Gender politics poisons hearing on access, custody
Senator decries 'war zone' as some abuse stories questioned
Wednesday, April 1, 1998, By Anne Mcilroy, The Globe and Mail

TORONTO -- Groups who work with battered women were furious yesterday when federal politicians grilled them about how many women lie about being abused.

It was a poisonous day of gender politics at the travelling Commons-Senate committee examining the issues of custody and access to children after divorce. Some members of the men's groups in the audience sneered when the women talked about spousal homicide and heckled them at other times during their testimony.

One senator, Progressive Conservative Erminie Cohen, was so upset over how the women were treated that she started to cry and denounced the emotional "war zone" the committee had created.

Eileen Morrow, lobby co-ordinator for the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, and Beth Bennet, program director for the Assaulted Women's Helpline in Ontario, told the committee that abusive men use court-ordered access to their children as a way to track down their former spouses to hurt or kill them. They said any
changes to the system must take this into account.
They also insisted that men who abuse their partners should not be given access to their children, because it is harmful to the kids.

"I am asking you to keep the children safe," Ms. Morrow said.

Earlier in the day, Marty McKay, a clinical psychologist, and Barbara Chisholm, a child and family consultant, testified that in their experience, women in divorce negotiations will lie in order to prevent their ex-spouses from seeing the children. They said these lies about child abuse are often told during assessments made by social workers
on where the children should live.

Conservative Senator Duncan Jessiman quoted Ms. McKay and Ms. Chisholm when he asked Ms. Morrow and Ms. Bennet how many women lie or exaggerate about being battered. "Do you find some of these people are exaggerating or not telling the truth?" he asked.

An angry Ms. Bennet replied that the number was too minimal to mention.

Liberal Senator Anne Cools chastised the two for not coming prepared with enough statistics to show how many of the women they work with are going through divorces. "You make some extremely large, and I submit to you, unsupportable statements."

They said they had little money for research and had little time to prepare for the presentation, and they criticized committee members for always shifting the topic.

Ms. Morrow also noted that there is very little research showing that a significant number of men do not have access to their children after divorce. "I would like to see definitive studies that show access denial is a problem."

The committee, which is in Toronto today but moves to Montreal tomorrow, was part of a compromise the Liberals agreed to last year to get their child-support bill through the Senate. Senators, including Ms. Cools, were blocking it because they believed it to be unfair to men.

The new law makes it easier to punish non-custodial parents (mostly men) who do not pay child support.

But there are not similar punitive provisions for custodial parents (mostly women) who deny their ex-spouses access to the kids.

The focus of the travelling public hearings, which began on Monday, has so far been on how to make the system fairer to men.

Ms. Bennet and Mrs. Morrow said they wanted the politicians to know that they cannot forget the women and children who live in terror of being killed by their ex-spouses.

They say studies show as many as 29 per cent of Canadian women had experienced violence at the hands of their marital partners.

But Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, a co-chairman of the committee, said after the meeting that the women were generalizing. "It was a social service group who work with women who are battered. . . . They are taking that and generalizing into the general population. That is extremely polarizing because it portrays all divorce cases as being
about power, control and violence. But you could feel the heat in there."

There was definitely animosity toward the two from the men in the audience. Many of them are scarred veterans of bad divorces and ugly custody fights. Many say they have been falsely accused of abuse, and have not seen their children for years.

They heckled and jeered and sneered, even when the witnesses talked about men who kill their spouses.

"These are such loving, caring fathers that when they hear the words 'woman killers,' they laugh," Ms. Morrow said.

Ms. Cohen was also not impressed. She told the two women that she was embarrassed over how they were being treated and said the committee had created a "a war zone here that we are trying to avoid in families."

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