Vancouver Sun

Friday 24 March 2000

Senator says conflict reforms might have saved father's life

Anne Cools says a committee identified ways of reducing divisive conflicts between parents.

Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun

A B.C. man who hanged himself last week might well be alive today if Justice Minister Anne McLellan had adopted reforms intended to reduce divisive conflicts between parents involved in bitter divorces, a Liberal senator said Thursday.

Senator Anne Cools said she doesn't know the personal background of 34-year-old Prince George locomotive engineer Darrin White but she believes the issues that drove him to suicide are those an all-party joint Senate and Commons committee identified in a report to McLellan more than a year ago.

"My reaction when I heard about Mr. White was that I was very pained and very saddened.

I thought, there goes another one.

There goes another father driven from his children by bad laws, bad administration of laws, driven out of his life by despondency because of a system that is flawed," Cools said in an interview from Ottawa.

White was apparently driven to kill himself in the wake of continuing access and support problems between himself and his ex-wife Madeleine over the care of their three children.

A B.C. Supreme Court master had recently ordered him to pay $2,071 in spousal and child support, even though he was on short-term disability and receiving only $950 per month.

Family members said he was despondent over being denied the ability to help raise his children, and that even if he had been working full-time, he would have been unable to make ends meet.

Cools said White has become a symbol of all that is wrong with divorce and child-support laws in Canada, and she accused McLellan of stalling on reforms recommended by the joint committee to introduce the legal concept of shared parenting and eliminate the kinds of scorched-earth fights that take place between warring parents.

Cools, who has proposed several private bills on family law reform, was a member of the joint committee.

Underpinning the more than 40 revisions to the 30-year-old Divorce Act contained in the report was the belief that mothers and fathers should have equal rights to be involved in the raising of their children, regardless of marital breakdown.

Only in extreme cases should sole custody be given, and the parents denying access should face penalties, it said.

The report received the support of both the Senate and the House of Commons, and McLellan announced in early 1999 that she had accepted the recommendations.

But she said she needed up to another three years to study them, something shared-parenting advocates say is unfair.

"The minister has done nothing about this," Cools said.

"She should give a good account of herself..

The minister is existing in a state of inertia."

Farah Mohamed, a spokes-women for McLellan, denied the minister is sitting on the report, noting she tabled a response in the House of Commons and has been examining the committee's recommendation.

She said McLellan felt it was inappropriate to comment on White's case, but she noted that the federal Family Child support guidelines brought in three years ago allow judges to use their discretion when deterring child support orders.

Mike Laberge, president of the Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society, said the proposed reforms would have given White and his ex-wife the tools with which to raise their family in a less-divisive atmosphere.

He said White's death is one catastrophic result of McLellan's inaction.

"It would have definitely been a different situation for him if this shared-parenting legislation had been in place," Laberge said.

"It would have had a positive effect for him, and for the lives of his children."

Laberge said Mclellan doesn't appear interested in adopting the reforms because they would upset an exiting system weighted against men, who by far make up the majority of support-paying spouses.

It is a historical fact, he said, that 94 per cent of support-paying spouses are men, and that the courts most often rule in favour of the mothers when considering custody.

That kind of situation leads to inevitable conflict, the "hostage-taking" of children by custodial parents, and the emasculation and bankrupting of non-custodial parents, he said.

"The situation that put White into a place of hopelessness is very common in family law.

Everything is associated with money.

Whoever has the kids has the money, the power, the access," Laberge said.

News of White's suicide touched a raw nerve with the public.

The Vancouver Sun was inundated with calls and e-mail messages from both custodial and non-custodial parents who complained the child custody and access laws have the effect of driving a wedge between parents and making it impossible for many to share joint child-rearing responsibilities.