Toronto Star

Monday, May 11, 1999

More study for child access law

Ottawa to study proposed changes to Divorce Act


OTTAWA -- Response to the government's proposed Divorce Act changes ranged from anger to applause yesterday.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan agreed to consider all but two of 48 recommendations made in December by the Senate-Commons committee on child custody and access. Ottawa pledged to study changes and report back to Parliament by May 1, 2002.

Groups representing children of divorce, fathers and grandparents said that's too long to wait for change.

Others said a reasoned, rational approach to a highly emotional issue will take time.

Liliane George, 65, is a grandmother who wants change sooner. She founded the Ottawa chapter of Grandparents Requesting Access 'N' Dignity (GRAND) 12 years ago when access to her son's daughter was cut off during a breakup.

"They already did studies for a year now. I don't know how much more studying they can do," she said.

"We're not getting any younger as grandparents. Some are dying without being able to see their grandchildren."

The committee spent a year hearing from more than 500 parents, children and other relatives affected by divorce along with various experts from across the country.

Its report recommended scrapping terms such as custody and access in favour of shared parenting, and making the system less combative and more focused on kids.

It also suggested greater emphasis on maintaining a child's relations with extended family members after a divorce.

More talks with the provinces and territories, which share family law jurisdiction, are needed before legal changes are made, McLellan said in the House.

That response is of little comfort to children caught up in painful custody battles, shot back Reform MP Jay Hill ~rince George-Peace River). "I~s going to take another three years -- a minimum of three years -- before this minister does anything more than talk." Bonnie Diamond, executive director for the National Association of Women and the Law, applauded McLellan's approach.

"We're very, very heartened that she's moved it away from an emotional debate to a rational discussion."

The Senate-Commons committee took a "cookie cutter" approach to its proposed solutions without doing adequate research, Diamond said.

McLellan wants to gather more data on spousal violence, the Criminal Code's power to discourage false allegations of abuse and other issues.

But Glenn Cheriton of FatherCraft Canada, an Ottawa resource group, isn't happy about Ottawa's approach.

"The federal government has been consulting with the provinces on these matters for 10 years," he said. Its latest plan could be derailed before 2002 by a federal election, he said.

Ron Profit, chairman of the national family law section for the Canadian Bar Association, said changes should not be made under pressure from interest groups.

One or two couples in 200 wind up in court over custody, and Canada's divorce law already puts the best interests of children first, he said.

Allegations of abuse -- false or otherwise -- are also extremely rare. "Although that's not to minimize the tragedy when it happens," Profit said.

Improvements are welcome but he doubts amendments to the Divorce Act will change anything for divided families.

"They're not going to stop those parents most intent on disagreeing from disputing what's best for their children."

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