Ottawa Citizen
Saturday 1 April 2000

Suicide may speed divorce reform

Mark Baker
The Ottawa Citizen

I read the disturbing article about Darrin White ("Father's suicide fuels battle over Divorce Act," March 27) and it has rekindled my own frustration with the Divorce Act and Justice Minister Anne McLellan's department. While I have no knowledge of Mr. White's abilities as a parent, I feel that generally the value of men as parents is undermined by the justice system and often by the media.

Consider the fact that, until recently, our social system has designated the mother as the only parent to receive government support to care for infant children. Perhaps this has been a contributing factor to the prevailing wisdom that the mother should have a dominant role in raising children.

Biological differences aside, I can see no reason to assume that either gender has any innate superiority in terms of parenting and recent changes to government infant care programs support this view. There may be differences in style or approach but any judgment on value is unfounded.

The approach of the justice department has been to attempt to "objectify" the settlement process; decisions most often centre on financial concerns rather than the enrichment of the affected children's lives.

My feeling is that despite each of our frailties, the best situation for the children is equal time with each parent.

In addition, parents should control the spending on child-related expenses in proportion to the time children are in their care.

While there are many individuals who shape the development of a child -- and in some circumstances the most influential person may not even be a blood relative -- the best the legal system can come up with is to accept that both parents should share an equal role in parenting and a proportionate financial responsibility.

The approach and priorities of each parent will differ. My belief is that these differences enrich our children's lives and, with the influence of others, further enrichment can be provided.

It is also my opinion that, after a marital breakdown, part of our obligation as parents is to take responsibility for negotiating a parenting arrangement that best serves the family. Parents should not abdicate their responsibilities to the court system for the resolution of differences.

The judicial system is a crude tool to settle such sensitive issues. We must encourage an increase in shared-custody agreements for the benefit of our children and simplify the process for determining out-of court-settlements by giving a clear direction of what is fair and reasonable in the Child Support Guidelines.

The current legislation and its lame handling of shared custody is a hindrance rather than a help in encouraging out-of-court and made-in-the family agreements.

I wrote to Anne McLellan in April 1998 outlining the flaws in the guidelines with respect to shared custody, as well as other deficiencies with the legislation.

The letter proposed that adding a single statement would add sufficient clarity to the legislation to simplify the process of constructing an out-of-court agreement for shared custody situations and increase consistency in court-ordered settlements.

The ambiguous wording of the direction for assigning support payments in shared-custody situations often leads to court-imposed settlements that assign a disproportionate amount of child-related spending funds to the lower income parent. Depending on the disparity in the parents' incomes, the overpayments can be substantial, penalizing the payer and the children while in that household.

Ms. McLellan offered to have her department consider my proposed amendments. She also pointed out that the "flexibility" of the guidelines allowed a particular judge to interpret the guidelines as I had suggested.

However, the guidelines should direct parents and the judiciary to an understanding of what is fair and reasonable.

It is an expensive and hurtful cop-out to leave struggling parents to use the court system as a tool to make this determination. And it is shameful of the justice department to duck the tough issues behind some screen of the need for more study.

Based on the minister's schedule, amendments are to be considered for review in May 2002. Clearly Mr. White was unable to wait.

Perhaps this sad event will accelerate action within the justice department that leads to a system that is just for all.

Mark Baker,

Kanata

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen