National Post

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Thursday, May 13, 1999

Fathers under fire

National Post

Last time we checked, Anne McLellan was both a lawyer and Canada's Minister of Justice. This week, however, she cast doubt on both titles. Writing in the federal government's official response to the Report of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, she proposed an "enforcement" mechanism for custody disputes that "would enable non-custodial parents to enforce [child access] orders where there is unreasonable denial of access, but not impose punitive measures unfairly . . . punitive measures should remain a last resort" [emphasis added].

Alas, Ms. McLellan was not giving vent to pleasant platitudes on penal policy in some sort of moral vacuum. She was arguing specifically that the courts should generally refrain from punishing mothers for breaking the child access law because . . . well, they're mothers! Fathers who flout child support orders, however, should continue to be punished -- and not as a last resort either, but promptly, and heavily.

This is the sexual double standard. And it might claim a sort of statistical justification if it were generally the case that mothers deny visitation rights because of objectionable conduct by their ex-husbands. But there is no evidence to show that custodial parents (generally, mothers) always, or even usually, have good reasons for spoiling these rights. And there is a great deal of evidence on the other side.

According to a comprehensive 1992 study by Joyce Arditti in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, for instance, 50% of divorced fathers who complain about having too little time with their children cite the mother's interference with visitation as the explanation. In another study, 42% of "children of divorce" confirm that their mothers seek to prevent them from seeing their fathers. And in several U.S. studies, 25% to 40% of mothers readily admit to denying visits to their ex-husbands in order to punish them.

Both neglectful fathers and vindictive mothers should be punished. In both cases, nothing should be done "unfairly." Which means we should determine the response in light of the circumstances rather than as a general invitation for a program of sexual preferences.

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