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Thursday, March 23, 2000Anti-male bias in family courts blamed for man's suicide
Couldn't afford support payments, backers say
A Prince George, B.C., man killed himself after being ordered to make family support payments that amounted to twice his income, a death some are blaming on a family-court bias against men.
Last week, the RCMP recovered the body of 34-year-old Darrin White. Listed as a missing person since March 12, Mr. White hanged himself in woods near the University of Northern British Columbia campus.
The father of four children, aged 5, 9, 10 and 14, he was involved in a custody battle with his estranged wife, Madeleine White.
"Darrin didn't have a chance," says Peter Ostrowski, an activist with the Parent-Child Advocacy Coalition (PCAC), which tried to assist him. "He was thrown out of his house on two days' notice with nowhere to live. He was expected to pay a lawyer a $5,000 retainer and appear in court repeatedly. Meanwhile, he was supposed to be working night-shift driving 800-ton trains loaded with iron ore."
Legal documents show Mrs. White, 33, left the family home on Jan.18, taking the couple's three children with her. (Mr. White's eldest child lives with her mother, Melodi Johnston, in Weyburn, Sask.) On the same day, police charged Mr. White -- who denied any wrongdoing -- with wife assault.
In response to a restraining order issued against him, Mr. White wrote on a court form: "I believe we can work out our problems through a marriage counsellor or any other way Madeleine chooses. I love my family and I love my wife both very much ... My children need their dad and I need them."
On Feb. 21, Mr. White was given less than 48 hours to vacate the matrimonial home after Master Douglas Baker, a junior judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, awarded Mrs. White exclusive occupancy.
On March 1, Master Baker issued a 14-page written decision ordering Mr. White to pay $1,071 a month in child support plus $1,000 a month in alimony -- with the first payment of $2,071 due immediately.
Although the order acknowledges that the Whites were both "qualified and certified railroad locomotive engineers," it concludes, without explaining why: "It is not reasonable at this time to expect" Mrs. White, a full-time homemaker since 1995, to return to railway work "in the immediately foreseeable future."
Mr. White had recently taken stress leave from his job but, because of time constraints, was unable to supply the court with documents proving he would be receiving only $400 a week in gross income (or about $950 net a month) while off the job.
The court order reads: "I must conclude that the current interruption to the defendant's income stream is temporary and of short duration ... I attribute to the defendant an annual income for [child support] guideline purposes of $60,300."
Mr. White had already been paying informal child support to Ms. Johnston for his oldest daughter. When his marriage broke down this year, he appears to have been concerned about whether this daughter would continue to receive a fair share. In February, he signed a contract with Ms. Johnston obliging him to pay $439 a month.
"Darrin and I never spent one day in a courtroom," says Ms. Johnston. "We were always able to work things out between us."
Master Baker was unimpressed. "I seriously question that the payments in respect of [the daughter] are actually being made and conclude that the agreement ... is an agreement purely of convenience," reads his decision.
Two weeks before Mr. White killed himself, a doctor signed an insurance form indicating he was suffering from divorce-related depression, cognitive impairment and an inability to concentrate. Mr. White was not fit, said the doctor, to work on even a part-time basis.
"Darrin had no problem with the child support," says Mr. Ostrowski.
"What put the rope around his neck was the $1,000 spousal support he was ordered to pay for his estranged wife who is exactly qualified in the same job and had no reason she couldn't go back to work."
Activists in Montreal, Regina and Toronto say divorce-related suicides by men treated harshly by the courts are all too common.
The Alberta-based Men's Educational Support Association devotes a page on its Web site (www.mesacanada.com) to nearly two dozen men, including many British citizens, who have taken their own lives in such circumstances.
It also reports on Brian Armstrong, an unemployed New Hampshire welder who lived with his parents before being jailed in connection with child support arrears. After allegedly being beaten by guards, Mr. Armstrong lapsed into a coma and died this year.
Todd Eckert, who as president of PCAC also tried to help Mr. White, wants to know when divorced fathers are going to be treated with some more compassion.
"How many more fathers have to die? Here's four kids now that will never see their father again."
Adds Ms. Johnston, "Darrin was a kind and decent man. Our daughter and myself will miss him very much."
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