Testimony before the Joint Committee on Custody and Access April 1, 1998
Ms. Bina Ostoff (Counsellor Advocate, London Battered Women Advisory Centre,
London Coordinating Committee to End Women Abuse):
The London Coordinating Committee believes that the context of woman abuse is crucial
and should be of particular interest to the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and
Access. For many abused women and their children, there are dangers specific to this
time of separation and divorce and dangers specific to custody and access issues that
family law policies and practices should address.
In woman abuse situations, the time of separation is particularly dangerous. As part of the
abuser's pattern of control and domination, their victims have usually been told for years
that if they ever dare to leave, they, their children, or their families will be seriously hurt or
killed. The resulting fear for women is well-founded.
Browne and William report that when a battering victim takes the first step towards
freedom, the abuse frequently escalates to deadly intensity, and Hart confirms that abused
women may be most at risk of femicide, when she leaves or when it becomes clear to her
spouse that she will be leaving for good. Batterers also murder or attempt to murder their
children when victims try to get away.
Also in terms of the prevalence of woman abuse and custody and access disputes,
violence does not end with separation. Many people working with women who are abused
feel that if they leave the abusive situation the violence will be over. In fact many women
report that when they leave, when they take the courageous step to leave, the abuser
continues his tactics of power and control in terms of harassing, stalking, and physical and
It is also clear to us from examples at the battered women's advocacy centre that the
abuse continues through the custody and access process. Many women fear losing their
children, and many batterers have threatened to take away their children. These fears are
also well-founded. In a gender bias study in the United Statesmany Americans have
conducted studies and they find that the courts treat women's custody claims far less
favourably than men's.
The general literature on the impact of divorce stresses the negative impact of conflict on
children. This was a large study done by Wallerstein and Kelly. However, eight years later,
it was important to note that the same author opposed court-ordered joint custody against
the wishes of one parent, and particularly in abusive relationships.
Liss and Stahly found that abusive fathers are far more likely to fight for custody. Geffner
and Pagelow report that recent trends in the courts, especially those regarding joint
custody and mediation, may benefit abusive spouses who want to maintain domination
and control of their partners seeking escape.
At the present time, Canadian family law does not adequately deal with custody and
access disputes where woman abuse is prevalent. We feel that the federal government
must take a leadership role in ending violence against women and children in family law
systems. It is imperative, in addressing changes in the family law, that the significance of
woman abuse to the custody and access issues is addressed.
Senator Duncan Jessiman: Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I think I heard you correctly when you said that in the United States there was a bias
towards men. Is that in cases where men are trying to get access and the custodial parent,
the woman, is trying to deny access because of abuse? Is that where you say there's bias
towards men? I just want to make sure I got it correctly.
Ms. Bina Ostoff: Many American states have conducted studies and have found that the
courts treat women's custody claims far less favourably than men's.
Senator Duncan Jessiman: Custody?
Ms. Bina Ostoff: Yes.
Senator Duncan Jessiman: Oh, not just for access. The information we've been getting
is that there's a definite bias in favour of the woman with respect to custody. Now you're
telling me there are cases in the United States that reverse that.
Ms. Bina Ostoff: Yes.
Senator Duncan Jessiman: Will you be supplying us with that information?
I could understand that maybe under circumstances where it was access only, but you're
giving us...and we'll read it, of course, but it's surprising to me that you're saying that the
courts in the United States are biased towards men. But that's your evidence and we're
going to accept it