April 17, 1998
Divorce Act is armed and dangerous
By ROBERT FIFE, The Toronto Sun,Ottawa Bureau
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So much of what amounts to political debate in the nation is far removed from the everyday life of most Canadians. The politicians and media get caught up in flag flaps, party intrigue, the cut and thrust of the Commons theater and the whining of special interest groups.
Every now and again, the politicians tackle an issue that touches the lives of ordinary Canadians in a real and meaningful way. For the past month, a special Commons-Senate committee has been touring the country to hear the views of Canadians on the Divorce Act. Last May, Parliament passed amendments to deny tax deductions on child support payments by non-custodial parents, while imposing tough penalties on deadbeat dads. Ottawa can now seize passports, federal licenses, income tax rebates and other payments for flagrant failure to pay child support.
To many divorced men, it seemed unfair that Ottawa responded to the legitimate complaints of women about inadequate child support, while ignoring their concerns about being shut out of their children's lives.
So the committee was set up to propose reforms to guarantee full access rights to all divorced parents and even grandparents. What the politicians did not expect was the depth of raw anger from combatants in the nation's divorce wars.
Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, the co-chair of the committee, said he never realized the Divorce Act was being used as a weapon to punish fathers in bitter custody battles.
The committee has heard stories of men, subjected to false charges of child abuse and violence without a shred of evidence. Child abuse or wife beating are serious charges that should be dealt in a criminal court, where evidence must be presented. But judges in divorce cases are granting custody and limiting access to father based simply on the basis of allegations of former spouses. Many men face financial ruin in hiring lawyers to fight these charges, while many women are afforded unlimited access to legal aid. While the law has been toughened to deal with deadbeat dads, there are no penalties for mothers who deny the other parent access to their children.
"The deck is stacked against (men)," says Gallaway. "These people will spend some really serious coin ... just to enforce an access order and yet if you are the same parent and don't make a payment you will have your car towed away or your pay cheque being garnisheed." Groups like Families Against Deadbeats say it's unfair to portray the issue as a male-female conflict. Both sexes are hurting, but the real sufferers are the children.
"Yes, there are women who use and abuse the system, but on the other side of the coin, men do the same by threatening the mothers should they decide to come after them for support, they go on the welfare roll in order to avoid payment," says FADD founder Renate Diorio. "I totally agree that the system has been used for self-purposes and very wrongly. What ever happened to just leaving a marriage because it doesn't work-why make up horrible stories to 'get even'? This is not in the best interest of the children at all." Diorio is right. The big losers are the children whose parents have split.
There is a crying need to put some balance and fairness into the Divorce Act and to get the lawyers out of these custody battles. Divorce courts should be stopped from hearing charges of child abuse or violence unless there are police records to back them up. Parents should be discouraged from going to court and, if they must, then custody cases should be speeded up to avoid financial ruin. Above all, non-custodial parents should be assured a meaningful role in rearing their children.
Washington state, for example, requires people who are separating to complete a detailed parenting plan. This has proven to eliminate conflict later on and ensure both parents' involvement in their children's lives.
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