Royal Gazette

Article published Nov 14, 2002

Bermuda's two-parent challenge

Royal Gazette (Bermuda)

Families under threat: Canadian Senator Anne Cools

Bermuda was last night warned to take hold of the growing problem of absent dads on the Island 'before family life and civilisation is destroyed'.

At a public forum organised by family group Child Watch, overseas experts said society as a whole had to take the blame when parents became estranged from their children, and said men were not solely responsible for becoming detached in many cases.

Canadian Senator Anne Cools and British author Erin Pizzey, who have both worked with domestic violence and family mediation over a combined 60 years, said globally, the judicial system, legal fraternities and care workers had to change their mindsets, and legislation, to bring equality to both men and women.

They said it was often too easy to say that a child was fatherless because the dad had chosen to no longer be around, but said quite often men were forced or pushed away by court systems and mothers that worked in tandem.

Ms Pizzey (see story, Page 7), who opened the world's first domestic violence shelter in the early 70s, said she had faced death threats and violence for many years because she did not follow feminists in claiming that men were to blame.

But she said women were as equally capable of violence as men, and said of the first 100 people she accepted into her shelter, 62 of them were worse or as bad as their male abusers.

She also warned of the lies some women told in order to remove the father from the lives of their children.

"Domestic violence is a fast track to divorce for many women," said Ms Pizzey.

"If that does not work fast enough, we accuse him of sexual molestation. And, if that does not work, here (in Bermuda) we take the children off the Island.

"The family is the cornerstone of any civilisation. If we destroy the family, we destroy civilisation.

"I have a feeling that in time we will move human relationships out of the court system because the court system is not designed to deal (with them)

"We need to start in schools teaching relationships – teaching boys and girls how to relate to each other.

"Never in the history of this world have men been so hated and despised."

A panel of 18 people, including the guest speakers from overseas, gathered before an audience of about 100 people at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess Hotel last night.

The forum had been designed to raise awareness about the ever-growing number of absent dads, many of who claim they have been forced away by the mothers of their children and an unfair court system.

Among the panellists was Health Minister Nelson Bascome, Police Inspector Tracy Adams, Justice Norma Wade-Miller, representatives from Social Services, the Family Learning Centre, The Women's Resource Centre, a reverend, Government and Opposition MPs, and men's groups.

The general consensus was that mediation should be forced on splitting couples who are fighting over the custody of their children to ensure an unbiased fair outcome, and everyone agreed that two parents were needed to raise children.

Sen. Cools said she had heard a number of the organisations set up to deal with family and abuse victims claim last night that the majority of their clients were single women with children.

But she said: "It's time for us as legislators and policy-makers to delve deeply into why so many of these men have been shut out.

"Men are not looked upon with favour in many of the courts. What is going on in the land of the courts is scary."

And she said she believed judges "pummelled" the law to mean what ever they wanted it to mean that day, and said she was an advocate for shared parenting, where each parent played an equal role in their child's life.

She said, in Canada, if a father failed to pay child support, he would be treated harshly by the courts, having his driving licence and passport withheld, and possibly even going to jail.

But she said: "The fact of the matter is there is very little consequences to women" (who breach custody orders by refusing to allow fathers access to their children).

"There are very few instances where women have been held in contempt."

Government backbencher Arthur Hodgson, who has sat as a panellist in Family Court, said mothers in breach of court orders on the Island were breaking the law and therefore were treated as such by the courts.

But members of the audience disagreed, as did Sen. Cools.

And Justice Wade-Miller responded by saying: "In Bermuda we don't have these type of sanctions, but I do believe there should be parity."

And she said that some time ago a judge did order equal parenting, where the child spent equal time with each parent, and the order was overturned by the Appeals Court, which claimed the order had been made in the best interests of the parent and not the child.

As a result of that, she said it possibly would not be ordered again quickly.

But Sen. Cools said: "This is a Parliament problem."

The Senator said she often heard the term "deadbeat dad", but instead liked to use the term deadbolt dads and dead broke dads, as often they were left disillusioned and penniless.

Not only did she claim that the courts viewed dads unfairly when handing out access rights, but said too often they demanded too much financially of the fathers, and too little of the women.

This created even bigger social issues, she said.

Minister Bascome said the Children's Act reforms would go a long way to bringing dads back on board, and said the issue was still up for discussion among interested parties.

He said: "We are not disillusioned so as to think this is strictly a legal issue.

"The family in Bermuda faces many challenges today. The educational institutions are overwhelmed with some of the social problems rooted in our homes.

"As a community we have a responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of our families."

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