Ottawa Citizen
Monday March 27, 2000

Father's suicide fuels battle over Divorce Act

Man ordered to pay ex-wife amount twice his monthly income

Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen


The Prince George Citizen / Darrin White, 34, was ordered in B.C. Supreme Court last month to pay $2,071 a month to support his ex-wife and three children. The man, who was netting less than $1,000 a month at the time, killed himself a month later.

The suicide of a young British Columbia father has brought renewed calls for the reform of the decades-old federal Divorce Act and the elimination of an anti-male bias that critics say is rife in the family court system.

Darrin White, a 34-year-old father of four from Prince George, B.C., hanged himself earlier this month after being ordered to make family support payments that amounted to twice his monthly income. His body was found in woods near the University of Northern British Columbia after he disappeared on March 12.

"Darrin White's death is an absolute tragedy, but entirely foreseeable," said Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, who co-chaired a high-profile Senate-House of Commons committee into custody and access two years ago. The committee's report, For the Sake of the Children, recommended many radical changes to the federal Divorce Act, including a new concept called shared parenting, which would automatically give both divorcing parents equal legal rights in the raising of their children.

"Family court judges across this country are being unrealistic," said Mr. Gallaway, who is urging the federal government to implement his committee's report. "Darrin White is the most public example yet, but I know of two other men in similar circumstances who have killed themselves."

Mr. White's four children are aged five, nine, 10 and 14. His estranged wife, Madeleine, 33, left the family home on Jan. 18 with the couple's three children. (Mr. White's eldest child lives with his first wife). Police charged Mr. White with wife assault on the same day. He denied the charge.

Madeleine White, who, according to court documents, is a qualified and certified railroad locomotive engineer, was granted exclusive occupancy of the house by a junior B.C. Supreme Court judge, who also ordered Mr. White to pay $1,071 in monthly child support and $1,000 in alimony. The first $2,071 was due immediately.

The judge said it was unreasonable to expect Mrs. White to return to work, but did not state why.

Mr. White, who had the same job qualifications as his wife, was on stress leave from work and was netting less than $1,000 a month when ordered to make the payments.

Liberal Senator Anne Cools, the most vocal advocate on Parliament Hill for changes to the Divorce Act, says Justice Minister Anne McLellan is deliberately ignoring the recommendations that were tabled more than a year ago.

"Divorce was never intended to force fathers out of a child's life," said Ms. Cools. "Mr. White's death touches us all. It's a terrible injustice of a young man saddled with a greater emotional burden than he could bear. It's heartbreaking, but like so many men in this situation, he had no voice, no outlet and no representation."

"Some fathers in Canada," she added, "are being exposed to heartless, merciless systematic humiliation."

According to Health Canada statistics, suicide in younger men has risen dramatically over the past 40 years, but there has been little if any research to find out why. About 80 per cent of suicides in Canada each year are male.

Jeffrey Asher, a specialist in suicide at Dawson College in Montreal, says the increase in suicide corresponds with social change, including the rise of feminism and easier access to divorce.

"The psychological impact of divorce is greater on men," said Mr. Asher, "because in most cases, women get custody of the children. They get the house and its contents and receive a steady income from the former husband. Men typically get nothing except the myth of shared custody, which invariably means visiting with the children once every two weeks. They are fathers in name, but not fathers in function."

Mr. Asher says family law and courts are routinely locking fathers out of the lives of their children.

"Courts have decided that fathers are dispensable and replaceable," he added. "And it's created huge problems for their children: Bad marks in school, run-ins with police, poor career prospects and teenage pregnancy."

The justice minister angered many advocates of divorce law change when she responded to the joint committee report last May and said it would take three years to examine the recommendations.

Her spokesman, Stephen Bindman, denies the government is ignoring the issue and said a series of extensive reports is due to be completed within the next few weeks.

"There's a lot of work under way," he said, "but there are no quick fixes. The federal government can't work alone on this."

Much of the matter falls under provincial jurisdiction.

Ms. McLellan says the government is committed to reform and, last month, disbursed $29 million to the provinces and territories to spend on the family law system.

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen