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Thursday, September 02, 1999Study finds bias against men in custody cases
Breastfeeding a factor
Women are far more likely to win custody of children in divorce cases because of biased judges and social factors such as breastfeeding, a new study concludes.
The study, by two University of Alberta researchers, examined divorce data from Statistics Canada and the Department of Justice. It concluded that judges award women custody of children six times more often than men, even though divorce legislation has become more gender neutral.
The study, published in a recent edition of the Canadian Journal of Law and Society, examined why the bias occurs and looked at a variety of factors, including attitudes about breast-feeding.
"Sometimes judges have this idea that a woman has breasts and so therefore she's more suited to parent the child," said Paul Millar, who co-wrote the study.
"A lot of fathers will go into court, and the judge will actually say to them, 'Did you breast-feed your child?' ... Just because you don't breast-feed your child, it's taken against you. And if a woman doesn't breast-feed her child it doesn't affect the outcome."
Mr. Millar, who is vice-president of the Calgary-based Men's Educational Support Association, said the research also reviewed perceptions of men and women as parents. He said the education of judges appears to be the biggest factor in the court bias against men.
"Back in 1986, we started to teach judges that they were being unfair to women in family court," he said, pointing out that seminars for judges focus on how the legal system is unfair to women.
The study examined data on 1,310 divorces collected by the Department of Justice for a study it did in 1990. It also reviewed data on custody decisions collected by Statistics Canada from the central divorce registry of the justice department.
The study's conclusions drew sharp criticism.
"He's out to lunch," Kripa Sehar, a vice-president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said yesterday when told about the study. "Would men be prepared to take on breast-feeding?"
Ms. Sehar said she hadn't seen the study but added that other research has consistently shown that the court system is biased against women. "The whole process from start to finish is unfair.''
Carole Curtis, a Toronto family lawyer, agreed and called the study's results "laughable."
Many studies "point out gender bias in the system at large against women," she said yesterday. "Not just in family law but in the way women witnesses are treated, the way women judges are treated, the way women lawyers are treated and the myths about women."
Ms. Curtis said most custodial orders simply reflect the pre-divorce arrangement. And, when men do seek custody in court, she added, they often win because they usually have more resources.
Gus Sleiman, president of the Men's Educational Support Association, said the recent study at least presents a different focus and its conclusions merit further review. Studies by the government and other agencies "are not always showing us the truth," he said.
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