A judge’s difficult decision in a North Carolina custody case is garnering national attention and criticism and raising questions of what it means to be an unfit parent. Durham County Judge Nancy Gordan ruled that because Alaina Giorano has Stage IV breast cancer and her prognosis is uncertain, her children, 11 year old Sofia and 5 year old Bud, must move from Durham to Chicago to live with their father. She wrote: “The course of her disease is unknown. Children who have a parent with cancer need more contact with the non-ill parent.” The judge also noted that she ruled in favor of the father because he is employed in Chicago and is the family’s sole breadwinner. Theoretically, Ms. Giordano could also move to Chicago to live closer to the children since she is unemployed, but she is undergoing treatment at Duke University and is not inclined to look for a new treatment team since her health is currently stable.
Ms. Giordano is appealing the ruling, and is gathering support from many across the country. Over 7,000 people have signed an online petition urging North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue to overturn the decision. Ms. Giordano has also appeared on the Today Show, where she told Matt Lauer,”I think it is a dangerous ruling for me and my children and how it will affect us, but also for people all over the world with cancer. This is a bad precedent.”
This ruling is sparking a heated debate between commenters on online articles about the case. Many feel that it is unfair to use a cancer patient’s diagnosis against her to deny custody of her children and feel that the children will be traumatized when taken away from their mother during her time of need. Others believe that the ruling is in the children’s best interests, so that they are shielded from the difficulty of their mother’s illness.
Although the above case was decided in North Carolina and of questionable wisdom, the issue of a parent’s physical health and disabilities can be a factor in custody cases and has been addressed by California courts as well. The most prominent Supreme Court case on this issue, In re Marriage of Carney (l979) 24 Cal. 3d 725, 598 P.2d 472, provides that a parent’s disability cannot be the sole basis upon which custody is denied.
However, Carney has been repeatedly cited by non-disabled parents who continue to argue that the court can still consider the health or disability of a parent as one of the many factors in considering whether a child should be in the custody of disabled parent.
To bolster the rights of disabled parents, in late August 2010 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1188 into law (effective January 1, 2011 and now California Family Code Section 3049). This law shifts the burden of proof onto the parent who raises the disability. It is hoped that Family Code section 3049 will afford disabled parents greater protection in California family law cases by making it more difficult to use their disability to alter custody or visitation orders.
If you have questions about child custody or visitation and would like to speak with an experienced Family Law Attorney, please contact Lonich Patton Erlich Policastri for further information. Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.