Toronto Star

Friday, January 29, 1999

Parents can't `divorce' stepkids

Ruling forces man to support ex-wife's child

By Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - Canada's top court says parents can cut their legal ties to each other, but not to their children or their stepchildren.

In a strongly-worded judgment that echoes much of a controversial parliamentary committee report's sentiments about divorce, the Supreme Court of Canada released its reasons yesterday for ordering a Manitoba father to pay child support for his stepdaughter.

``Once a person is found to stand in the place of a parent, that relationship cannot be unilaterally withdrawn by the adult,'' wrote Justice Michel Bastarache for the seven-member panel.

The court reversed rulings by the lower courts and ordered Gerald Joseph Chartier to make interim monthly support payments of $200 for Jessica Chartier right after it heard arguments in November.

`Spouses are entitled to divorce each other, but not the children who were part of the marriage.'
- Justice Michel Bastarache

Jessica was Chartier's stepchild in his marriage to her mother Sharon. Although he never adopted her, he acted as her father and even changed her birth certificate to falsely indicate he was.

Chartier and his wife had another child together, for whom he agreed to pay support after the split. But he wanted to renounce his ties to Jessica, and refused to pay for her.

In its written reasons, the court adamantly reinforced the thrust of the Divorce Act, now under review by Parliament, that divorce should affect children as little as possible.

It stated flatly that the lower courts were ``wrong'' not to have considered a number of factors in determining whether the stepfather was standing ``in the place of a parent.'' Once that role is established, anyone who takes it on has just as much obligation to stepchildren as to children.

``Spouses are entitled to divorce each other, but not the children who were part of the marriage.''

Jessica, the court said, saw the man who married her mother as ``her father in every way.''

``He was the only father she knew. To allow him to withdraw from that relationship . . . is unacceptable.''

Chartier married Jessica's mother in 1991 after a two-year common-law relationship.

The couple permanently separated in 1992.

Bastarache said Jessica was as much a part of the family unit as her half-sister Jeena.

The court said any parent in such a situation not only has obligations, but also the right to apply for custody or access.

Bastarache dismissed the argument that a child might collect support from both a biological and a step-parent, saying all parents have obligations and their contributions should be assessed independently.

The ruling sets an important ground-rule, but it doesn't prejudge that every adult-child relationship will be one where the adult stands in the place of a parent.

The court says each case would have to be decided on its own facts.

In a report tabled last month, a Senate-Commons committee made 48 recommendations suggesting not only legal changes, but also a cultural shift in how adults must share the impact of divorce on children.

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