Toronto Sun

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Fathers face uphill battle in our courts

By Heather Bird

There may have been many who were shocked by the acquittal of Carline Vandenelsen, the Stratford woman who kidnapped her triplets, but I am not one of them. The justice system is so mother-biased, nothing surprises me any more.

However, I had hoped, somewhat foolishly it seems, that a jury of ordinary men and women might be able to see what the learned experts apparently cannot. I was wrong. So Ms. Vandenelsen, the woman who ignored a court order to flee with her children to Mexico, has escaped scot-free. For now.

It is absurd enough to be laughable if custody and access weren't such painful topics for many Canadians, most of them men. In the years that I've been writing this column, I've only ever encountered one woman who was denied access to her child in a decision where it was apparent that the (female) judge had agonized before ruling. And, after spending some time with the crazed mom, it was patently obvious that she wasn't fit to mother a cat, much less a child.

I wish I could say the same about the men. I routinely hear from fathers who are frustrated or thwarted by the system when it comes to seeing their sons and daughters. One case in particular stands out, a circumstance where the man first begged me not to reveal his identity and then later backed out of having his story told altogether. He was afraid that he would lose what precious time he had with his little girl.

So what, you might say. That's the price of divorce. When you decide you don't want to be married to the other parent any longer, you automatically forfeit the right to see your children every day. And that's true. Except in his case, when his ex-wife died, he -- the biological dad -- was refused custody of his child in favour of the dead woman's sister.

How the little girl originally came into her aunt's care is understandable. The mother was murdered by a stranger while the toddler was at daycare and, when no one appeared to claim her by 6 p.m., the centre called the sister, who was listed as a contact in the event of an emergency.

Whenever there is a killing, the police first look to the victim's circle of intimates for a suspect. Thus, the natural father found himself under scrutiny for some time. He wasn't concerned because he knew he would be cleared and, instead of fighting, he used the time to get his affairs in order for the day his daughter arrived.

His parents sold their home and moved into a house with an apartment in the basement. The plan was for the retired couple to provide daycare while dad was at work. Eventually, and as expected, the police arrested the man who committed the murder, which freed up the father to arrange for his little girl to move back home. To his shock, when he told the aunt of his intentions, he was informed he had a custody fight on his hands.

What followed was a probing series of assessments by social workers who examined all aspects of the extended family dynamics. They found he was a fit father but, by the time the case finally made it to court, the little girl was almost five and there was a body of thought that she had bonded so strongly with the aunt, it would be wrong to remove her. Now things may have changed (and I hope for his sake they have) but the last time I checked, he was paying support to his dead ex-wife's sister and seeing his child on weekends. His parents wanted to continue the fight but he was afraid that if he did, he would lose what little he had.

A psychiatrist with a specialty in family law once explained to me that there is an inherent bias in the system because of the place the concept of "mother" holds in our culture. Everybody has one, he says, and when the subject of mothering or ability to mother is raised, people automatically inject their feelings about their own into the mix. Rejecting someone else's right to mother feels uncomfortably close to rejecting one's own mother, even on a subconscious level.


This bias overlooks the emotional and psychological needs of children. They need both mother and father, preferably in equitable doses, but if, and only if each parent is found suitable for the job.

We'll never know what the jury was thinking in the Carline Vandenelsen trial when they bought her defence of necessity. (That's the one where she says she believed her children needed her so it was all right to steal them.)

And who knows what the Court of Appeal judges are going to think of this one when it lands upstairs. Justice might prevail. But only if the case is heard by a panel of orphans.

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.