National Post

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Monday, May 17, 1999

The child abuse in family law
The National Shared Parenting Association was told on the weekend fathers lose access to their children through judicial kidnapping

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

Bryan Schlosser, National Post / Roger Gallaway, left, talks to Paul Forseth before Gallaway's speech at Regina conference on shared parenting.

Bryan Schlosser, National Post / A child, oblivious to the discussion at a conference on shared parenting, works on a colouring book.

REGINA - Around 60 men from across western Canada, some of them exhausted after two day car journeys from as far afield as British Columbia, arrived here this weekend as refugees, they claim, from the rigours of marital breakup and subsequent custody disputes.

What was surprising was the lack of handwringing over being on the losing end of such upheaval. Delegates at this meeting of the National Shared Parenting Association heard instead practical advice on how to beat the system, how to avoid, in the words of one lawyer attending, the "judicial kidnapping" of children.

Fathers who had prevailed in custody disputes shared advice on how to prepare detailed "parenting diaries" for the court, which chronicle the activities and time shared with children, down to documenting phone calls and conversations.

Lawyers savvy to the quirks of the system instructed delegates to push for lie detector tests and to tape record their conversations with their children and their ex-wives to guard against accusations of abuse.

"It's a oneupmanship game, often played at the expense of children," said Paul Forseth, the Reform critic involved in the Senate-Commons joint committee that criss-crossed the country for two years hearing tales of anguish surrounding marriage break down.

"Loving, fair, strong-hearted men lose custody every day in this country," said Carey Linde, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in helping men win custody battles. "It's judicial kidnapping what's going on in this country."

Against a backdrop of posters festooned with snapshots of children and bearing the legends: "Two Parents by 2000" and "Kids Love Shared Parenting," Mr. Linde dubbed some of his legal colleagues "child abusers" and "mercenaries with a mouth for hire," and advocated shaming the worst offenders with signs on their lawns and pies in their faces.

Speakers lashed out at the "feminist lobby" they believe holds all the cards in custody disputes and at a family law system and lawyers they equated with child abusers because of the adverse impact many custody settlements have on children.

Mr. Forseth, who spent many years investigating custody and access as an officer of the court, said he witnessed "all manner of sanctimony, greed, corruption," a system rife with perjuring and manipulative mothers, and lawyers who know "they've got a gravy train they don't want to end.

"Instead of the deadbeat Dad, it's the deadbolted Dad, locked out of their childrens' lives."

It is this kind of experience that brought these men to this conference, and they spent much of the weekend swapping their stories.

Warren Bentz drove here from Kamloops with his parents, all of them denied access to the four-year-old boy who is their son and grandson.

Randy Liberet, from Regina, said he has spent about $80,000 in legal fees so he can see his children every second weekend.

Kelly Grymaloski, who recently moved from his Regina home to be closer to his son in British Columbia, said he was told by the Saskatchewan appeal court, after four years of legal battles, that it could not rule on his case because he lived in another province. His son was 22-months-old before he saw him for the first time, and now that the boy is four, he is only allowed visits once a month.

Elmer Eichorst collected 8,000 signatures around Regina alone for a petition to change the divorce system. He has not seen his three children, who are now 30, 28, and 24, for 22 years.

The grassroots nature of the gathering is evident: There is a simple pot of coffee offered at breaks, with a donation jar beside it; the conference is free-of-charge and even the speakers have paid their own way to attend.

Shared custody is the focus of everyone here. Most of them have been the losers in court custody battles or else became bitter, disillusioned and, inevitably, poorer through their struggles to wrest some custody away from their former spouses.

James Cook, the man who lobbied for the joint custody provision in California law, told them it did not have to be that way. He outlined a different system, where shared custody is the starting point in a legal dispute, rather than sole custody.

He said about 90% of California's 177,000 divorce custody cases a year come out with some form of joint custody arrangement.

Not all of those are strict 50-50 splits, since there are a myriad ways of allocating time and the state's policy focuses on allowing "frequent and continuing contact for both parents," rather than demanding strict equal access.

Mr. Cook claimed his system resulted in joint custody cases returning to court less frequently than sole custody since parents are less willing to risk what stake they already have, in the process eliciting more faithful payment of child support and even making parents more likely to pay for extras such as summer camp and music lessons.

But a panel of child psychologists warned the group that when it came to resolving childrens' divorce woes, custody was not a panacea.

"From a psychological perspective, custody is irrelevant," said Ronni Abraham, a professor at the University of Regina. She likened it to the colour of the car, rather than the strength of the engine, and said, "conflict is key."

Prof. Abraham said if a shared custody arrangement is instituted without resolving the parents' conflict, children will still suffer from the divorce.

"To suggest that custody alone, or shared parenting alone will resolve things, is mistaken," she said. "What seems to matter are the relationships. It's the behaviours of the parents that matter a whole lot more in a family."

Even one woman attending the conference seemed a bit puzzled about how she could make joint custody work in a fractured relationship:

"I totally agree with shared parenting," said the woman, who did not want her name used for fear it would further deepen the rift with her former husband. "But if I had that kind of relationship with my ex, I'd still be married."

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