Daily Gleaner

Friday, May 29, 1998

People say put the child first

Fathers complain about outdated law that favors mothers in child custody cases

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

Teary-eyed dads, frustrated grandparents and children who just want to stop being pawns for hostile divorcing parents, explained the child custody and access shortcomings of Canada's 30-year-old Divorce Act.

The litany of complaints to the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access holding public hearings here Thursday were matched by an array of solutions including shared parenting models, joint custody proposals, mediation and arbitration solutions.

The committee of Commons MPs and Senators, including New Brunswick's Erminie Cohen and Mabel DeWare, will head back to Ottawa after six months of research and 400 witnesses at public hearings to write a report on improvements to the law before the end of November.

It's despicable and shameful for parents to use their children as tools for hurting each other in their marital dispute, said lawyer Barbara Baird, who represents Grandparents Requesting Access and Dignity.

The organization, founded in 1992, wants federal divorce law to be amended to provide for a continuing relationship with grandparents during separation and after divorce. ''It's difficult to stay neutral but you have to stay focused on the child and the best interest of the child,'' said president Wally Haines.

Eighteen-year-old Alison Grenon said the divorce and separation process has to make provision for listening to what kids need.

The Fredericton teenager, now part of a blended family, lived through the experience of seeing her own parents split when she was a child and at age 11 chose to live with her aunt.

Although her own parents remained on friendly terms, Grenon said she's seen too many instances where children are used as weapons in marital boxing matches.

''The only thing the child wants is to see both parents. That's it. I need to see both parties,'' Grenon said. ''I will promote shared parenting for all.''

Freelance writer Lane MacIntosh said when his ex-wife moved to Victoria with his 10-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter, it was like an arrow through his heart.

Access to his kids, by virtue of distance, became the ritual of annual summer visits, financed by him over and above child support, MacIntosh explained.

''Child support means more than money,'' MacIntosh said. But outdated Canadian law continues to perpetuate the myth that a dad's only role is as an economic generator, he told the committee. He wants tax changes that at least allow fathers to write off the costs of access visits with their youngsters to help ease the financial burden when an ex-spouse moves.

Bill Borland of Saint John is convinced he's relegated to the role of access parent because of an outdated dictum that only mothers are suitable primary caregivers.

Borland says it cost him $35,000 in legal fees to protect access to his daughter and it's time to stop treating children as commodities.

''Non-custodial parents are accountable to the court for child support. Custodial parents are rarely brought to account for arbitrarily changing or denying access,'' Borland said.

Although the committee isn't directly studying support and maintenance issues, there's an inextricable link, said University of New Brunswick sociology professor Jim Richardson,

''If he doesn't pay support, I'm not going to let him see the kids,'' is the theory espoused by some divorcing women, he pointed out.

Stay-at-home dad Dennis Atchison, who was the primary caregiver in his household, caring for twin boys while his then wife pursued her increasingly profitable career, trusted a legal system to listen to both sides fairly in deciding access, support and child custody questions when the marriage ended.

But Atchison found he didn't have a voice in a family law system he believes is still weighted towards women.

''I can't compete against 'The Mother,' '' Atchison said.

Presenter Barbara Corbett said it's time for the legal system to start from the premise that fathers want to maintain a relationship with their children, that men aren't just economic providers and women aren't necessarily the primary caregivers.

copyright 1998 The Daily Gleaner