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February 19, 2002

Fair play for daddies

National Post

For more than five years, pressure has mounted against proposed changes to the Divorce Act that would make child custody rules fairer after divorce. At present, the mother is typically presumed to be the better choice for custodial parent. She gets the children unless the father can persuade a judge to split responsibility more equitably. Courts are also quick to enforce maintenance payment orders, but slow to enforce orders granting fathers access to their children. This one-sided approach has put women at a great advantage over their husbands. With the court's help, mothers are often able to get a husband out of the home, keep the children, decide when he gets to see them and make him pay for their upbringing.

When, in 1996, a joint Senate-House of Commons committee began examining amendments to the divorce law, organizations such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women chafed at participating fully in its hearings. (Hedy Fry, then the secretary of state for the status of women, even used her department's Web site to attempt to sabotage the hearings.) They were angry the committee was considering removing the words "custody" and "access" from the Act, and replacing them with "shared parenting," a legal notion under which both parents would have equal responsibilities.

After the Senate-Commons committee delivered its recommendations to Anne McLellan, then the justice minister, feminists leaned on her to derail them. She acquiesced and permitted her officials to redo all of the joint committee's work -- right down to holding new hearings and calling for hundreds more written submissions.

But the women's groups were still unhappy. Because fathers' rights organizations were invited to testify during this second round, the feminist lobby boycotted these hearings and demanded private VIP consultations with the minister. They were nearly granted this privilege last summer -- until the plan became public and had to be aborted.

Now, after three years of delays in reforming custody laws, those who wish to maintain the status quo seem poised to win the ultimate victory: no amendments at all. Last weekend, Martin Cauchon, the new Justice Minister, announced he may let this May's final deadline for bringing changes forward (a deadline set last year by Ms. McLellan) come and go without a murmur. After five years, millions of dollars of consultations and submissions from hundreds of experts, Mr. Cauchon plans to walk away from the file, cementing the current system in place, likely for another decade or more.

Children develop best when they live in an intact home. When that is not possible, the next best thing is for both parents to be involved as fully as possible in their children's lives. That is hard on couples who are estranged from one another, but it is the minimal sacrifice they must make if they are to fulfill their obligations as parents. It is in the best interests of children that they swallow their differences and take joint responsibility.

The proposed amendments would make it possible for courts to deny shared custody to abusive or negligent parents. The changes would not compel victimized spouses or children to maintain contact with abusers. They would make divorce harder on some. But that is as it should be if the goal, truly, is to put children first, rather than give precedence to a destructive ideology.

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