Edmonton Journal

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Judge rebukes all divorced parents

Stay together -- even if you 'suffer' -- for the sake of the children, judge tells couple

Gordon Kent and Conal Mullen, Journal Staff Writers
The Edmonton Journal

An irate provincial court judge offered two separated parents a stern moral lecture Tuesday, expressing his personal "abhorrence" for couples with children who split up.

The judge's unexpected reprimand has raised eyebrows in the legal and social community for straying beyond the legal issues before him to venture into the controversial territory of social norms.

The parents were in court over charges faced by the mother of two infants left in a hot car parked downtown last summer.

"I get upset where children are involved, because I feel we, as adults, have a responsibility to give them the very best that we can," Judge Al Chrumka said Tuesday.

"If that means we have to suffer as parents because we don't like each other anymore, then we still have to stay together for the benefit of the children."

Marie Gordon, who has practised family law in Edmonton for 20 years, said she acts for many people who, with their spouses, "do marvellous jobs in co-parenting their children. Their parenting ability really has nothing to do, in my mind, with their marital status."

Conversely, Gordon said, there are many intact families where parenting is very much a concern. "Children's welfare isn't always guaranteed when husband and wife are together and spouses in intolerable situations shouldn't be discouraged from separating and divorcing."

Chrumka was hearing a case against a mother who left her two boys, ages two months and one year, in a car parked outside Canada Place last July 19 in 24 degree heat for half an hour. A police officer broke a window to unlock the car.

When the father of the two boys -- who has joint custody -- mentioned other parenting problems in court, Chrumka told him he should have been in place to help look after the kids.

"That parties who decide to have children together should split for any reason is abhorrent to me," he said.

"They have a responsibility to the children and to each other to make sure, for whatever reason they may have gotten together, not to separate."

The 25-year-old woman was given nine months' probation for causing a child to be in need of protective services, a charge under the Child Welfare Act.

She and the father can't be named because the act forbids identifying their children.

Although Crown prosecutor Diane Hollinshead tried to explain that the father's comments were not intended as a criticism of his ex-wife, Chrumka

wasn't satisfied.

"I'm of the view that parents do stay together because of their children, not in spite of their children," he said.

"I don't agree with the idea that you should separate because you and your spouse don't get along."

But the head of a group that deals with broken families said later she's concerned about a judge making such sweeping comments.

Generally speaking, in cases where there's abuse, alcoholism, a drug problem, or adultery, it may be best for everyone if parents stop living in the same house, said Karen Smith, executive director of the Edmonton Sexual Assault Centre.

"I would think the judges should stick to what case they're dealing with, and not try to impose their personal views," she said.

"I don't know how you can make a blanket statement that people should always stay together."

However, Chrumka's comments received strong praise from Hermina Dykxhoorn, president of the Alberta Federation of Women United for Families. She said in an interview from Calgary that her group, with 5,000 members across the province, promotes the traditional, natural family.

"Judge Chrumka is talking about a phenomenon in our society where people are splitting up at the drop of a hat, without taking into consideration the toll it takes on their children. There are people doing that, and I think Judge Chrumka recognizes that. He probably meets up with a lot of these cases in his courtroom."

She said parents need to be able to sacrifice for the sake of their children. "So many adults don't want to hear about that today."

Dykxhoorn said she would not judge on cases where there has been violence.

"They're the exception," she said. "The great majority of people who are breaking up are not experiencing that. It's very easy now to let a marriage go and leave and I think that that's what he was addressing."

In court, the apologetic mother described the July incident as "a learning experience," adding "nobody gives you a manual and says this is what you're going to do with your kids."

Chrumka sounded shocked. He turned down her lawyer's request for a conditional discharge so she wouldn't receive a record.

"Good gracious, anybody would have known you can't leave anything, even an animal, any kind of animal, with the windows open even partially."

The mother told police she'd heard of a similar incident a day earlier when a child was left in a car at the Southgate Mall parking lot, Hollinshead said. "She was aware of the risk. Notwithstanding that, she felt she could run in for just a minute and leave her two children in the car."

gkent@thejournal.southam.ca

cmullen@thejournal.southam.ca

© Copyright 2003 Edmonton Journal