By Laurie MonsebraatenSocial Justice Reporter
Thu., Sept. 13, 2018
It is the final chapter in a constitutional challenge that changed provincial legislation and gives new hope to single parents caring for children with disabilities.
An Ontario court judge has awarded Brampton single mother Robyn Coates monthly payments of $518.14 in child support for her disabled adult son for the rest of his life.
Robyn Coates launched a constitutional challenge of Ontario’s child-support law on behalf of son, Joshua, 23, shown near their Brampton home.
The support ruling, released by Justice William Sullivan last week, stems from a precedent-setting decision in July 2017 that prompted the provincial government to change the law and opened the door for unmarried mothers and fathers caring for adult children with disabilities to claim support from estranged parents.
“Justice Sullivan really honoured Josh. He listened to my testimony and he really cared,” Coates said, referring to her son, Joshua, 23.
Adult children unable to leave the care of a parent for illness or any other reason are also eligible to claim support under the amendment to Ontario’s Family Law Act passed last December.
Previously, only adult children still in school or whose parents had been married and divorced were eligible for support, a situation Coates successfully argued discriminates against those born to parents who were never married.
“I am excited to know that many parents will read about our case and get a glimpse into the struggles that both Josh and I face on a daily basis,” Coates said of the court action she launched in January 2016.
Joshua, who was born with a rare genetic abnormality, reads and writes at the Grade 2 level, suffers from numerous psychiatric and physical health problems and will require supervision and financial support for the rest of his life, the court heard.
Since he turned 18, he has received Ontario Disability Support Program payments as well as funding from Developmental Services Ontario and Brampton Caledon Community Living.
But Coates, an educational resource worker for students with special needs in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board, said these public support programs don’t cover Joshua’s extra medical and recreation expenses that can cost up to $1,400 a month. She wanted his father, Wayne Watson, to pay about half, or $800.
Watson, who never lived with Coates and has been married for more than 20 years to another woman, with whom he has two other children, says he is glad the legal wrangling is over.
“It’s been one dark cloud that has been hanging over my head,” he said in an interview this week. “It is what it is. It’s what the law requires.”
Watson paid various amounts of court-ordered child support when Joshua was a minor, but argued he was not legally bound to support his son beyond age 18 because social assistance is available for adults.
Watson was paying about $800 a month before the Sept. 4 ruling by Justice Sullivan, of the Ontario Court of Justice. Although Coates was initially disappointed the judge reduced this amount by almost $300 a month, she said she feels the ruling was fair and compassionate.
Coates is particularly pleased Sullivan said Watson has to share the cost of a personal trainer for Joshua to help him manage his health and weight problems.
“(Joshua) has few interests and/or activities in his life that he can point to as achievements and his weightlifting and interests at the YMCA are an area that has helped him feel good about himself as a unique person with a skill in his own right,” Sullivan wrote in his ruling.
Coates is happy the judge also acknowledged her need for respite and help to pay someone to look after Joshua while she takes a break.
“The support for family caregivers, such as Ms Coates, must be a recognized cost to be equitably shared by the parties and a recognized need by our society at large,” Sullivan ruled.
Coates’s lawyer Robert Shawyer, who handled the constitutional case pro-bono, also praised Sullivan’s ruling.
“He got it right,” he said.
Previously under Ontario’s Family Law Act, which governs unmarried parents, adult children were eligible for child support only if they are in school full-time.
But under the federal Divorce Act, an adult child who is unable to live independently due to disability, illness or other causes is also eligible for support as long as they need it.
Sullivan’s 2017 constitutional ruling, which adopted the federal Divorce Act wording for the case, meant Joshua was eligible for child support from Watson.
Since Ontario changed the law, Alberta is the only province where adult children of unmarried parents are still only eligible for child support if they are in school full-time.
Laure Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb