National Post

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Ottawa to counsel parting parents

Education to be thrust of federal divorce strategy

Janice Tibbetts
Southam News
National Post

OTTAWA - The federal government will promise to spend millions of dollars on education programs to counsel separating parents about how to jointly care for their children.

The plan comes as Martin Cauchon, the Justice Minister, is to announce legislation today to revise the Divorce Act. His proposal would eliminate the words "custody" and "access" from the act and replace them with "parenting orders," a term that is viewed as less contentious.

With 43% of Canadian marriages ending in divorce, Mr. Cauchon said yesterday that education and mediation programs, rather than legislative changes, will be the main element of his divorce strategy.

While he is expected to provide millions of dollars for programs, officials would not confirm precisely how much money will be spent. The money will go to the provinces, which will continue to control programs and services surrounding divorce.

Nick Bala, a law professor at Queen's University, said the provinces currently receive little help from Ottawa. He believes there needs to be government-subsidized mediation for combative parents as an alternative to them fighting over their children in court.

Mr. Bala said there should also be improved parental training in the early stages of divorce to help parents focus on the best interests of the child.

Mr. Cauchon's proposed legislative changes were dismissed as cosmetic by groups representing non-custodial parents, who wrote an open letter to the Justice Minister yesterday accusing him of a "program of hate" against men.

"Eliminating custody and access language will do precisely nothing to alleviate the suffering of countless thousands of Canadian children," said the letter, supported by 38 people representing groups across the country.

"Mr. Cauchon, without any real thought or effort, you reject the simplest form of justice: equal parenting. We urge you to reconsider the reckless insensitivity of your policy."

Mr. Cauchon is rejecting a proposal of a joint House of Commons and Senate committee, which recommended almost four years ago that the government adopt the concept of "shared parenting," in which equal access to children is presumed.

Canadian judges award sole custody to mothers 60% of the time and joint custody 30% of the time, according to Divorce Magazine.

Women's groups have lobbied against any wholesale changes to divorce laws. They have warned the federal government to proceed with caution because they fear violent parents could gain access to their children.

Mr. Bala praised the justice department for changing the loaded language of the Divorce Act but leaving the rest of it intact. "The words custody and access are archaic and send an inappropriate message to parents," he said.

"There are many people for whom changing the words will not make a whole lot of difference. But there are a group of people who will take a message from Parliament, from the court about the need to work together."

Another Divorce Act change to be announced today is that judges will be given their first list of criteria to follow when settling child- custody disputes, including the race of the parents and whether they have ever been violent.

While the final decision remains with the judge, the criteria effectively could make it harder for a parent who has displayed violence to have access to his or her children.

Also, a mixed-race child might end up spending more time with a parent who is considered to be in the best position to provide cultural education. The current act stipulates only that a judge consider the best interests of the child when settling custody disputes, but it does not set out specific criteria.

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