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Alberta Report - May 11, 1998

FINALLY, SOMEBODY IS LISTENING

By Les Sillars

Ottawa's child custody committee lends a sympathetic ear to divorced dads

Heading into a hearing of Ottawa's Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access in Calgary last week, one divorced father was wearing a big grin and two lapel buttons with the words, "Children need fathers, not visitors." He was telling anybody who would listen he had just enjoyed 10 days of unsupervised access with his two children, but that it had taken eight years of legal wrangling to make it happen. He was smiling about more than just the long-awaited reunion however. For years, complaints by divorced men of a pervasive legal bias against them have been routinely dismissed as inconsequential.

But here was a parliamentary committee which not only wanted to hear their side of the story, it even seemed sympathetic.

The driving force behind the all-party committee is Liberal Senator Anne Cools. Last year, she and some Tory senators held up approval of the Liberal government's Bill C-41, a crackdown on deadbeat dads which critics blasted as irredeemably one-sided. Though C-41 provided a schedule to standardize child support levels and tied support to the income of the non-custodial parent (almost always the father), it ignored the issue of mothers who deny fathers court-ordered access to their children. In exchange for Senate approval of a modified bill, then-justice minister Allan Rock agreed to appoint the custody committee.

The committee's mandate is to investigate "a more child-centered approach to family law practices and policies which would emphasize joint parental responsibilities." It is expected to produce recommendations for amendments to the federal Divorce Act this fall. It has already appeared in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and will be in the Atlantic region in late May.

Picture: Calgary hearing: Women's groups were on the hotseat.

At the Calgary hearings, Sen. Cools was warmly received by several divorced fathers, most of whom are active in fathers' rights groups. She worked her way through the crowd, hugging a few and chatting with the rest in her soft Caribbean accent. By standing up for fathers' access rights and the need to reform Canada's adversarial family court system, she has become a heroine to these men, a cross between a public-policy advocate and the mother-in-law ideal.

Picture: MESA's Sleiman: Charges of abuse were false.

Almost every father present had a horror story to relate about a biased and uncaring legal system. Gus Sleiman is president of the Men's Educational Support Association (MESA) in Calgary. When his four-year- old marriage broke up in 1994, his wife took their nine-month-old son Philip back to her parents' home in Ottawa. She then applied to a Calgary court to transfer the custody hearing to Ottawa. Such cases are supposed to be heard in the jurisdiction where the couple lived with the child and custodial parents may not move without consent. But she alleged her husband was physically abusive, which held up the hearing for six months. When it was finally held, the judge ruled that by then Philip had spent so long in Ottawa, it was "in the best interest of the child" to transfer the case there.

Mr. Sleiman did not see Philip between 1994 and 1997. A judge granted three supervised visits last spring, but he has been denied unsupervised access because his wife alleged, without evidence, that he will abduct Philip to his native Lebanon if given the chance. His legal costs, not including travel, exceed $ 50,000.

Also attending the hearing was Paul, a Calgary father of three who married in 1982. He left the marriage with the kids in 1987 after his wife physically attacked him. The next year he discovered his oldest daughter, who was five at the time, had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Paul suspects she got it while visiting her mother, who had a boyfriend, and a history of mental illness. Paul was awarded custody in a 1990 trial.

Two years later, however, the decision was overturned on appeal. "children should be with their mother," said the judge. "If the sexes were reversed, you can't believe the same thing would have happened," says Paul, who still sounds shell-shocked. The court now garnishees $1,700 per month of his $2,800 net income for child support.

Jay Charland of the Men's Education Network was telling how his ex-wife has not let him see his daughter for three years. Though his manner seemed slightly hysterical, his frustration became understandable when he described how a judge flatly refused to enforce an access order. "Perhaps you should get some counseling," she told him.

The custody committee is co-chaired by Sen. Landon Pearson and MP Roger Gallaway, both Liberals from Ontario. Besides Sen. Cools, other members include Reform MP Paul Forseth and Tory Sen. Duncan Jessiman. They were told that slugging out custody, access and support issues in court is failing miserably. The fathers complained that false allegations of abuse are common and that courts do not recognize the contribution fathers make to parenting.

Picture: CSWAC's Black: Not all family breakups are tragedies

Many believe child support often becomes defacto alimony, supporting their ex-wives and, in some cases, their new partners. Few men seek custody because they are told that, if the mother contest it, the ensuing legal battle will cost a minimum of $20,000.

The fathers also pointed out women have no incentive to negotiate out-of-court settlements because they know judges will likely give them custody and generous levels of support. That prompted Sen. Jessiman to acidly observe that "the entire coercive power of the state is directed to the enforcement of child support payments, but the coercive power of the state dissolves into a weeping coward when it comes to the enforcement of court-awarded access."

Two grandparents' rights associations also appeared before the committee to argue that when their sons lose access, so do they. However, it is the kids who are the real victims of divorce, said Alberta Children's Advocate Michael Day. "It is not easy for us to admit that divorce has more to do with our own self-fulfillment than the good of our children," added Hermina Dykxhoorn, executive director of the Alberta Federation of Women United for Families.

Conversely, the two representatives of the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee (CSWAC) claimed the real cause of divorce is family violence. "We don't believe all family breakups are tragedies," stated CSWAC coordinator Julie Black. "We have seen no widespread problem of women unjustly denying access," added board member Laurie Anderson. Lots of men abuse their wives, she said, "[so] we ought only to be surprised at how rarely abused women deny access." When Sen. Cools pressed them for statistics however, the CSWAC representatives became defensive and were unable to say how many of their clients are divorced or involved in access disputes, or even how many clients they serve.

Groups such as CSWAC, which purport to speak for many women, have produced no one at the hearings except their spokesmen. The members of grassroots men's groups, on the other hand, have more political legitimacy than any other committee hearings in recent years," asserts Sen. Cools. One of the fathers' rights groups, the Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society (ECMAS), has 1,700 Alberta members. Dozens of others have sprung up across the country in the past two years, which generated an enormous demand to speak at the hearings.

ECMAS Calgary president Mike LaBerge recommended in his submission that Canadian law adopt mandatory mediation for divorcing parents, as well as "the presumption of shared parenting" to reduce the winner-loser atmosphere created by the custody system. He also urged that access denial and the filing of false allegations be made criminal offences.

Sen. Cools says there is a strong likelihood the committee will produce a report that recognizes fathers' grievances. But will the governing Liberals respond to the call for a more even-handed approach? "If we have a unanimous report," says Liberal MP Gallaway, "it's going to be difficult for the government to ignore it." By Les Sillars

Copyright, Alberta Report

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