Saturday 20 January 2001
Bitter custody battles: One family's story
A Comox father says he has been investigated repeatedly over false allegations by his ex-spouseGlenn Bohn
A father in Comox has been investigated at least six times by the B.C. children and families ministry for alleged child-abuse allegations levelled by his former common-law wife.
Anton Wallenburg/, Vancouver Sun / While her father, Robert Saint Amour watches, Marina sits on the bow of his boat moored near Comox. The girl is the centre of complaints levelled against her father by her mother, Saint Amour's former common-law wife, Trina Neubauer.
By the father's count, the mother has gone to various authorities with 72 complaints during the past nine years, including one complaint that triggered a police SWAT team search for machineguns.
"I've been accused of everything from having sex with the neighbour's dog to having spaceships in the tree," Robert Saint Amour said in an interview.
Saint Amour has interim custody of his nine-year-old daughter Marina, while Trina Neubauer has interim custody of their second daughter, who is four years old.
Neubauer, who stopped living with Saint Amour in 1995, said in an interview she has no idea how many allegations of child abuse she has made over the years.
Her list of complaints includes concerns that Marina is not being fed properly, is not being taught about personal hygiene, and isn't allowed to express her emotions.
"I'm really p---ed with him because of the way Marina is being treated," she said this week from her Nanaimo home.
Saint Amour is one of an unknown number of parents in B.C. who claim they are the target of false allegations made by ex-spouses during bitter custody battles over children.
The B.C. children and families ministry doesn't keep statistics on the number of allegations made by parents during a marriage breakup. It doesn't have a separate budget for child-protection investigations, but spends about $90 million annually on salaries and administrative costs for 1,277 child protection workers who conduct investigations and do other child protection work.
Last fiscal year, those workers removed 4,112 children from B.C. homes and placed them with other family members or foster parents, or put them in another residential facility.
Lawyer Dinyar Marzban, who has been practising family law since 1982, believes only a small percentage of parents make allegations of child abuse during marriage breakdown, but when it happens, the allegation becomes a weapon.
"They either hate the other spouse, or they want to use [the allegation] to deny access," Marzban said.
The family law veteran said it's rare for a judge to make a black-and-white declaration that an allegation is false. However, Marzban's been involved with cases where a parent initially alleged there was child abuse but subsequently dropped the allegation and agreed to joint access.
"To me, that amounts to pretty much a concession that there's no risk," he said.
Marzban, the chairman of the Vancouver family law subcommittee of the Canadian Bar Association, said it's difficult to investigate allegations of child abuse, especially if the allegations involve a young child with poor communication skills.
"The problem is finding out what really happened," he said.
This week, Saint Amour said the nine-year-old daughter in his custody was taken out her classroom Friday and questioned by two ministry officials conducting yet another investigation.
According to Saint Amour, their concerns were "whether my daughter was comfy on our 40-foot sailboat and if I smoked pot. They got to her by suggesting they were my friends, like common criminals."
When The Vancouver Sun sought the ministry for children and family's version of what happened, one of its senior officials pointed to a provincial law that requires officials to keep investigations and information about children confidential, unless the disclosure of information protects the health of a child.
Julie Dawson, the deputy director of the ministry's child protection division, did disclose that Saint Amour was involved in six ministry investigations since 1996.
However, she wouldn't confirm if he was the subject of a new investigation, or whether investigators had uncovered any evidence of child abuse or neglect.
The B.C. Child, Family and Community Service Act gives government social workers the legal authority to investigate allegations that a child may be abused or neglected, and to remove the child for its own protection.
As of Tuesday, nine-year-old Marina was still living on her father's sailboat.
Saint Amour vowed to keep his daughter out of school unless Children and Families Minister Ed John can guarantee him there will be no repeat of Friday's incident, which he claimed violated his daughter's constitutional rights.
(John was unavailable for an interview about Saint Amour's complaint, the ministry's media relations officer, Corinna Filion, said.)
Saint Amour released copies of ministry letters to him, dated 1995, 1996 and 1998, which said separate investigations in those years showed his daughter was not in need of protection. Only one letter -- a letter about the 1998 investigation -- revealed what the unnamed complainant's allegations were -- "drug dealing taking place from your home, refuse in the kitchen causing a safety hazard for your children, and your pending eviction from your residence." Investigators found those allegations were "unsubstantiated," the letter states.
When Dawson was asked what system the ministry had in place to ensure a frequent target of unsubstantiated allegations was not repeatedly investigated, she replied that the ministry won't proceed with an investigation if it discovers the same allegation has previously been investigated.
However, "if the information was new and if the information appeared to be something that might be putting a child at risk, then we would need to investigate," she said.
DIVORCES IN CANADA
- Number of divorces granted in 1998: 69,088 in Canada, and 9,827 in B.C.
-Number of dependent children in divorces involving custody orders that year: 37,851 in Canada, and 4,396 in B.C.
-Custody granted to the husband only: 3,609 in Canada, and 323 in B.C.
-Custody granted to the wife only: 22,522 in Canada, and 2,576 in B.C.
-Custody granted jointly to the husband and wife: 11,544 in Canada, and 1,486 in B.C.
Source: Statistics Canada