What the death of Riya Rajkumar means for Family Law custody cases


Millions of people were startled late last night to when the emergency tones went off for the Amber Alert for Riya Rajkumar, only to learn, minutes later, that she had been found, but not safe.  Riya did not return from an “access visit” with her father for her birthday.  Her mother contacted police because she received messages about the father harming Riya.   The police found Riya’s body in the middle of the night.  They also found her father, who was arrested for murder.  The whole event seems disturbingly similar to the murder of Luke Schillings in 1997 and other similar incidents that resulted in changes in Family Court in 2009.

Predictably, everyone wants to prevent this kind of even from happening again.  Almost immediately, there were calls to cut off “access” to fathers, for presumptions of supervised access, and for family courts to be vigilant and act on any hint of possible abuse to cut of all ties between children and parents.  Doubtlessly, Children’s Aid Socities will be under tremendous pressure to be more intrusive in the lives of separated families to make sure this does not happen again.

Having practiced Family Law for twenty years, these reactions do not seem so much as an overreaction, but a wrong reaction.  Fortunately, these cases are extreme.  Judges are vigilant about protecting kids.  Custody/Access cases entirely revolve around what is in a child’s best interest and there are no such things as “parental rights in Ontario.”  Parenting is a responsibility – a responsibility to ensure that your children group up in the best way possible and meet the fullness of their potential.   It goes without saying that what happened to Riya was not in her best interest.  We do not yet know how the system failed her.

High Conflict Separations are dangerous for kids.  Even without the threat of physical violence, high levels of conflict between parents is really harmful for kids.  Everclear even wrote a song about kids being harmed by parents fighting after separation.  Parents who are overcome with anger with their ex spouse frequently act irrationally and do terrible things, including making false allegations of abuse, that judges then have to sift through and try to determine what is real and what is a parent’s unreasonable act of anger or mistrust in the midst of conflict.   Neither mothers nor fathers have a monopoly on being on the “wrong side” of parenting conflicts.

Cutting off kids from their parents every time there is any suspicion of harm is not good for the kids.  Ask any social worker or psychologist and they will tell you that kids need to know their parents, and know who their parents are.  That is true, even if the parent is not a nice person.  Part of a child building a stable sense of identity is rejecting what they do not like in other people, including their parents.  Only serious safety concerns should prevent a child from having a relationship with a parent.   Conflict and fighting can cause serious safety concerns.

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People involved in Family Court have know for a long time that we need to devote more resources to mental health, particularly parents and children going through the family court system.  If someone feels that it is necessary to self-harm or harm others, then the system needs to be quick to provide support.

It also goes without saying that reducing the conflict can reduce the stress and potential for harm to children.  Family Mediation, Parenting Coordinators, and Collaborative Practice, are all options for separated parents that avoid the increase in hostility, negative emotions, bitterness and anger that often accompanies Family Court.  The professionals in those disciplines are often good at reducing the conflict, while identifying any underlying concerns, while directing the parents, and children, to appropriate resources.  In addition, just speaking to a good family law lawyer, can give parents the advice they need to focus on what is important and away from their anger at their spouse. A good counselor/divorce coach can also help parents address their emotions in a positive way and decreases the risk for the kids. If out-of-court options are too dangerous, because a parent or child needs protection from a Family Court Order, than all these professionals advise the parent to go to court, or the police, or children’s aid society. 

Focusing on being right often makes things worse.  But a good lawyer will direct their clients, and their children to places of safety and provide a good impartial assessment of risk.  Many police forces also offer risk assessments, as do children’s aid societies.  Those can help parents decide when it is too risky to let a parent see a child.

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Parents who are worried about their children’s safety do need to take the appropriate legal actions in response.  In times of crisis, then many options are off the table, and that is when it may be time for Family Court, or 9-1-1.   If you are not sure about your situation, get some professional advice and do not take the risk of letting your child being harmed by him or her to see the other parent or by not allowing that relationship.

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The best way to protect yourself, your children, your stuff and other things and people that are important to you, is to find out how the law applies specifically to your situation and what steps you should take to get things to work out for you. Contact Certified Specialist in Family Law (and author of the book to the left), John Schuman, by emailing him, calling 416-446-5869, or using the contact form below.  We answer all inquiries promptly and we can arrange for you to come in quickly for a consultation (charged at a reduced hourly rate). 

You can get a lot more information about Ontario Family Law issues, including property division, support, and most other common family law issues by downloading this $9.99 Kindle eBook, Kobo eBook, or iBook for your iPad or iPhone or ordering it from Amazon as a paperback.

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