Toronto Sun

May 17, 1999

Dads denied justice - again

Toronto Sun

There were a lot of angry dads across the country last week, and I'm not talking about the abusive ones who can't accept that their ex-wives have left with the kids.

The dads I'm talking about are the majority of caring fathers who have faced a gender-biased court system that favours moms in custody, access and support payments in a divorce. There was hope for dads following cabinet approval of recommendations from the Senate-Commons committee on joint child custody and access, which, among other things, called for removing gender bias and entrenching the notion of shared parenting in the Divorce Act.

But in announcing last Tuesday how she would proceed with the recommendations, Justice Minister Anne McLellan chose to delay making changes till May 1, 2002 - conveniently after a federal election, expected in 2001.

When a new government, Liberal or otherwise, takes power, the work done to date will be irrelevant.

Dads have a right to be angry. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.

And there is no question that men have faced uphill battles in areas of child custody, access and support. I heard from several of them after last week's column endorsing the committee's recommendations for levelling the playing field.

Said one, "My ex moved 100 miles away so I was advised that my chances at joint custody were slim to none ... I supply the cheque and I get my daughter for visits. I have no real say in any decisions that affect her well-being."

Another dad wrote: "I have had a contempt motion against my ex-spouse since June 1996 and since then have done three assessments that all say I should see both my daughters. Since June '96 my eldest daughter has not been allowed by my ex to visit ... What does it take to get court orders upheld?"

Another man simply called the delay "a scam ... nothing is changing; only the lawyers and the divorce industry won. Our children will continue to suffer."

The minister's reasons for the delay? It reflects "the need for further research before proceeding with reforms that will have a major impact on children's lives" she stated in her strategy report. Furthermore, there is a "lack of public consensus both on what is wrong with the system and on how to fix it."

Well, failure to act quickly will also have a major impact on children's lives, and it goes against the minister's stated goal to "discourage the estrangement of parents from their children," and to "reinforce the principle that both parents should be involved in their children's lives unless it would not be in the child's best interest to do so."

Evidently, McLellan believes research translates into unanimity. Memo to the minister: the reason legislative changes are necessary is precisely because some divorcing moms and dads disagree on what's best for the children, and likely always will.

Case in point: Women's groups called for the Divorce Act to contain a presumption in favour of the primary caregiver of children (typically mom).

Men's groups, on the other hand, called for a presumption in favour of joint custody, with equal time and shared decision-making.

Case in point: Witnesses to the committee couldn't agree whether family violence is a "gender-based problem" (read: mostly by men against women and children), or even how to define it. So what? The only thing that matters in custody issues is whether violence is present, by either mother or father, either against each other or against their children. The recommendations accounted for violence, stating that shared parenting plans are acceptable "only when the safety of the person who has been the victim of violence is assured and where the risk of violence has passed." Enough said.

If women's groups want to be believed when they say they promote equality, they can't turn a blind eye to inequality when it benefits them. They should join forces with disenfranchised dads to lobby the justice minister to quit dithering and change the act.

Marianne Meed Ward, a freelance writer with an interest in social and ethical issues, appears Mondays. Her e-mail

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