As the COVID-19 crisis continues to impact families across the country, it is presenting unique challenges for blended families residing in separate households. In Peerenboom v. Peerenboom, 2020 ONSC 2533, the parties have four children together. Following their separation, each party has re-partnered and established blended families with their new partner and that partner’s children from a previous relationship. The father, Mr. Peerenboom, shares a residence with his fiancée Ms. Barnicke and her three children. While the mother, Ms. Peerenboom, reside with the children in a separate home from her current partner, Mr. Godfrey and his four children, the parties are in a committed relationship and their respective children often travel together and engage in activities as a family.
The parties’ dispute arose after the outbreak of the coronavirus, when the children were in Florida with Ms. Peerenboom, Mr. Godfrey and the Godfrey children for March Break. The children’s return was delayed by the outbreak and Mr. Peerenboom, who was to have time with the children for the remainder of March Break, arranged for the children to be brought back with his parents on March 21, 2020. A few days later, Ms. Peerenboom and Mr. Godfrey returned from Florida as well.
On April 2, 2020, Mr. Peerenboom refused to return the children to Ms. Peerenboom in accordance with an Order dated October 10, 2017 unless Ms. Peerenboom guarantees that the children would not be in contact with the Godfrey children during her parenting time. Ms. Peerenboom initially agreed to this but the children ended up having contact with the Godfrey children. Mr. Peerenboom then withheld the children during Ms. Peerenboom’s scheduled time, which prompted Ms. Peerenboom to bring an urgent motion seeking to enforce the existing Order.
Ms. Peerenbom argues that the children spend a significant time with the Godfrey children and to deprive them of this contact would not be in their best interests. In response, Mr. Peerenbom disputes the notion that Ms. Peerenbom and Mr. Godfrey constitute a blended family. Instead, he argues that they live in two separate households and thus gatherings between them would violate public health orders restricting contact between members of different households.
Under the current Order, Ms. Peerenboom has the children on Monday and Tuesday nights and alternating weekends. The pandemic does not change this. However, the question is whether there should be an additional condition prohibiting contact with the Godfrey children in light of the current circumstances. As this restriction was proposed by Mr. Peerenbom, he would bear the onus of establishing that the prohibition is warranted based on an increased risk to the children’s health and safety.
Based on the evidence provided, the Court found that Mr. Peerenbom did not demonstrate that restricting contact between the children and the Godfrey children was warranted. As Mr. Peerenbom did not object to the children having contact with Mr. Godfrey, who already has regular contact with the Godfrey children, it became unclear to the Court how the risk to the children’s health would be increased by spending time with the Godfrey children. Furthermore, if contact with the Godfrey children did not jeopardize the children’s health, then it would be in their best interests to maintain that relationship, especially during these stressful times when the children’s routines have already been disrupted by school closures and social distancing requirements.
Lastly, the Court found that a blended family need not reside at the same address. The fact that Ms. Peerenboom and Mr. Godfrey each have a house does not mean that they, with their children, are not a “household”. Thus, in the interest of maintaining strong relationships with both parents, the children were returned to the mother’s care in accordance with the existing Order.
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