Toronto Star

Sunday, December 13, 1998

Child access report useless mish-mash

by Michele Landsberg

IT WAS just like a divorce mediation from hell. First, the uninformed and inexperienced mediator listened, with drooling empathy, to the lengthy tirades of the angry father. Then she turned to the mother and listened impatiently for two minutes, before badgering her for ``hard proof'' and ``evidence.'' Then, having shifted the ground so far to the right that it was almost off the map, she ``cut it down the middle'' to come up with a supposed compromise.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the Joint Committee on Custody and Access, one of the most extravagant and embarrassing wastes of public money in recent memory. One co-chair, Senator Landon Pearson, a respected child advocate, offered leadership so spineless it would have made a jellyfish blush, allowing women witnesses to be badgered and harassed by Senator Anne Cools. The other co-chair, Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, openly boasted to reporters of his bias toward fathers' rights activists.

The result is entirely predictable - a mish-mash of contradictory recommendations and ill-thought-out maunderings. Because the committee did no empirical research of its own, it failed to produce a consistent and clear statement of how the Divorce Act should be changed. In fact, good luck to Justice Minister Ann McLellan if she actually tries to bring some of these suggestions before Parliament. Embracing the report is like waltzing with an octopus: just when you think you've got a handle on the creature, another tentacle is snaking out to throttle you from behind.

`Women are the primary caregivers. Changing the language doesn't change the fact.
- Carole Curtis
National Association of Women and the Law

The committee's chief recommendation - that ``custody and access'' be replaced with ``shared parenting'' - sounds so very Canadianly nice. But what does it mean?

``Women are the primary caregivers,'' asserted National Association of Women and the Law spokesperson Carole Curtis in an interview. ``Changing the language doesn't change the fact that it's the mothers who will be arranging their entire lives around the care of the children, no matter what the parties claim in their so-called `parenting plans.' Believe me, when men talk about shared parenting, they don't mean they want to change diapers and clean up vomit.''

Divorcing couples who are sane, mature and child-focused enough to ``share'' parenting are already doing so, without benefit of expensive courtroom battles or hoked-up parenting plans.

``And then, of course, there is the horrible, screaming, battling tiny 3 or 5 per cent of divorced couples that can never agree about access or anything else,'' said Curtis. ``They're so dysfunctional that no justice system in the world can help them. Any government would be completely foolhardy to design an entire law around this minority.'' Yet the committee recommends that all divorcing couples, including those in bitter conflict, be forced into mediation and education sessions.

Luckily, Parliament is unlikely to leap into action on this report - and even if it did (what's the matter, gun control wasn't rancorous enough for you?) it would have a tough time figuring out just what the committee is saying.

Recommendation No. 39, for example, suggests penalties for anyone ``removing a child from a home'' except in an emergency. Does that mean that a woman fleeing to a battered women's shelter, without an immediate provable crisis, might be punished?

The committee's failure to take violence seriously is perhaps its most frightening lapse. It spent a ridiculous amount of time whiffling and waffling over its admittedly unproven ``anecdotal evidence'' of female violence. But when it got around to presenting facts in its report, the solid evidence of male violence was clear. Even the committee admits that data from Statistics Canada, police forces, domestic violence courts and women's shelters all bear out the unassailable fact that ``90 per cent of family violence is directed at women and children.''

Right. Just read the news.

How, then, can these highly paid public officials go on to make their recommendations about shared parenting without a single indication of concern about the violence to which women and children may be exposed?

Similarly, the committee saw not one shred of documented evidence that there is a problem of ``false accusations of abuse'' in divorce cases - in fact, it heard the opposite. Yet its recommendations dredge up the canard of ``false allegations'' while ignoring the much more prevalent and murderous reality of domestic violence.

In some places, the report is just a joke. It solemnly admonishes the courts to ignore ``the doctrine of tender years,'' an outmoded concept that fell into disuse more than 20 years ago. It urges the establishment of children's lawyers and public advocates, even though they have existed for decades.

After all this time and tirade, after all this public swanning by Senator Cools, we're left with one useless document and widespread toxic fallout of disinformation. The only consolation? Justice Minister McLellan would have to be politically suicidal to bring forward any laws based on this report. So far, there's no suggestion she wants to fall on her sword in such a spectacular way.