April 1, 1998

Child access laws biased, fathers say
April 1, 1998,By Patricia Orwen, Social Policy Reporter, The Toronto Star

Ron Miller has spent $30,000 in legal costs and yet he hasn't seen his children in nearly two years.

``They're somewhere in Alberta I think. I'm their father, but being a dad doesn't mean anything in today's legal system . . . dads just don't count.''

Miller was among some 200 parents, mostly fathers, who packed a room at a downtown Toronto hotel yesterday during the second day of cross-country hearings on the issue of child custody and access.

Like most of the men in attendance, Miller views the legal system as biased against non-custodial fathers. These men, he says, are expected to pay child support or suffer the loss of their driver's licences, but women can easily get away with preventing fathers from seeing their children.

Last fall, the province began suspending driver's licences of some parents who wouldn't pay.

The special joint committee of the House of Commons has been deluged with requests from parents wishing to testify about their bitter divorce experiences and frustration in trying to see their children.

``This problem affects a lot of people . . . there has to be a way to stop the court battles and put some fairness into the system,'' said Liberal MP Paul Szabo (Mississauga South), a member of the committee which will make recommendations to the government this fall regarding changes to the Divorce Act.

Most of those who have made presentations to the committee have called for tougher penalties for custodial parents who refuse to give their ex-spouse access to the children.

Grant Wilson, president of the Mississauga Children's Rights Group, urged the committee to consider a law similar to that in some U.S. states.

Denying access or visitation is considered a crime in Illinois, he said. Violators can be jailed.

``We need legislation with teeth . . . parents who violate court orders should be charged,'' journalist Wendy Dennis told the committee. Denying access is child abuse, she added.

But 15-year-old Saro Kumar McKenna, whose parents separated when she was 3, told the committee that children need a voice in the process.

``I don't feel I had the input I should have had. Do not institute laws that make lives harder for children,'' the grade 12 student urged after explaining reasons for not continuing to spend time with her father.

Alberta, parts of B.C. and various U.S. jurisdictions require parents who are separating to take a course on the alternative dispute resolution process and the impact of family breakdown on children before starting the legal process.

This kind of course should be mandatory, Miller said.

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