Daily Gleaner

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

"Our divorce laws are not child-focused."

Campbell Morrison Daily Gleaner, Fredericton, New Brunswick

OTTAWA -- Most people, if they know Bill Borland at all, know him as the public face of J.D. Irving Ltd. But on Thursday in Fredericton he will put his company aside and take a seat as the final witness of the joint committee on custody and access.

After six months and more than 400 witnesses in all provinces of Canada, the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access is ending its often emotional series of hearings in Fredericton.

Borland wants to talk about his 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and the eight-year legal battle he has waged to keep her in his life. On top of $1,300 monthly child support payments, Borland has spent $35,000 on lawyers just to keep the access he was awarded in his divorce.

Like many of the witnesses, Borland just wants to tell his story. He doesn't expect the joint Senate-House of Commons committee to do anything for him. He is not representing any causes. He just wants to highlight that children are often neglected in the tug of war between the sexes after divorce.

''It is the kids who get a raw deal,'' he says.

The Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access has its roots in an act amending the Divorce Act in the last Parliament. It established a new grid of payments and introduced tougher methods to go after deadbeat dads who were skipping out on their obligation to provide child support.

Unexpectedly, the Senate committee studying Bill C-41 also discovered many frustrated men who felt ignored by the politically-correct parade. Although they made their payments, honored their obligations and loved their children, they were often denied access to them and felt the court system was biased against them.

New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Senator Mabel DeWare of Moncton was the chair of the committee looking at Bill C-41.

''It became very evident to us that there was a problem out there,'' she said Tuesday. Just as Parliament was dissolved last April, the Senators agreed to pass C-41 as long as the Liberals promised to establish a joint committee on custody and access.

DeWare is serving on it today, and she says it is an experience she hopes she never has to repeat.

''It has been heart-wrenching to hear some of the interveners, to hear some of the pain that they are going through. And all the more so (for me) because I haven't had to go through it,'' DeWare said.

It is a conflicting mix of rights and obligations. What are the rights of children? Should mothers be the preferred primary care-giver? What are the limits of government? Can a change in law improve things? For DeWare, the limits of the law are real.

''You can't legislate human relations.''

It is likely that the committee will eventually recommend that the government find a better way of addressing children's needs in contested divorces.

All divorces, for example, could include a parenting plan agreed to by both parents. Or the court may appoint a lawyer to represent the interests of the children as separate from the lawyers representing their parents. Such plans may also be incorporated into the marriage contract too.

''Our divorce laws are not child-focused,'' added Erminie Cohen, a Progressive Conservative Senator from Saint John who is also a member of the committee.

''Most children want a relationship with both parents. They love their mothers and they love their fathers too,'' Cohen said.

copyright 1998 The Daily Gleaner