Vancouver Province

Friday 24 March 2000

Dads risk suicide in custody fights

Clare Ogilvie, Staff Reporter, The Province

Colin Price, The Province / Judicial discretion is narrowed by Ottawa's financial guidelines, introduced in 1998, says retired justice Lloyd McKenzie, spokesman for the B.C. Supreme Court.

(Darrin) White

Fathers fighting for custody of their kids often consider suicide when times are tough.

"Seventy per cent of the fathers I talk to seriously think of suicide," said Paul Hidlebaugh, who used to run an advocacy group for children in custody battles and is an advocate of fathers' rights.

The Chilliwack father was saddened but not surprised by the suicide of Darrin White.

White, of Prince George, was in a difficult custody and divorce case and was facing a spousal assault charge when he hanged himself this month.

Hidlebaugh said fathers feel the justice system is unfairly biased toward women, making it almost impossible for men to get fair access to children or to pay reasonable support.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the difficulty fathers have in getting joint custody, which is available only if both sides agree.

"Lawyers tell their female clients not to agree to joint custody because it can limit the amount of support they can get from the father," said Hidlebaugh.

Since guidelines were introduced in May 1998, support for children has been based on the gross income of the payer, generally the father.

"That's ludicrous," said Hidlebaugh, who was left with only $500 a month for rent and expenses by court order.

Jeffrey Asher, a professor at Dawson College in Montreal and an expert on men and suicides, believes the stress of separation and divorce is just too much for some men.

"This is a grim decision. When fathers lose their function as fathers, or are replaced by the new partner, the devastating loss deprives some of them of all hope for the future."

The suicide rate for divorced dads is twice that of divorced moms.

Frightening facts like this prompted the federal government to overhaul the Divorce Act and change income tax laws in 1997.

Said retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lloyd McKenzie, now a spokesman for the court: "The guidelines are an effort by the federal government to simplify things . . . but it is not easy stuff by a long shot.

"The most difficult part of the judge's job in this type of case is to decide on issues of credibility because the judge hears different versions of the facts and the judge must decide where the truth lies."

In the Prince George case, White's supporters say a court order to pay support totalling more than twice his earnings drove him to suicide.

But, said McKenzie, the judge could only use the guidelines and go on the evidence, which showed that White's average annual earnings were $60,000. The low income at the time of the case was due to a stress leave expected to last only a few weeks, the judge found.

Said McKenzie: "While there is always room for discretion the amount of judicial discretion is narrowed by the guidelines."