December 14, 2002 1:14PM
Errant parents may have their passports seizedBy Karen Smith
Royal Gazette (Bermuda)
Men and women who fail to follow court orders relating to the custody and payments for their children may have their passports and driving licences seized in future.
Parliament last night passed new measures to redress the balance over parental responsibility and involvement, and said people who refused to pay child maintenance will have their wings clipped.
Instead of sending people to prison for breaking court orders, they will have their passports and driving licences indefinitely seized. Prison will become a last resort.
And although the Children’s Amendment Act 2002 did not stipulate that the same punishment may be doled out to those estranged parents who prevented the other parent from having access to their children, Health Minister Nelson Bascome said he would investigate getting it added.
Mr. Bascome talked to the The Royal Gazette about the hard-line approach to parents who broke court orders after the raft of changes were agreed in the House of Assembly.
He said: “In the past, when parents have been imprisoned for breaking court orders, that stigma has carried on to the children because friends find out and the community finds out, and so the children become embarrassed that one of their parents is incarcerated; plus it takes the parents away from the children, which is not what we want to achieve.
“So we have introduced this passport clause as a deterrent, hopefully, we won’t have to use it.
“But if either the mother or the father fails to follow payment orders, they will have their passports taken on the understanding that once they have fulfilled their obligation, they will get it back.”
But when The Royal Gazette pointed out to Mr. Bascome that the passport and driving licence sanction only applied to non-payment of child maintenance, which is largely always paid by fathers, and not to mothers who refuse to allow access, he said he would talk to the draughtsmen on Monday to see if it could be amended.
He said: “Because the principle of the act is to be unbiased towards gender, then what we look for in terms of enforcement of all actions is that it has to be equal to both men and women.
“Although child support can be paid by both mothers and fathers, I take the point that it would mostly affect fathers.
“The gist of the Act is that it is unbiased on gender, so therefore I will discuss with the draughts people if, indeed, this can be added, so where people can have passports revoked for non-payment, then they can also be revoked for not allowing access. Again, that would affect both men and women.”
The amendments to the Children’s Act have repealed the Affiliation Act, which discriminated against children born out of wedlock and which left unmarried fathers with little rights regarding their youngsters.
Now unmarried fathers have the same rights as married fathers.
But Mr. Bascome said the changes would also make the act gender neutral and would attempt to close any loop holes which give women the upper hand in child custody matters.
He said legislation could not account for biased mindsets, but he expected the judicial system and his Social Services staff would follow the intentions and guidance of the amendments.
But he said one of the greatest amendments was that Bermuda would no longer recognise the terms illegitimate or Bastard child.
“We are in 2002 and we are finally abolishing illegitimacy,” said Mr. Bascome.
“This is a great day for Bermuda. We would hope that this amendment today will assist in moving that mindset forward so people are more respectful of people born outside of marriage.
“And, whatever is in this act (ends) all gender discrimination. This is a gender neutral act and all tenets of this act apply to both male and female.”
Leading the debate for the Opposition United Bermuda Party (UBP) was Shadow Minister of Women’s Affairs Kim Smith, who spoke in the absence of Shadow Health Minister Michael Dunkley.
She said while she believed abolishing illegitimacy was a good thing, and the amendments were a step in the right direction, she did not think the changes went far enough.
She called for estranged parents to be forced to undergo mandatory mediation before they even entered the court process in a bid to agree on child custody matters outside of the legal arena. She said it would save parents legal costs, allow a body to investigate claims, and reduce court waiting lists.
Mrs. Young also suggested the post of an enforcement officer be established to work with parents to make sure court orders were enforced.
And she urged Government to ensure that a massive educational programme be launched to change the alleged biased mindset of the judiciary and the general public on gender, otherwise she said the amendments were useless.
“Some facets of this law are really laudable, such as enabling a child to find out who their father really is through blood testing,” said Mrs. Young.
“On these grounds, the bill is terrific, but where the bill is inadequate is in addressing the non-judicial way of (dealing with) custody issues.”
And she said the bill still wrongly included the word ‘access’, when referring to the rights of the non-custodial parent.
The shadow minister said that made it sound like the parent had visitation rights and no parent should be made to feel like a visitor in their children’s life.
She added: “Years ago, fathers used to own their children and they also used to own their wives, but we have come full circle now and it seems that mothers are more often the ones who are given custody of the children.”
But she said both parents are required, and should be allowed to have, equal involvement in their children’s lives.
She added: “So when the courts are considering, they have to consider both, not in terms of gender. “There are times when fathers will do a better job (at raising children) and there are times when mothers will do a better job. When parents do as equally good a job, they should be given equal rights.”
But former UBP leader Pamela Gordon said Bermuda will face big problems until irresponsible young men and women stop having children to numerous different partners.
Young men were fathering six and seven children by different women with no intention of looking after them, while women were having children to a collection of men to get money from them, she said.
The results were dysfunctional kids who were totally confused about their relationships to a variety of adults and other children.
“I will say it until I am blue in the face: until this community gets to grips with dysfunctional behaviour patterns of our young people and not so young people, well intentioned acts like this will be reactive and not proactive,” said Ms Gordon.
And former Environment Minister Arthur Hodgson dismissed the bill as “smoke and mirrors” because it did not ensure both parents were actively involved in caring for their children.
Mr. Bascome said 40 percent of all children born in Bermuda were born out of wedlock, and said the black population accounted for 90 percent of them. But he said this new legislation would ensure that that huge segment of the population was no longer discriminated against.
And he said he fully understood that, too often, where parents became estranged, there was tension, bitterness and revenge, and frequently the children were used as weapons and pawns.
The “dumped parent” often never recovered from the trauma, he said, and where they were non-custodial parents, he said they felt as though they had lost everything.
“For them, now, we have equal rights and access to the children,” he added.
Mr. Bascome said Government believed that two parents were needed to produce well-rounded children who would grow up to be productive, and he said he hoped this legislation would go a long way to facilitating that.
Mrs. Young said she was eager to see more shared parenting allowed by the courts, and said judges should stop making assumptions that mothers were intrinsically better at parenting.
She added: “I hope Government sets up a public campaign blitz.”Coverage of yesterday’s debate can be read on Page 12
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