Toronto Star

Monday, March 3, 1997

Split Decisions

Divorcing parents can get hurt but often it's the child who pays the biggest price in bitter custody disputes

By Robin Harvey
Staff Reporter

Terry hasn't seen his 8-year-old daughter's face in 2-1/2 years.

The North York man says he was granted visits with her after he and his ex split up. But after a six-year bitter custody dispute, he has been told his daughter no longer wants to see him.

"My mother cries herself to sleep at night," Terry says. "I'm just a wreck."

One of the most hurtful things, he says, is that his ex has refused to give him even a picture of her.

Elizabeth is in a similar situation. She has not seen her two daughters in more than a year.

When the Willowdale woman and her ex first split up, she had custody of the girls and their father had frequent access, she says.

However, after a few years of what Elizabeth calls "coercion and brainwashing" by their father, the girls said they wanted to try to live with him. Almost a year after that, her access visits were abruptly cancelled. Finally, the father said the girls did not want to see their mom or even talk to her on the phone.

"I'm just beartbroken," she says through her tears. "I write to them, but I don't know if they get the letters."

In the cases discussed here, names and some details have been altered to protect the children's privacy.

Though extreme, these, cases are not atypical of the scores of' bitter custody disputes windint their way through Canadian courts. Often each side becomes polarized in a damaging power struggle. Allegation of child neglect and abuse, as well as substance abuse, may be hurled by parents desparate to "win" their children.

Experts estimate that 10 to 25 per cent of divorces end up with high-conflict custody disputes. That translates into anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000 Canadian children affected in 1994, according to estimates based on the latest StatsCan figures and birth rates.

"What the system doesn't recognize is that these people have to live with each after the fact," says Toronto laweyer Murray Maltz.

"Everything gets distorted, through this adversarial system, into a father who is irresponsible or a mother who is incapable. But life is not static. The child gets older and there is nothing to repair or restore the hurt relationships left over.

"I feel so sorry for the children." Hanna McDonough is the chief social worker at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry's Family Court Clinic and has worked with scores of parents in high-conflict custody cases.

Drawing a child into the parents conflict is most damaging, she says. Often, divorced parents use the child as a mediator or a go-between or, worse, try to turn the child against the other parent.

"This is what creates long-term mental health problems for children and damages relations with both the parents," she says.

It takes a self-aware, mature person to separate his or her own grief and guilt associated with the divorce from the children's emotuonal needs, McDonough says.

She notes it is conflict that damages children, whether in marriage, or divorce, and that a divorce that does not draw the children into the conflict can be better than a marriage that does.

In the new book The Divorce Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, $33.50), author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead details the damage divorce wreaks on children's relationships with both parents, as well as their lives in general.

Divorce brings many risks and losses for children, including "loss of income, loss of ties with father, loss of residential stability and ... social resources," Whitehead writes.

It has been implicated as an important risk factor for school drop-out rates, problem behaviors, lower education and job achievements, and an increased likelihood of teen parenthood, she writes.

Some studies have found 40 per cent of children living with divorced-mothers live in poverty, according to Whitehead.

Susan knows the financial struggle of the single mom all too well.

The Scarborough woman, who separated from her husband six years ago, would desperately welcome her children's father into their lives. She has received little child support since the separation and her children's standard of living has really dropped.

Susan says her husband has started a new family and he hasn't seen the children in more than three years. The holidays are the hardest, when she has to try to answer her teenagers' questions about why their father, who lives in the same city, doesn't come around.

Some studies have found that 40 to 50 per cent of children whose parents have divorced no longer see their father. The most frequent reason fathers cite for fading from their children's lives is interference by the mother, according to one'survey.

Toronto social worker Deena Mandeli, who works with divorced families, says her research has shown that many non-custodial fathers feel reduced to non-parents who are just billpayers.

"There are a lot of factors that push fathers out," she says.

However much a father may profess to want an equal role in his children's lives, in our society, fathers are often still not socialized for this, she says. The result can be that when a couple separates, the father drifts away.

Mandell says access and visitation schedules aren't always flexible enough to allow relationships with both parents to continue to grow.

But there are also fathers who become better, more involved dads after a divorce, she says. This can be threatening to the mom who, before that, was the chief child-rearer.

"Some women have a hard time accepting that because a guy was a lousy husband it doesn't mean he is a lousy father," she says.

There are also men who view their kids as part of a power struggle, she says, and may walk away in spite if they don't get their own way.

In many cases, once custody arrangements are made, keeping them going is difficult, experts say. In the long term, relationships can suffer.

Mike and his wife have been separated and now divorced for almost 10 years. His job involves a great deal of travel, Mike says, so there was no question about his daughter and son living with their mom.

The repercussions of divorce can last years.

The Toronto man feels the lingering bitterness between him and his ex-wife and the fact that he is a part-time parent have created a wide distance between him and his son.

Alice feels distant, too.

She is a professional and her ex is self-employed, so when they separated, the kids stayed with him because he could, ostensibly, be home more. She sees her children every other weekend and one night during the week.

"I feel I've lost touch with them and I'm not as close to them emotionaly." Alice says. "I feel I always have to be like a fairy godmother."

The repercussions and sense of loss after divorce can last years, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Lawyer Maltz urges all clients to get counselling and consider a mediator to work out custody issues.

"The court system doesn't deal with the emotions or the psychology of people who are going through this very difficult time," Maltz says.

He'd also like to see the court hold case conferences before a case even gets to pre-trial, to "hash out the issues and try to settle things down before the accusations and affidavits .. before they start to take cheap shots ... and drag the kids in."

In most cases, Toronto lawyer Mary Anne Shaw strongly urges couples to get a custody assessment by a qualified professional before going to court, with the hopes of settling out of court.

Most judges these days will order an assessment in custody disputes and unless the results are very unusual, will follow the assessor's advice. A good assessment will provide for periodic review, every so many years, to allow for relationships to grow and change, Shaw says.

Social worker Mslndell says the real way to address the problems arising among families after divorce is to look at the problems in modern marriages.

"Women and men still play very different roles in all but the most exceptional cases and when divorce happens, all these inequities are exaggerated and cause trouble," she says.