The “Peanut Butter Incident” Helps Court Decide to Limit Father’s Access
In V.P. v. D.M. the court was asked to determine what level of access the father should have to his 5 ½-year-old child. The parents had met online and were essentially in a friendship; they never lived together and were never in a monogamous relationship. After getting sexually intimate on a few occasions, the mother got pregnant. The parents’ brief relationship deteriorated, and the father now wanted shared custody; the mother wanted the father’s access to be limited to two days a week, with no overnights and alternating weekends.
The court scrutinized the lifestyle of both parents and kept its keen focus on the various factors that go into determining access levels. These included the best interests of the child, as well as the father’s proposed plan for her care and upbringing, and his ability to act as a parent.
In this regard, the court honed in specifically on some incidents that occurred in the father’s household during the prior access visits that he had been temporarily been granted by the court. The mother pointed to these as highlighting the father’s questionable conduct and judgment; she claimed they supported her position that shared parenting was not in the daughter’s best interests and that the father’s access should be limited.
One of these, which the court called “The Peanut Butter Incident”, involved the father’s sister and her daughter (i.e. his niece, who also happened to be his goddaughter). The father had apparently made it clear to his sister by email that he expected her to side with him on the dispute with the mother – in what the court called a “you are either with me or against me” tone. In an email to his sister that he later expressed no remorse for, the father wrote:
The days of having it both ways are over! If during your visit, you feel that you ‘must’ visit or plan an event with [the mother] – the person who has deliberately ensured my worst fear, I will not be a part of whatever that may be and it will have repercussions on ‘our’ relationship. I trust you will respect my wishes.
The sister, who had had a nice relationship with the child’s mother to this point, disregarded her brother’s expectations, and stayed with the mother while in town on a visit.
This set the tone for a subsequent visit to the father’s home by his sister and his niece. To the father’s knowledge, the niece was allergic to peanuts and was quite anxious about the allergy. The sister wrote in advance to remind the father that there should be no peanut butter in his home during their upcoming visit. The father assured his sister that he would remove the peanut butter from his kitchen and that he would put it somewhere safe and away from the niece.
At some point during their visit, however, the father made a peanut butter sandwich for his young daughter, in circumstances where he could not be sure whether the niece was at his home. Fortunately, he quickly realized what he said was a mistake, and remedied the situation.
Still, the sister claimed this had been done deliberately: – that the father did not know for sure whether the niece was home, could not have forgotten that she had a life-threatening peanut allergy, and had deliberately put her health at risk. The sister pointed out that even before the visit, she and the father had discussed that the daughter could not kiss the niece after eating peanut butter since it would trigger a reaction.
As the court concluded:
In light of the father’s, ‘you are either with me or against me’ email and his threats that her failure to comply with his demands will have consequences on their relationship, [the sister] considers her brother’s actions to be deliberate.
The sister waited a few days to digest what had occurred in connection with the peanut butter, and wrote the father a lengthy email in which she accused him of purposely endangering the niece’s life. The father never replied to that email, and never discussed it with her or anyone else. Since the incident, he no longer had a relationship with his sister or her children and did not explain to the court why he had chosen not to speak to his niece since.
The court summed up the incident this way:
At best the father made an irresponsible and potentially grave mistake giving [his daughter] a peanut butter sandwich while [the niece] was visiting. At worst he was sending a warning to his sister of the “repercussions” she would face for taking “[the mother’s] side in this dispute and that she was not supportive” of him.
The fact that the father’s evidence makes little sense to the court bolsters the mother’s argument that he is vindictive and the sister’s evidence that the father’s actions were deliberate.
The court added, “The father’s evidence on this issue is incomprehensible.”
This incident informed the court’s view of the father overall. It concluded he was vindictive, had repeatedly shown poor judgment, and took no responsibility for the damage he caused to his family relationships. He also did not recognize the potential harm that his conduct might cause his daughter in the future.
In the end, and after considering this incident against the broader context of the father’s plan for and ability to care for the child, the court concluded that the father had demonstrated “very concerning behaviour” that affected the child’s best interests. It concluded that he should not have shared custody – only access. Moreover, the access was to continue only on a specified schedule.
For the full text of the decision, see: