Canoe News

Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Study looks at false allegations in custody battles

Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) -- A study suggests a third of unproven cases of child abuse stemming from custody battles involve someone deliberately lying in court.

Researchers at Queen's University law faculty are also suggesting that while mothers make allegations of child abuse more often than men during custody battles, fathers are more likely to fabricate the accusations than mothers are.

It's a thorny subject that has divided groups concerned with custody battles along gender lines.

A joint House and Senate committee, which travelled the country last year to hear suggestions on how to improve child and custody law, heard conflicting testimony on the subject.

Some fathers rights groups suggested to the committee that women often make false abuse allegations to deny ex-partners access to children. Women's groups disagreed.

More research is needed and the findings are preliminary, but they begin to dispel some of the myths and sweeping statements made about the validity of abuse allegations in custody battles, say researchers.

"Many of (the abuse allegations) are true, and many are false and the result of deliberate lies," said said Prof. Nick Bala, a family law expert who conducted the study.

"So the extreme positions on both sides are clearly wrong."

The study involved a review of judges' decisions in 200 cases between 1990 and 1998 where allegations of either physical or sexual abuse were taken to court. The majority -- 72 per cent -- involved allegations of sexual abuse.

The cases were all considered to involve a "high-conflict" custody and access battle.

In about a quarter of the cases, allegations of abuse were proven to be true.

The rate of unproven abuse cases is much higher in custody and access cases than in other situations, Bala noted.

The researchers found that more than half of the allegations were unproven, often because there wasn't enough evidence to prove or disprove the accused had committed the abuse.

But in 30 per cent of the unproven cases, judges ruled the accuser was lying to the court. That outcome was more likely when the accuser was a man.

"Over and over again, the fingers were pointed at the fact that false allegations came mostly from mothers and children," Kripa Sekhar, of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said from Regina.

She said that while she hasn't reviewed the study in detail, it was "interesting because it says that fathers in fact are largely responsible for fabricating those allegations."

Sekhar, who appeared before the Senate-Commons committee, argued most women aren't likely to come forward with allegations because it puts their children at risk.

But Danny Guspie of the National Shared Parenting Association said false accusations are the "No. 1 weapon of choice to deprive children of parenting from their fathers.

"It is one of the biggest problems that is facing this court system of this country," he said from Toronto.

And, he added, fathers who bring allegations against mothers are routinely ignored by the courts and treated like liars.

During the committee hearings, some fathers groups suggested false accusations of abuse should be made a criminal offence. But the committee did not go that far, calling instead on Ottawa to review Criminal Code provisions dealing with false affidavits and false accusations.

Bala said existing offences like perjury and obstruction of justice fulfil that purpose, but that other solutions to the broader problem should be sought.

"It's going to take education, time and money, you can't just pass a law that's going to solve this problem."

The solution could include better training for those involved in assessing these kinds of cases, said Bala, such as police and investigators.

Education programs for separating parents might also help, he added.

"If parents had a better understanding of the dynamics and the potential for misunderstanding and mistrust, we might see fewer of these allegations."

In its December report, the committee recommended, among other things, that divorcing parents attend at least one mediation session to work out a parenting plan. It also suggested those who have endless fights over custody and access should take a course on how it affects their children.

McLellan responded to the report this month, saying it will take nearly three years to study possible changes to the Divorce Act.

Copyright 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.