Judge Upholds Denial of Child Custody to North Carolina Breast Cancer Survivor

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'Cancer Is Not Leprosy'

In her ruling, Gordon cited forensic psychologist Dr. Helen Brantley: "The more contact [the children] have with the non-ill parent, the better they do. They divide their world into the cancer world and a free of cancer world. Children want a normal childhood, and it is not normal with an ill parent."

Holly Prigerson, director of psycho-oncology research, psychosocial oncology and palliative care, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said, "Cancer is not leprosy ... young children want to be with their parents, even if ill. That's not to say that seeing a parent so ill will not be upsetting for children -- it will be frightening -- but not seeing a mother and not receiving honest answers about why mommy is not there may be more detrimental to the child's mental health and functioning than the reverse."

From a legal standpoint, making custody decisions based, even in part, on this concept of "protecting" children from an ill parent is troubling for some.

[T]he fact that a parent is seriously impaired or likely to die in the imminent future is the kind of thing a judge could legitimately take into account in the analysis," said Glenn Cohen, co-director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

"By contrast, it seems unusual to me and I would worry that it is potentially discriminatory for a court to say that the mere fact that an otherwise healthy parent at no imminent risk of death or serious impairment has been diagnosed with cancer should, per se, exclude them from custody," he added.

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