National Post

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Monday, April 12, 1999

The lost grandchildren
When couples split up, their children, with court approval, are frequently torn away from their extended families

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Diana Nethercott, National Post / Salvatore Cino of Stoney Creek, Ont., and three-year-old-daughter Talia share a moment at a park in Victoria.

Three-year-old Talia Cino has auburn hair and a wide grin. In the hundreds of carefully labelled photos in her father's albums, she appears healthy and active.

A home video taken last summer shows her delighting in a game involving her dad, a paper bag, and an imaginary ball. It shows her plucking leaves off a potted oregano plant, pouring olive oil over a salad she has helped prepare, and poking a finger into the oil for a taste.

But despite these endearing vignettes, all is not well in this little girl's life.

Salvatore Cino, Talia's father, is the eldest of six children born to Italian immigrants. The interior of his parents' Stoney Creek, Ont., home -- where he himself currently lives -- is dominated by family photos spanning several generations. Pear, peach, and apricot trees thrive outside in the yard. Across the street is a school, a church, and a playground.

In other circumstances, Talia would be basking in the adoration of her paternal aunts and uncles, as well as that of her grandparents. She would be forming relationships with her young cousins and learning to speak Italian. She would be experiencing firsthand what it means to be part of a community in which family is valued dearly and where shared language, cuisine, and religious beliefs bind people tightly to one another.

But when Talia was just six months old, her parents' marriage broke down. Her non-Italian mother left the couple's Stoney Creek apartment and took Talia to British Columbia. Earlier this year, B.C. Supreme Court Justice E. Robert Edwards declared that, since she has not seen her father's family since that time, Talia is not entitled to visit them now.

"I am not satisfied it would be in her best interests to be taken to Ontario to visit persons she will have little, if any, recollection of from her earlier time there," wrote the judge.

Thus, Cino's request to, as the judge phrased it, "take Talia to Stoney Creek for one month beginning Feb. 6, 1999, primarily to establish contact between the child and her paternal grandparents and other extended family," was denied.

Talia's mother, Elizabeth Cino, was awarded sole custody following the marriage breakdown (as is the case 70% of the time in Canada). Despite the fact that her ex-husband spent 2 1/2 months last summer, as well as five weeks recently, living in B.C. hostels in order to maintain contact with Talia, Elizabeth Cino is opposed to the child going anywhere without her.

In July, 1998, she told the judge she would be willing to travel to Ontario in the case of a funeral or a serious family illness on the condition that her ex-husband "provide me as well as the child with transportation." More recently, she declared, in a court document, that she alone is "the significant adult who provides [Talia] with a strong and sound emotional bond."

In Judge Edwards' estimation, the fact that Elizabeth Cino has said she is "open" to the idea of Talia's paternal relatives "visiting Talia in Victoria where she now resides" is sufficient. The possibility that such a large family might not be in a financial position to fly thousands of miles appears not to have been considered seriously by the judge.

That our courts apparently consider time spent with loving relatives not in children's best interests is troubling to Liberal Senator Anne Cools. A member of a joint parliamentary committee that conducted public hearings into child custody and access matters last year, Cools insists that "the Divorce Act, as passed by Parliament, was never intended to dispossess any child of its extended family."

The term "the best interests of the child," was never intended, she says, to subject children to "emotional and psychological starvation. As it was coined back in the 1890s, it meant that a child is a separate being. Children are not appendages of one of their parents."

Recommendation 16 of the joint committee report (released in December) states explicitly that, when judges are deciding what is in the best interests of a child, they should take into account the "importance of relationships between the child and the child's siblings, grandparents and other extended family members."

But rather than starting from the premise that Talia should be deprived of half her family only in the face of compelling evidence that they might harm her, Judge Edwards applied a reverse onus. "I conclude no persuasive case has been made to vary the previous orders of this court," wrote Judge Edwards, referring to an earlier B.C. judge's suggestion that Talia will perhaps be entitled to extended visits with her father and his family when she reaches school age.

A pipefitter by trade, Cino -- who has appealed for assistance at various times to the courts, the joint committee, and the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, in addition to picketing outside the courthouse, starting a support group and collecting petition signatures -- says he has lost all faith that Canada is a just society. What, he asks, is the difference between depriving Talia of her cultural heritage and taking "Indian children away from their families 25 years ago" to place them in residential schools?

Because the judge declined to explain his decision, we can only speculate that he felt a month-long trip might be disruptive for the little girl. To Cino, such arguments ring hollow.

In one of the documents he filed before Judge Edwards, Cino alleges that his former wife and daughter have changed addresses six times in the previous 15 months. During this period, he says, "Talia has not even had her own toddler bed to sleep on, but rather has been sleeping on pull-out beds or couches." In his view, this hardly amounts to "a healthy, stable environment."

In a responding document, Elizabeth Cino did not dispute these frequent moves. Instead, she declared that, "At Talia's gentle age, home is not a geographical place, it is where I am." Her document continues: "It is [Cino's] erratic imagination that has Talia displaying signs of stress and anger and sleeping on pull-out beds. I am, however, curious as to which section of the Divorce Act prohibits a child from sleeping on pull-out beds or couches."

The degree to which our family courts are firmly stacked in favour of custodial parents is suggested by the fact that, while he issued a court order denying Talia meaningful contact with her father's family, Judge Edwards expressed not one word of concern regarding Talia's current living conditions.

In the view of Melynda Jarratt, an activist with the New Brunswick Shared Parenting Association, strained post-divorce relationships between children and their grandparents are all too common. This is, she says, what happens when children "are treated like chattel, as though they're the possessions of one parent.

"It's got nothing to do with common sense or rational thinking -- and especially not with the best interests of the child." In a way, says Jarratt, children such as Talia "are under house arrest. They are not being allowed to see one-half of their family. Families are being divided for no good reason other than to support outmoded policies that make one parent the winner and the other the loser" in custody battles.

Liliane George, the president and founder of the Ottawa chapter of Grandparents Requesting Access and Dignity, has also heard similar stories. "So many fathers never miss a child support payment and yet they can't see their children," she says. "And most of the time, when the father can't see the children, that means the extended family can't see them also.

"I don't know what these judges are thinking. Later on, it's going to be too late." During her group's monthly meetings, as well as from the crisis line she runs, George hears of cases in which, after long separations, the children and grandparents become strangers to one another. "It's very hard to build a relationship after so many years."

George says distraught grandparents call the line from early in the morning until late at night, particularly near Christmas and their grandkids' birthdays. One member of her 11-year-old group, she says, died recently without seeing her grandchild for a decade. In another case, a grand-daughter was reunited with her grandmother after a five-year hiatus only when the grandmother was on her deathbed. "That was devastating for the whole family. It was so sad. You hear so many sad stories like this."

The toll that this state of affairs is taking on children is, says George, heartbreaking. "Some of those children are very angry. They lose so much along the way. So many of them get so mixed up. They have problems in school, and after a while they're put in foster care because they're out of control.

"Groups like ours, we see what it does to the children."

Copyright Southam Inc.