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Thursday, January 06, 2000

Penalty equality
National Post

The leniency of modern lawmakers has turned much of our criminal justice system into an Oprah Winfrey-style therapy group. But every pressure group has one type of villain to whom it will show no mercy. To feminists, it is anyone accused of rape or domestic violence; to civil rights groups, it is the alleged perpetrator of a "hatecrime"; and to social liberals, who value divorce and the family about equally, it is deadbeat dads.

In many Canadian provinces, fathers who fall behind on their payments are banned from renewing their driving licences. Government-run, divorce-collections agencies garnish their wages. But the latest weapon on the war against delinquent dads is found in conservative Virginia. Police lock pink and blue "Denver boot" tire clamps on vehicles belonging to these men, and plant a sticker on their cars advertising the nature of their offences.

If only such ingenuity could be deployed against violent criminals. If only such public humiliation were acceptable as a shaming device against young offenders -- whose identity cannot be revealed, let alone derided.

Of course, fathers have a real duty to support their children, the true victims of a divorce. And mechanisms to ensure that are justified. But fathers have an equal right to visit their children, whom the courts have placed in the custody of their former wives. And while the state has built a huge, punitive bureaucracy to ensure that fathers live up to their end of the divorce bargain -- namely, regular and prompt support payments -- no such enforcement ensures that mothers live up to their end of the deal -- fair and generous access to the children.

As long as politicians target deadbeat dads, ignoring the common denial of access rights to fathers, this fashionable sexism will continue. What Parliament and the courts must do is right the imbalance in the law -- by giving fathers who pay their bills the access they deserve and by instituting penalties to compel their former wives to respect it.

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