Daily Gleaner

Friday, May 29, 1998

Custody battles bring out the worst, committee told

Heather McLaughlin, Staff Writer
Daily Gleaner, Fredericton, New Brunswick

Custody battles bring out the worst, committee told. The system is broken. Fathers are feeling alienated. What it revolves around is that men are regarded as wallets. They don't get to see their children.

Two New Brunswick women's groups said joint custody should never be mandatory when emotional, physical or sexual abuse is a factor in separation and divorce.

But the co-chair of a federal committee studying Canada's child custody and access law says there are too many cases of false accusations of abuse invading custody-access disputes.

''That must be stamped out and if the courts aren't willing to do it, Parliament has to,'' said Roger Gallaway, a Liberal MP from southern Ontario.

Out of 1,500 allegations of physical and sexual abuse investigated by the Ottawa area children's aid society, 900 were directly related to warring spouses embroiled in custody fights.

''Of that number, 600 were unprovable. We have to move to deal with this,'' Gallaway said.

''This whole area is charged with emotions. We have these terms like deadbeat dads but we never hear about deadbeat moms,'' Gallaway said.

The federal committee heard from one dad Thursday who said false accusations and psychological manipulation by his ex-spouse cost him 18 months worth of visits with his three children.

''If only someone would listen to both sides of the story,'' said Miramichi dad Brent Sherrard.

But Jennifer Robertson warned that mandatory mediation and automatic joint custody of children is not a sound option where women are trying to get out of abusive family settings.

Thrusting an abused woman into a mediation setting where she may be more easily intimidated is not appropriate, warned the lawyer for the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in Fredericton.

''Each case has to be addressed carefully and sensibly,'' Robertson said.

''Children are not well served when women's equality rights are ignored,'' said Lucile Riedle, the chair of New Brunswick's Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

''Custody should not be awarded to a violent or abusive parent,'' said Riedle.

The council isn't opposed to joint parenting solutions, as long as it is in the best interest of the child.

''As long as the parents forget their own tensions and difficulties and don't make the child a victim again or don't use the child for their own selfish interests to make the ex-partner feel less adequate.''

The council supports the primary caregiver as the first choice for custodial parent.

That role should be gender neutral but Riedle said society still clings to the tradition of women bearing the brunt of rearing children. Until society sheds the myth and makes sure men can't walk away from their responsibilities, there's not enough Mr. Mom's out there to establish a statistical trail of information.

If men want to get rid of the alleged bias in the system, they should take up the job of parenting 50-50 during their marriage, Riedle said.

But Gallaway said there are just too many groups coming forward to the committee with horrific stories to be discounted.

''The system is broken. Fathers are feeling alienated,'' Gallaway said. ''What it revolves around is that men are regarded as wallets. They don't get to see their children.''

Provincial agencies enforce child support payments but there's no organization to enforce access.

''There's a bit of a hypocritical edge to all of this,'' Gallaway said.

When the Divorce Act was passed three decades ago, Canadian society still lived in a world where one parent was home and the other worked.

''It's not the world today. Society has changed,'' Gallaway said.

While the issues before the committee are clearly emerging, the solutions are complex, he said.

New Brunswick's Shared Parenting Association spokesperson Melynda Jarratt said this province has 5,000 women who are non-custodial parents experiencing the same problems as men when it comes to child access.

''We represent good parents and children have a right to see good parents,'' Jarratt said.

copyright 1998 The Daily Gleaner