Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday 25 April 2000

Hysteria hijacks custody cases

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

There was something familiar in the struggle to reunite six-year-old Elian Gonzalez with his father, and it wasn't surprising that authorities had to resort to an armed intervention to push back the boy's well-intentioned protectors.

When a group makes a decision to act in what it considers the best interests of a child, the issue can easily become driven by hysteria. In April last year, a judge in an Ottawa courtroom tried to explain that to an Ottawa couple who lost four children to adoption. Child protectors, in their zeal to do what they believed was right, had gone over the top.

In the Gonzalez case, the boy's protectors in Miami had their own ideas about what was in his best interests. They were willing to defy the power of the United States government to defend their idea of what was right. When the government said the boy belonged with his father, unpleasant stories about the father appeared. He was a dangerous and abusive man who didn't really love his son.

There were stories about the boy's survival at sea being an act of God. A miracle. He was saved by dolphins sent to keep him afloat until help arrived. The closer the boy's protectors came to losing their case, the more frantic were the accusations and stories. The protectors became dangerous and armed force was deemed necessary.

The players in the Gonzalez case were out in the open. There were stories and photos daily. If the case could have been smothered in secrecy, the outcome would likely have been the reverse. A government doesn't get involved in a child custody issue unless it has to. Daily exposure and public outcry forced a government to act.

In the Ottawa case, family law restrictions made it impossible to identify the players. The couple fought their way through seven years of court wrangling and 47 judges before Judge Robert Fournier ruled they were, from the start, good people and good parents.

The information fed to other courts that the father was a drug dealer, armed to the teeth and a child sex abuser, was discounted. So were the opinions from what the judge called "so-called experts" that the mother was a prostitute and a drug addict.

Family courts accept evidence criminal courts won't touch. A child protection worker's hunches or feelings or suspicions get written into the record. Put enough of them in front of enough judges, and you have an overwhelming body of evidence. When it goes on long enough, it isn't about child protection. It isn't about justice. It's about winning.

The parents forced the issue by having twins, and challenging authorities to do something they hadn't when the first four children were taken into custody. Go into their home and check things out. Case workers who did that reported back to protection headquarters there was no problem. And while they were doing that, headquarters was beavering away completing adoption processes on the first four children.

By the time Judge Fournier ruled they could keep their twins, the other children had been through the adoption process that has no reverse. "C'est la vie," said the judge.

The parents weren't without blame, he said. The father's bombastic nature, his loud cries of innocence and his constant sending of faxes could appear to have a doth-protest-too-much ring. He must be guilty of something, would be a caseworker's attitude, said the judge. As for the mother, a body-builder who likes to show off the finished product by wearing tight clothing, she, too, was giving a wrong impression.

There can be no greater abuse than keeping a child from its parents, says this couple. Such a step should never be taken, even temporarily, without some kind of proof, or at least an investigation. If it does happen, even once, government should step in. The U.S. government did that. In Ottawa, a couple made invisible by law, continues to call for a public inquiry.

The evidence against them has been officially declared false, but it's still there. He recently sent one of his angry fax messages to a prosecutor in the U.S. where one of his children is. The result was a restraining order, properly signed by a Michigan judge, faxed back.

It says he is known to be dangerous and is to go nowhere near that attorney, because he is a drug dealer and armed to the teeth.

The order explains that information came from "Canadian authorities."

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. His e-mail address is dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca .

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen