Orlando Sentinel

Let's listen to children of divorce

Kathleen Parker
January 24, 2001
The Orlando Sentinel

Fourteen-year-old Clayton Giles sat on the courthouse steps Friday in Calgary, Alberta, and ate a slice of pizza, thus ending a 19-day hunger strike designed to draw attention to children of divorce who feel victimized by an insensitive family-court system.

The Canadian boy's strike drew international attention and plenty of criticism from adults concerned that he was being used as much by immature adults (his parents) as he was victimized by unsatisfactory court orders. There are reasonable arguments to be made on both fronts.

There is also enough he-said-she-said rhetoric in this 10-year divorce-and-custody dispute to keep Mars and Venus in therapy for light years. But Clayton's parents have both had plenty of time to air their grievances. This space is dedicated to Clayton in accordance with our e-agreement. I told him I'd tell his story, but only when he started eating.

Herewith: Clayton began his strike on New Year's Day to protest his mother's refusal to grant full custody to his father, with whom he's lived the past year. Marnie Harrison, the mother, has her story; Eric Giles, the father, has his. Noted.

Whatever one may feel about the boy's methods -- or however skeptical one might be about dubious parental influences -- no one can deny that the child has a point. Children are, indeed, daily victimized by courts and judges who treat children like chattel, awarding custody to one parent or the other, even though children still love, need and want both parents.

As Clayton says on his Web site (legalkids.com), he's not interested in his parents' "irreconcilable differences." He's interested in having access to both his mom and dad and wonders why anyone thinks they can or should deprive him of either.

I wonder too, as do most noncustodial parents. The very word "custody" suggests that children are prisoners rather than beloved offspring.

Clayton's strike may have offended adult sensibilities and inflamed parenting instincts, but his growling stomach provided a rallying cry to other children around the hemisphere who have clamored to visit his Web site and offer support.

Even as Clayton subsisted on fruit juices and water, a group of about 500 children gathered at the bell tower on the capitol lawn in Richmond, Va., to pray and demonstrate for children who don't have two parents, as well as for those who are homeless or poor.

Though no longer physically hungry, the younger Giles hasn't sated his appetite for activism. In April, he's planning a walk/bike/inline skate journey from Calgary to Ottawa and on to Washington, D.C., hoping to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George W. Bush.

"This journey is dedicated to kids' right to access and our desire to be heard in any proceeding where decisions are made on our access to either parent," Clayton told me through our e-mail correspondence.

Though we might disagree on how and to what extent children should direct their own destinies (sometimes adults and courts know more about the divorcing parents than the children need to know), surely the pain of children's forced separation from half of their family can't be exaggerated.

In the United States, a country where one in two children will live in a single-parent home at some point in childhood -- and where, each year, 1 in 60 sees their parents divorce -- we need to make some accommodation for children's voices. Preferably, before they're compelled to starve themselves.

Contact Kathleen Parker: Orlando Sentinel, Box 2833, Orlando, Fla. 32802 or kparker@orlandosentinel.com.

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