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Thursday, May 27, 1999

False claims of child abuse rampant: study
Custody battles: 30% of allegations in cases examined unprovable or false

Sarah Galashan
National Post

Nearly one-third of allegations of child abuse made during the process of parental separation are unfounded, according to a study released yesterday.

The research, which is certain to inflame the heated political and sociological debate surrounding current attempts to reform Canada's 30-year-old Divorce Act, addresses marital breakup and custody rights. It showed that in 30% of court cases examined, evidence of abuse given during custody hearings was either unprovable or deliberately false, and that not only the accuser but even the child may have been lying.

In the largest study of its kind in Canada, Nicholas Bala and John Schuman, two Queen's University law professors, looked at 196 custody hearings across the country. The research showed 71% of sexual abuse allegations were brought by mothers, whereas fathers initiated only 17% of the accusations. The rest were the result of concerned grandparents, siblings or partners who, as well as the parents, often sought aid from a child protection agency.

The report cited a recent study that showed that courts handling custody disputes are far more likely to believe a mother's accusations of abuse against a child than a father's.

Of female-initiated allegations, just 1.3% were deemed intentionally false by civil courts, compared with 21% when the man in the failed relationship brought similar allegations.

One case documented in the research addresses the serious nature of false accusations. An Ontario-based judge explains: "If the allegations of abuse are determined to have been unfounded, then the raising of these allegations by the accuser parent are in themselves the ultimate abuse by that parent against the child."

The study's release trails a recent joint parliamentary committee report that called for "shared parenting" rights in cases of separation or divorce. Recommendations from that committee dealt specifically with custody and access issues, and the need to tackle the issue of perjury in custody hearings. Supporting legislation was effectively delayed when Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, launched a new round of public consultations scheduled to span over the next three years.

Father's rights groups and opposition politicians claimed the delay was born out of the need to avoid annoying a powerful feminist lobby before the next federal election.

A spokesperson for Ms. McLellan said the three years was only an estimate and that independent research like this could help speed consultations along.

But MP Roger Gallaway, who co-chaired the joint committee report as it travelled across the country taking submissions on the pain caused by family breakup, said three years is too long to wait. "We know that there are tens of thousands of children who are into the maelstrom of divorcing parents each and every year. If it's three years it's 150,000 children and tens of thousands of parents who are in this totally insane system.

While welcoming the report's findings, he added: "This is not a question of needing more research, this is a question of directing a system."

Recommendations within the Queen's University report include provisions for the proper assessment of potential bias on the part of the accuser in custody cases, and adequate representation both for the alleged abuser and the child. Prof. Bala warned against moving too quickly, insisting that more research and education is needed for those who work within the system. "I worry about politicians sometimes proposing simplistic legislative solutions to complex problems. If you have a real problem then you have to have a real solution and just passing a law won't do it."

Greg Kershaw, spokesman for Fathers Are Capable Too, is critical of the current system which allows for false allegations because of limited repercussions.

But the tragic reality, insisted Prof. Bala, is the number of allegations that do prove true. While 30% may have been either unsubstantiated or deliberately false, 70% of the cases were considered by the civil courts to warrant needing protective measures to be taken in favour of the child's safety.

But for "someone who's going through this, and it's a false accusation, it pretty much destroys their lives," Mr. Kershaw said.

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