Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Disabled mother battles to keep her son

When she discovered she was pregnant last December, she felt fear and joy. She quickly embraced the opportunity to raise a child, feeling she had the money and family support to make up for her paralysis.

David Trais, her ex-boyfriend and the 49-year-old father of their now 5-month-old son, disagreed that she was up to the challenge.

In court documents, Trais said O'Neill's disability "greatly limits her ability to care for the minor, or even wake up if the minor is distressed."

O'Neill counters that she always has another able-bodied adult on hand for Aidan — be it her full-time caretaker, live-in brother or her mother. Even before she gave birth to Aidan, O'Neill said, she never went more than a few hours by herself.

Callow said the bias against disabled parents is such that judges tend to grant custody to an able-bodied partner "even if they have a history that might usually be a heavy mark against them — not having been in the child's life, a history of violence, et cetera."

"Certainly, I sympathize with the mom, but assuming both parties are equal (in other respects), isn't the child obviously better off with the father?"

LeVine, who has specialized in divorce and custody cases for the last 40 years, pointed out that O'Neill would likely not be able to teach her son to write, paint or play ball. "What's the effect on the child — feeling sorry for the mother and becoming the parent?"

When his bottle fell from his mouth, or tipped the wrong way, Davidiuk stepped in to reposition it.

In addition to Davidiuk, O'Neill's brother, an ex-Marine, lives in an apartment attached to her home. O'Neill's mother helps on weekends and the family keeps Pele, a yellow lab service dog, who can open doors, turn on lights and pick up stuffed animals.

Her immaculate, one-story home is filled with photos of Aidan. Her son's room, painted sherbet green and decorated with cheerful zoo animals, has a specially modified changing table and crib that allows for O'Neill's wheelchair.

How the case will play out is impossible to predict, say legal experts, who point out that O'Neill's disability, in and of itself, cannot be the determining factor.

As is common in child custody battles, the plaintiff did not limit his legal complaint to one concern.

O'Neill said she sees a therapist once a week and has been treated for anxiety, depression and sleep apnea. She denied Trais' claim she smokes or drinks — though both are legal practices.

"Who is lighting my cigarettes and pouring my drinks?" she quipped.

Despite the acrimonious nature of their current relationship, O'Neill said she is committed to keeping Trais in their son's life. She said she was devastated when she learned Trais had deemed her "unfit" in court papers and said she believes it was motivated by her decision to break up with him shortly after Aidan's birth.

To be sure, O'Neill is not the first mother to parent from a wheelchair.

"I won't kid you, it's harder to be a mom with a disability," Bristo said. She said both she and her kids learned to adapt. As her children got older, and starting to walk, verbal cues became increasingly important.

"You develop different voices" for warning children, since physical intervention isn't an option, she said. "My kids knew that 'danger voice.' They would stop in their trails when they heard that voice.

"My kids did fine."