National Post

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January 16, 2001

Hungry for a better divorce law

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Since New Year's Day, a 14-year-old Calgary boy has been on a hunger strike and has been telling the world about it on his Web site. Unhappy with how family court has decided his fate in the aftermath of his parents' marital breakdown, Clayton Giles' message is that, where divorce is concerned, many of the kids are not all right.

When I first visited the site (www.legalkids.com) a week ago, it gave me the creeps. It still does. I can detect no discernable difference in "voice" between the daily on-line journal Clayton has supposedly been keeping all by himself and the letters his dad has written to judges and lawyers that are also posted on the site.

My husband caught a few minutes of Clayton being interviewed on television and says he appears to be an articulate kid rather than a puppet being manipulated by his father, but I remain uneasy. (The courts have awarded custody to Clayton's mother, but he has run away from her home to live with his dad.)

Eric Giles, Clayton's father, contacted me in early December. In part, his e-mail declared: "My son would like people and especially other children to know what the court did to him. He has no use at all for the legal system ... Our bottom line is that we really think these custody and access matters should not be decided by the courts."

I'm not sure what is to be gained by telling other children about such matters since they are in no position to fix the problem. And as thoroughly flawed as I agree our family courts now are, Mr. Giles overlooks the obvious fact that there is an alternative to the courts deciding these issues -- and that's that parents behave like intelligent, mature adults by working out a separation agreement on their own.

I urged Mr. Giles to think carefully about involving his son in any publicity since the boy is far from being an informed, consenting adult. Fast forward four weeks and suddenly there's an elaborate Web site and a child on a hunger strike.

I have no idea where the truth lies in this particular marital meltdown. I have no clue who's in the right or who's in the wrong. But in my view, 14-year-olds should not be on hunger strikes for any reason -- no matter how noble the cause.

Clayton insists, in the daily journal, that his dad is against the hunger strike. If this were really the case, Mr. Giles could ensure his son's health isn't compromised (by mid last week he'd already lost 11 lbs.) by banning him from using the computer until he resumes eating. Who's the adult in this household, anyway?

Yet as distasteful and inappropriate as I consider Clayton's method of protest to be, there's no denying he's giving voice to the agony many children of divorce experience. Agony that has been ignored for far too long.

Our society once liberalized divorce laws because we believed it was bad for children to live in homes where their parents constantly fought. In retrospect, this turns out to have been one of the biggest delusions of our age.

Rather than ending conflict, our current divorce process inflames it. Instead of just a husband and wife arguing over whatever, lawyers are added to the fray -- trained gladiators who pay for their lavish lifestyles not by calming matters, but by telling men they're going to have to fight to see their kids and by advising women that marital arguments were really verbal abuse.

Expecting the courts -- institutions designed to determine people's guilt or innocence of wrongdoing -- to do a good job of deciding where children should spend their time post-divorce isn't just lunacy. It encourages the continuation of conflict, at fever pitch, indefinitely.

Kids love and need both their parents. But it's painfully obvious many divorcing parents are fully prepared to use their own flesh and blood as pawns in their struggles with one another.

Mark my words, when these kids grow up not only will they be dazed and confused by the legal system, they're going to have few kind words for the adults who could have shielded them from it.

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