St. Catharines Standard

Saturday, April 1, 2000

A father's lonely vigil

Robert Hochhalter hasn't seen daughter in 2 years, and he blames family court system

Standard Staff
St. Catharines Standard

Squinting into the early morning sun almost masked the tears welling up in the eyes of Robert Hochhalter.

As a cool spring breeze complemented a cloudless sky, Hochhalter maintained a vigil on Scott Street in St. Catharines Friday morning. But while there in body, quietly protesting outside MP Walt Lastewka's office, his heart was 4,400 kilometres away with a three-year-old girl he hasn't seen in two years.

"I have always wanted to he a part of my daughter's life," Hochhalter, 36, said.

Easier said than done. Three years ago, Hochhalter was working as a construction site supervisor in British Columbia when the market started to slow and the work dried up. He was able to land another construction job, not quite at the level he was used to, but it was work.

Then his young wife bundled up their three-month-old daughter and left him. Hochhalter went into a tailspin. He had problems fitting in at work. The market started to slow again. The stress of a pending divorce and a daughter he couldn't see reached a breaking point.

"I collapsed under the weight of it," Hochhalter said. "I quit work and just closed up shop."

He is facing what he feels is unfair treatment of non-custodial fathers in the Canadian court system.

Drowning in debt accumulated while married, living on welfare, still paying for his ex-wife's car and insurance and paying for his home, Hochhalter was barely getting by.

Then a B.C. court ordered alimony and child support. He is required to pay $200 a month, but with no money and no job, Hochhalter returned to his parents' home in St. Catharines in December 1998.

"I couldn't meet the expectations that were had of me," Hochhalter said. "What I could do is be a father in my daughter's life, but that was restricted." Hochhalter, joined by his father outside Lastewka's office, is hoping to give a local face to a national problem.

Carrying picket signs reading "Stop judicial persecution of divorced dads" and "Divorced dads are not disposable dads," the Hochhalters were raising a wareness of a man who found himself in a similar situation that ended much differently.

Darrin Bruce White; a 34-year-old father of four from Prince George B.C. was ordered by a B.C. court to make family support payments that amounted to twice his monthly income.

He is believed to have wandered into the woods near the University of Northern British Columbia and hung himself from a tree.

His body was found after he disappeared on March 12.

Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, who co-chaired a joint House-Senate committee on child access and custody in 1998, said the family law system in Canada has evolved to the point where it is becoming unfair for the non-custodial parent, usually the father.

"There is a whole series of events that has driven the non-custodial parent out of the life of the child but has devised a way to get money out of them," said Gallaway, who represents Sarnia-Lambton. "If there is indeed justice in a divorce court, it's accidental."

To his dismay, Gallaway said he doesn't see his government making any moves to rectify the situation.

"The government is inept," he said in a phone interview from Sarnia. "It is apparently not doing anything.

"What is happening in family court today is an absolute disgrace."

The tragic ending to the White story is not something that shocks Hochhalte r. He says that could easily have been him.

"They are running me into the ground financially and emotionally and they are denying me the opportunity to raise my daughter," he said. "And I'm broke. I have nothing. That's why Darrin checked out. It seems hopeless.

"He skipped a court date and hanged himself instead. I skipped a court date and hung a rope over the door. I had a bottle of pills and a glass of water. If the police came to take me to court, I'd try to beat them to the punch."

White was buried in Brandon, Man., Friday as the Hochhalters maintained their vigil in front of Walt Lastewka's office.

Out with her two young children, Maureen Schmidt stopped to speak with the Hochhalters.

She expressed her sympathies, saying her husband went through an ordeal when he divorced his first wife. She said it was good to see a man finally taking a stand.

"You don't see to many men standing up for themselves," Schmidt said. "So many things happen with men that you never hear about."

Lastewka left Ottawa with Prime Minister Jean Chretian Friday morning, heading for Halifax, and could not be reached for comment. However, Lastewka's assistant Mike Haines said Hochhalter has been in the Scott Street constituency office before to plead his case of unfair treatment in front of the B.C. courts.

Haines said a meeting has been arranged between Hochhalter and Lastewka when the MP returns to the office April 7. Lastewka will hear Hochhalter's case and pass on the information to the Justice Ministry.

But Haines is unsure what exactly the MP can do for the disgruntled father. "It's the overall justice system regarding equal access that needs to be addressed," Haines said.

In the mean time, Hochhalter isn't sure what his next step will be. He says some days he feels like he is in a state of paralysis.

He knows what he wants. He just doesn't know how to get it.

"My heart will not leave B.C. as long as my daughter is there," he said. "My preference is to go back to B.C., but I don't know if that is a reality."

And with that, the tears began falling as he was flooded with memories of daughter who doesn't know him.

"Even though I've been away for two years, I still want to be involved. I think my daughter deserves that.

"I need my daughter."