Vancouver Sun

Thursday 23 March 2000

Family blames justice system for pushing man to suicide

Darrin White's brother-in-law cites court-ordered support payments that far exceeded his income.

Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun

Lloyd McKenzie, a former B.C. Supreme Court judge

DARRIN WHITE: Took his own life after a court battle.

The family of a Prince George man who committed suicide is blaming the judicial system for his death.

Family members say Darrin White hanged himself because he couldn't stand the pressures placed on him by what they characterize as an unsympathetic court that systematically stripped him of his family responsibilities and saddled him with unbearable costs.

"The court system didn't listen to him. It failed him. He gave up, and no one wins. Not the kids, who now don't have a father, not the ex-wife, not the court," White's brother-in-law Murray Empey said Wednesday. "The court system bullied him to his death."

On March 1, B.C. Supreme Court Master Doug Baker ruled that White, who was on temporary stress leave from his job as a BC Rail locomotive engineer, was capable of paying $2,071 in spousal and child support for his ex-wife and three children, even though White was on disability at the time and was only getting $950 per month.

In addition, Baker disregarded another $439 per month White said he was paying to support a 14-year-old daughter from a previous union.

The amounts would have eaten up almost all of White's after-tax income even had he been working and not on disability, Empey said.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the numbers didn't add up. But that didn't seem to matter to the judge. How is it that he could make an order like that when the money wasn't there in the first place?"

But it was more than just the money that drove White over the edge, Empey said in an interview shortly before he and White's father Les returned to Brandon, Man., to bury White.

White was so traumatized by the court system that he no longer felt he had any rights, even though he loved his children and wanted to be a part of their lives, Empey said.

"I think Darrin was in a state of mind where he was beat up by the courts and he just gave up," he said. "We talked to Darrin every day, sometimes twice a day, from Brandon, and no one ever thought he would do this. What really forced him was the fact he was fighting for visitation rights, fighting for any kind of rights, and trying to be a good father, and not being allowed to be that."

White's bitter court battles were marked by charges of spousal assault, restraining orders against both him and his ex-wife, and a restriction on his visitation rights.

In a court document in which White sought a variance on a restraining order, he wrote about the importance he placed on his role as a father.

"My children need their dad and I need them," he wrote.

"I cannot tell my children I love them even though I am sure they know it. They need to hear this as often as possible," he wrote in the document, dated last month.

In his reasons, Baker acknowledged White was under stress, in part because he was involved in several court actions involving his ex-wife. One of those involved an allegation of spousal abuse. But he said he didn't believe White was supporting his first child, and felt the man could go back to his job as a locomotive engineer within weeks.

Lloyd McKenzie, a former B.C. Supreme Court judge who speaks on behalf of the court, said the White case is no different than any of the thousands that go through the courts. In this case, the outcome of a marital breakup, which at the best of times is emotional, was doubly tragic, he said.

"There is nothing unusual about this judgment," McKenzie said. "These disputes go on every day. But you don't have this kind of human antagonism or emotion in any other kind of case. This man was obviously under a very great deal of stress."

McKenzie said the judge applied standardized guidelines for spousal and child support.

He said Baker would not give interviews to the media. "A judge talks to the world through his reasons of judgment. Master Baker doesn't have any personal interest, and he didn't have anything against the man."

White's death last week has become a rallying point for family-rights groups who say the 34-year-old couldn't withstand the stress of a family court system that "chews people up."

The Prince George Parent Child Advocacy Coalition is asking for a public inquiry into Baker's ruling and says White is only one example of a family maintenance support system gone awry. On Wednesday they held a protest outside the courthouse in Prince George.

"This is a hell of a problem across the country," said Todd Eckert, an advocate with PGPCA who represented White in court before Baker. "There were a number of contributing factors to this, but in the end, it came down to Darrin believing the system had failed him. And it did."

Eckert said White is an example of why federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan needs to rewrite family support laws to reflect a growing demand for joint parenting. He said the minister is sitting on a report that advocates rewriting legislation adopted three years ago that selectively favours custodial spouses.

White's 11-year marriage dissolved in January. His ex-wife, Madeleine, who is also trained as a locomotive engineer, was awarded custody of three children aged 10, 9 and 5, and was given the matrimonial house. White had restricted visitation rights. He had been accused of spousal assault, a charge Empey said his brother-in-law denied.

On March 12, family members called the police hours after he failed to show up for a scheduled visit with the children. Police later found a personal note to his father and children, and on March 17, discovered his body behind the home of a friend he had been staying with.

Darren Lindsay, Madeleine White's lawyer, said his client was in "very poor shape" over her ex-husband's suicide. He said there was no indication White was suicidal. The children have been told of their father's death.

Eckert said he understood White was extremely distressed because he was separated from his children.

Lindsay said his client was on welfare when she applied to the court for support. She and the children had left the matrimonial home and didn't have any money, he said.

Prince George coroner Suzanne Hare said she will be conducting an inquiry into White's death. A request for a full inquest has been received from the public but won't be ruled on until after the inquiry is complete, she said.