Globe and Mail

Mother seeks sole control of son, 24: 'I love Seth'

Father of mentally disabled man says he 'just can't believe the cruelty' of this

The Globe and Mail
Monday, April 30, 2001

Albert Sugerman and his son Seth, 24, are framed by the steering wheel of an antique tractor Mr. Sugerman has given Seth. The young man has said he prefers to live on his father's Southwestern Ontario farm, but his mother is asking the court for authority to make decisions for Seth.

ESSEX, ONT. -- Seth Sugerman's mental disability hasn't prevented him from holding down a job or managing the basic mechanics of everyday life, but it may be about to deprive him of his father.

In a legal manoeuvre rarely used with adults, Seth's mother will ask an Ontario Court judge today to cut off Albert Sugerman's access to his 24-year-old son.

"I just can't believe the cruelty of this," Mr. Sugerman said. "When they say they are trying to deny me all access to Seth, it means denying Seth access to me as well. How could anybody do that, especially to a handicapped person? It is as though they consider Seth to be a biological subspecies."

The case is even more unusual because Seth favours living at his father's hobby farm in the Southwestern Ontario hamlet of West Lorne.

"I would like to live in West Lorne," Seth said haltingly in an interview last week at the Tim Horton's franchise where he works as a cleaner. "What court do we have to go to?"

The case raises troubling issues of judicial authority and personal liberty, and has left some child-welfare authorities scratching their heads.

"At his age, it is very unusual," said Warren Brooke, executive director of Family Service London. "Adults normally have the right to determine their own destiny."

Seth's mother, Sheryl Polikoff, made it clear in an interview that at the root of the proceeding is her belief that regular visits with his father are disrupting Seth's routines and his psychological well-being.

Acrimony has been a constant in his parents' relationship almost since Seth was born in 1977.

Should the judicial ruling ultimately favour Ms. Polikoff, it will echo one she obtained in 1999 authorizing police to forcibly seize Seth from his father's farm late one night.

Ms. Polikoff refers to the incident as "a kidnapping," and says it was then that she decided she needed to acquire more control over Seth's life. Should her application to become his surrogate decision-maker succeed tomorrow, it would give her authority to make decisions on his behalf.

"I love Seth," she said in an interview on her doorstep in Essex, also in Ontario's southwest. "I know Albert loves Seth, and I know Seth loves his father. But something had to be done. This nonsense just can't go on any longer."

Seth did not even know about her legal application until he discovered by accident late last week. Ms. Polikoff acknowledged that he was distressed by the idea of losing access to his father.

However, she said that if her application succeeds, she will restore some form of visiting rights. Mr. Sugerman, 61, expressed grave doubts that she will.

Mr. Sugerman and Ms. Polikoff married in 1970. They split up nine years later, when Seth was two years old.

Soon afterward, Ms. Polikoff disappeared and went to California. Mr. Sugerman hired a private detective, who found her living with a sect known as the Emissaries of the Divine Light. Ms. Polikoff acknowledged that her husband obtained a court order requiring her to return Seth to Ontario.

Back in London, Seth attended a school for the learning disabled. He learned to read, write and express himself with a good degree of success, and graduated from Grade 12.

The situation has many of the classic symptoms of a bitter custody case. Ms. Polikoff accuses her ex-husband of once trying to break down her door, kicking her dog, not seeing Seth for long periods of his life, and of being overly emotional about the situation. She also accuses Mr. Sugerman of selfishly jeopardizing the community support and activities Seth enjoys in Essex.

For his part, Mr. Sugerman says he fought unsuccessfully for custody of Seth 20 years ago, and has seen his son virtually every weekend since then. He accused Ms. Polikoff of clinging to Seth instead of letting him live an independent life. He said she screams at Seth often, and exploits his labour in her cat-breeding operation.

A couple of years ago, Ms. Polikoff decided to move to Essex, a 90-minute drive away.

Shortly after the move, a frustrated Seth took a swing at his mother. She had him admitted to a hospital for observation. Mr. Sugerman heard of it, arranged his release, and brought Seth back to the farm. The two of them began looking for a semi-independent residence where Seth could live.

"In the normal course of events, I'm going to die before him," Mr. Sugerman said. "He has to be able to do things for himself."

Around midnight on Aug. 16, 1999, Seth and his father were asleep when two Ontario Provincial Police banged at the door of Mr. Sugerman's hobby farm with the court order allowing his seizure.

Despite Seth's protestations, he was hauled away.

"Apart from the fact I wasn't able to make my own representations in the court, I was charged $1,000 in court costs," Mr. Sugerman said.

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.