London Free Press

Wednesday, May 12, 1999

More time won't solve issues of divorce

By Helen Connell -- London Free Press

Three years is how long Justice Minister Anne McLellan says she needs to come up with new rules for determining the fate of children swept up in the pain of divorce.

Take three years or 300 years. It's not enough time for McLellan to the avoid the political minefield this area of law represents.

It's not possible to legislate away the anger and hurt that accompanies the breakdown of a marriage. Politicians cannot craft rules that will stop parents, who claim to love their children more than life itself, from using those same children to bludgeon each other.

That's because in the vast majority of cases, the adults are so blinded by their emotions they are unaware of what it is they are doing to the children. Nothing makes either side feel so righteously vindicated about their decision than a belief that the children are on their side.

To see how big the problem is we didn't need to look any further than the joint Commons-Senate committee that studied the Divorce Act and came up with the list of 48 recommendations McLellan wants to study.

With all the viciousness of warring divorce lawyers, members of this committee sparred with each other and witnesses as they tried to build their own credibility by tearing down the case the opposing side was attempting to build.

Despite all their bickering, some good recommendations came out of this, including the overall theme of doing away with the old notions of custody and access -- and its implied ownership of children -- and replacing it with shared custody. How that nice, polite philosophy translates into people's lives is far more complicated.

For example, it makes sense that both parents have access to medical and school reports. But when there's a problem, how are two people who can't stand to be in the same room together supposed to trust each other enough to come up with potential solutions? Lots of happily married couples can't agree on a unified, consistent approach to these issues.

While the entire emphasis of the committee's report is on the needs of children, parents caught up in a divorce often can't differentiate the needs of their children from their own selfish desire for revenge.

The breakdown of a marriage should not mean a father finds himself suddenly defined as a visitor in the lives of his children. But men who can't accept that their marriage is over cannot be allowed to use shared parenting as a way to cling to, or harass, their wives.

One of the main recommendations in this report recognizes that the rights of grandparents to children should not be cut off by a divorce. But with that right goes the responsibility for grandparents not to use this precious time with these children to bad mouth either spouse or grill the kids for insider information.

There's a recommendation that spouses who intentionally lay false claims of abuse or neglect be prosecuted by the courts. Such laws are already in place, but these are difficult cases to prove. What isn't needed are new laws intended to frighten people from reporting legitimate cases of spousal abuse or child neglect for fear the judge won't believe them.

One problem the committee's report doesn't deal with is parents who battle for access to their children, then don't use it. Perhaps there are no laws that can deal with parents who don't care how children feel, knowing one of their parents doesn't care enough to even show up as they promised.

Many of the report's 48 recommendations centre on providing parents and children caught up in divorce with professional help in addition to what their lawyers offer.

One of the better recommendations requires divorcing parents to take part in a program that looks at divorce through a child's eyes. London's Merrymount Children's Centre offers this course, but relies on lawyers and other professionals donating their time.

Perhaps if couples had easy and affordable access to these experts when they first run into trouble some of them could shore up their crumbling relationships, saving their children the trauma of a divorce.

Politicians don't need more time to study this issue. They only require the political will to set aside battles over power and make children and their families a priority.

Helen Connell is Editor of The London Free Press. Her column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Copyright © 1999 The London Free Press a division of Sun Media Corporation.