lawyer

There are many areas of a parent’s life with little or no regulation—until a separation occurs. Suddenly, as many parents discover, everything changes. Whether recreational or habitual, substance use can significantly influence decisions around custody and parenting time – but where is the line?

Canadian law places the best interests of the child at the forefront of these decisions, weighing the impact of substance use on parent's physical and mental health, decision-making capacity, and ability to provide a safe and nurturing environment. The "party" may be legal, but its consequences may still significantly affect your parenting.

In this blog, we’ll delve into the legal considerations that surface in these scenarios, including the potential legal and personal consequences of substance use during parenting time. We will also offer proactive strategies for crafting parenting plans that prioritize the well-being of children and examine how substance-related behaviours can impact these plans.

Setting Boundaries: Alcohol and Cannabis Use

After separation, the acceptability of a parent’s alcohol or cannabis use during parenting time often comes into question. Consider these scenarios:

  1. If the couple used alcohol or cannabis socially, before separation and when the children were home, is it still acceptable for a parent to do so after the household splits?
  2. Does it make a difference if alcohol is consumed socially in the home, with children and other adults present, compared to a parent consuming alone during their parenting time?
  3. If social consumption is deemed appropriate, within reasonable limits, who decides what those limits are?
  4. What happens if parents can’t agree on these boundaries?
  5. Should a parent who was a regular or heavy user while the family was intact be required to maintain complete sobriety as a condition for meaningful, unsupervised parenting time?

Finding clear answers to these questions can be challenging as the law often provides broad guidance rather than specific rules. In the best-case scenario, parents should reflect on their pre-separation lifestyle and engage in open dialogue with their advisors—family lawyers, divorce coaches, counselors, and doctors - on what habits are appropriate to change after separation.

The Uncomfortable Intrusion: Testing and Treatment Measures

If the parents can’t agree on the boundaries of substance use during parenting time, then the courts (or arbitrators, where applicable) might have something to say. They might impose non-intoxication clauses through enforceable documents, which prohibit parents from consuming any intoxicants, legal or illegal, during and within a specified period before parenting time. These clauses often extend to preventing anyone else from consuming intoxicants to the point of intoxication in the presence of the children.

Further measures might also include mandated drug and alcohol testing, or even requiring completion of treatment programs as conditions for maintaining parenting time. For many, these measures may feel like an unwelcome intrusion into personal autonomy. However, the primary goal is to ensure a safe, stable environment for children.

In response, some may try to fight against such intrusions, arguing substance use during parenting time is appropriate and in the children’s best interests. Understandably, this is a difficult argument to make.

Beyond Legal Limits: Assessing Behavioural Patterns

While enjoying a glass of wine or a beer responsibly is generally acceptable, excessive, or problematic drinking can raise red flags. Courts scrutinize patterns of behaviour, such as instances of impaired judgment, public intoxication, or alcohol-related incidents, when assessing a parent's fitness. In Canada, the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration is 0.08%. However, family law decisions look beyond mere legal compliance. The impacts on parenting responsibilities, decision-making capacity, and the overall welfare of the child are paramount considerations.

A Positive Future: Proactive Parenting Plans

We recommend a balanced approach to examining substance use concerns when crafting a parenting plan. Then, taking appropriate steps to address any issues, including potential conflicts over values.

This process often forms part of the self-inventory that many freshly separated parents undertake to stabilize and grow individually for the benefit of their children.
Demonstrating a commitment to personal growth and creating a stable environment for your children can significantly influence legal perspectives, and the law tends to favour parents who actively pursue a healthier lifestyle and prioritize their child's needs.

Finding Support for Substance Use Challenges

If you are struggling with drug or alcohol-related addictions, it is important to know that support is available. Below are a few resources in Alberta and British Columbia that can offer help and guidance.

In Alberta:

Alberta Health Services (AHS) - AHS provides a range of programs to assist individuals and families dealing with drug and alcohol-related issues. You can contact the AHS Addiction Services office or their Helpline at 1-866-332-2322 to learn more about available treatment options.

Al-Anon - Al-Anon is a supportive network where members come together to share personal experiences and strength in recovering from the impact of someone else’s drinking. This support network utilizes the Twelve Steps of Recovery, which has proven to be particularly helpful for those new to recovery. More information can be found on their website.

Wood's Homes - A comprehensive mental health centre, Wood’s Homes offers support and treatment for children, youth, adults, and families facing mental health and addiction challenges. They operate in multiple locations including Calgary, Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie. Visit their website to learn more.

In British Columbia:

BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services - Dedicated to supporting individuals with severe and persistent mental health and substance use issues, this organization offers specialized health care services across the province. They are also leaders in knowledge exchange, health promotion, and literacy, providing resources and support to enhance community health. Check out their website for more information.

Together We Can (TWC) - TWC offers holistic, evidence-based recovery programs and supportive housing in a therapeutic setting. Their services are designed to support physical, mental, and emotional healing. They are a licensed healthcare provider through Vancouver Coastal Health and offers various programs tailored to individual needs.

Valiant Recovery - Specializing in treating the roots of addiction, Valiant Recovery offers high levels of personalized care with up to 12 one-on-one sessions per week. Their comprehensive program includes sessions on anxiety, depression, grief, anger management, and more, tailored to varying lengths of stay to enhance treatment outcomes.

For anyone facing these challenges, reaching out for help can be the first step towards recovery. Each of these organizations provides unique support aimed at fostering recovery and a return to wellness for individuals and their families.

Understanding the intricacies of substance use in the context of parenting plans requires a deep knowledge of family law and a dedication to securing the best possible outcomes for you and your children. If you are navigating these sensitive issues and seeking creative solutions that protect the interests of your family, our team at Crossroads Law is equipped to help. With extensive experience in crafting effective parenting plans and addressing complex parenting challenges, we are committed to ensuring a positive future for you and your family. Schedule a free 20-minute consultation with one of our skilled family lawyers today and take the first step towards resolving your family law matters with confidence.

The information contained in this blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only.