Sunday, December 13, 1998
Put children first
Sometimes the quietest political developments have the greatest impact.
Last week on Parliament Hill, with little drama, a committee that has laboured for the past yearto reconcile the competing claims of divorced parents on their children, presented a sane, balanced report.
For those who measure the importance of events by their decibel level or headline value, the report was a disappointment.
The fathers who had poured out their anger and frustration at being shut out of their children's lives, admitted that the committee's recommendations were a step in the right direction. The mothers who had warned that their children would be in danger, if they handed them over to an abusive father, acknowledged that the 23 MPs and senators had taken into account their concerns.
Neither side was completely happy. But the raw anger that gave birth to the committee almost two years ago, was gone.
The key to its success was that it followed a simple principle: The rights of the children come first.
Neither side could object to this. Even antagonistic former spouses, fighting bitterly over child custody and access, claim to have the children's interest at heart.
The committee converted this sentiment into a set of practical recommendations:
- The legal terms child custody and access, which appear to give one parent primacy, would be replaced with the concept of "shared parenting." which puts both on an equal footing.
- Before divorcing, spouses with children would be expected to work out a parenting plan, outlining how much time the child would spend with each, and how disputes would be settled.
- Parents who could not work out their differences amicably would be required to take a course on the effects of family breakup on children.
- Both parents would have automatic access to their children's medical and school records.
None of these proposals is revolutionary, but they do shift the focus of divorce from the partners seeking to sever their relationship to the children who don't deserve to lose either of theirs.
No legal framework can protect children from the pain of a broken marriage. But the committee has made a commendable effort to push their well-being to the forefront.
After the anguish and vitriol of the hearings, the release of the report was uneventful; an anticlimax for those with scores to settle, but a relief for those seeking help.