Globe and Mail

Anxiety, sadness, blame haunt children of divorce

Reducing conflict in broken families a priority of recommendations for change to custody and access rules

Wednesday, December 9, 1998
Parliamentary Bureau, Ottawa

John Viinalass, who walked to Ottawa from Sudbury in support of proposed changes to the Divorce Act, talks to Senator Anne Cools, a member of the committee that held public consultations.

The six-year-old girl and her nine-year-old brother were filled with sadness last Saturday when they sat down to talk with a child-custody consultant.

"These two kids have come to realize that every time their mother gets pissed at the father for some stupid thing and they've had a fight over the phone or whatever, she withholds access or refuses to allow the children to even telephone their father," said Katherine McNeil, who counsels children of divorce in Vancouver. "It is typical."

For the girl, this means deep anxiety about a coming soccer tournament. Her dad is the coach, but one of the games falls on her mother's birthday. She was worried her mom would get mad at her if she went to the game.

The girl's story provides a glimpse into the anxious and blame-filled lives of the children of divorce. In the short term, divorce can cause sadness, depression, behaviour problems and trouble at school. In the long term, a growing number of studies are showing divorce can have a profoundly negative effect on children economically, socially and emotionally.

It's a world that MPs and senators have tried to penetrate in the past year. A parliamentary committee examined access to and custody of children after divorce, hearing from more than 500 witnesses across the country. The committee has come up with a series of recommendations it says are aimed at helping the children of divorce by reducing the conflict between their parents.

When Ms. McNeil spoke to the committee in Vancouver last spring she lectured the politicians on who had the most at stake in disputes over custody and access.

"This committee has heard from mothers, fathers, custodial and non-custodial parents, lawyers, judges, psychologists and a host of others, but I have no sense that this committee has heard from the very people this is all about, the children. I see that as a significant example of what is wrong with; the system as it is now. When one takes the time to listen to the children and truly place their interests first, a greatly different picture can emerge as to what ought to be done in each individual family. "


A draft copy of the long-awaited parliamentary report on custody of and access to children after divorce, to be released today, includes:

  • Rewriting the Divorce Act to replace the term "joint custody" with "shared parenting." This wouldn't necessarily give non-custodial parents, usually fathers, more time or decision-making power, but it is designed to reduce conflict by requiring parents to detail how they will jointly bring up the children in separate households.
  • Giving children more of a voice in divorce, through a variety of measures, including a recommendation that judges be given the power to appoint legal counsel for a child.
  • Mandatory education for parents who can't agree on a custody arrangement, which would cover the benefits of co-operative parenting after divorce and the kinds of reactions that are common in both parents and children after divorces.

Whether the report will make a difference in the lives of Canadian children won't be known until Justice Minister Anne McLellan responds to the more than 200 pages of recommendations.

The committee's work has been controversial. Meetings were sometimes poisoned by gender politics, dominated by fathers-rights groups that argued the legal system is unfair to men and feminist groups that feared changes to custody rules would put women at risk of increased violence from abusive ex-spouses.

But for the first time, federal politicians will have reflected long and hard on the growing scientific evidence about the impact divorce can have on children. There has been a shift in attitude since the 1970s and 1980s, when the prevalent assumption held by mental-health professionals was that it was better for children to grow up in a divorced family than to grow up in a home where one of the parents was unhappy with the spousal relationship.

"Clinical literature from the era focused on the need for preventative counselling for children," the draft report says. "It was assumed that if children were given the opportunity to talk about their feelings, long-term emotional complications could be avoided."

However, in 1989 came one of the first studios that showed many children of divorce had severe difficulties at school and in personal and social relationships, and higher rates of delinquency.

  • Divorce is occurring when children are younger. One in five children born in 1987 and 1988 had experienced their parents' separating before the kids turned five.
  • For people born between 1961 and 1963, the same rate was not reached until they were 16 years old. According to Statistics Canada's 1995 report on divorce, 11 per cent of dependent children were placed in the custody of their fathers, 68 per cent in the custody of their mothers and 21 per cent in custody of both parents. These figures do not include arrangements not legally formalized as part of a divorce.
  • Divorce touches the lives of most Canadians, either directly or through friends or family. More than 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce. An estimated 4,700 divorces every year involve conflict over custody arrangements, which means children are exposed to tension, fighting and violence.

Almost 10 years after Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee published that research -- called Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade after Divorce -- their findings were supported by larger studies in the United States and Britain.

Among the findings:

None of this comes as much of a surprise to children who have lived through a divorce.

A 27-year-old Ottawa woman, who agreed to an interview on the condition she not be identified, lived through a custody battle 15 years ago.

"I definitely felt powerless," she recalled yesterday. "You develop a form of depression as a young child. In my case, divorce was earth-shattering.

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