|Two years ago, Terri admitted she abused the battered
women's shelter system. Although her husband had never
assaulted her, she told a Winnipeg conference examining false
allegations in family law that she lied to shelter staff, and
to herself, because it was absurdly easy and because she had
something to gain.
Terri says her husband's drinking problem made their
seven-year relationship a rocky one, and that she had left him
before. Her mother urged her to go to a shelter, she says, in
the belief that the counsellors would help her achieve
independence. Terri (who requested anonymity to spare her now
former husband further embarrassment), says she telephoned a
Winnipeg shelter and was told only abused women were admitted.
"I went to the door and I cried and said that my
husband was abusive. My kids weren't with me because I didn't
want them to see how I had to get in."
Terri says the intake worker accepted her story at face
value. So she retrieved her sons, then three and six years
old, and went back to the shelter where staff began coaching
her on how to gain the upper hand in divorce court.
Terri says residents were told that "the first thing
we needed to do was obtain a restraining order against our
spouse. We were instructed to write down our complaints on
paper and bring them with us when we went to see our
In Terri's case, the result was a 10-page affidavit
alleging not that her husband was physically abusive, but that
he displayed characteristics one might expect in an alcoholic.
"A lot of the stuff I wrote up in the court document was
about his hygiene. I complained about always having bladder
infections because he never had a bath." On the basis of
this affidavit, she says, "I got the restraining order
and soon after I got full custody of my children with no
visitation for my husband."
Later, the full import of her actions sank in. "I
realized what I had done. My children had not seen their
father for a year, yet I was never afraid that he would harm
them or myself," says Terri, now a 36-year-old therapist.
"It was not a fair fight. I had the shelter and the
women's movement on my side."
During parliamentary committee hearings on child custody
and access earlier this year (the final report is due in early
December), women's shelter spokespeople showed up in full
force. Their propensity to stereotype all fathers in custody
battles as abusive and all mothers as besieged victims came as
no surprise to lawyers and community activists alarmed by the
role shelters now play in divorce matters. In addition to
providing moral support to women who appear on their doorstep,
shelters also supply letters of endorsement that are highly
prejudicial to the women's spouses in court -- despite the
fact that the shelter employees have never met the men
involved, have only heard one side of the story, and have only
known the women for a short time under highly artificial
Susan Baragar, who practices primarily family law in
Winnipeg, describes herself as a feminist but believes
nevertheless that it is "all too easy" for women to
get these letters from shelters, and warns that they are a
highly potent weapon.
Judges are "most definitely swayed" if a woman is
staying at a shelter and court documents include a letter from
the facility implying that the father is dangerous, says Ms.
Baragar. "I mean, you've got sort of a `professional' now
saying he shouldn't see his kids."
Ms. Baragar, herself, has used the tactic on behalf of her
own clients. She cites a recent case in which she represented
a woman who "came in with this two- or three-page letter
which I attached to the affidavit, and [the father] was denied
access on that basis. Nothing else. It depends on the judge.
Some judges are more cautious than others. But in that
particular case he was absolutely denied access."
Ms. Baragar says the opposing lawyer "argued that this
was not an unbiased letter, that both parties had not been
interviewed. He got absolutely nowhere."
Since the parent who first secures legal child custody is
almost certain to be awarded it later (authorities are
reluctant to disrupt the children's lives once again),
relationships between fathers and children are being ripped
asunder in some cases merely on the say-so of a shelter
In 1995, a Manitoba shelter worker wrote a two-page letter
on behalf of a resident. The worker was able to discern, from
their first meeting, that the woman "had been a victim of
abuse in her childhood and now as a adult." Writing that
she hoped "the court will recognize this letter of
support," the worker pronounced the woman to be
"intelligent, insightful, and sincere."
But in 1997, after hearing submissions from the woman's
spouse and the Winnipeg Child and Family Services, a judge
came to a different conclusion. Only in her early 20s, the
woman had already made seven sexual abuse complaints to police
involving 11 different people. (The only complaint in which a
charge was deemed warranted resulted in an acquittal.)
"At one time or another," wrote the judge, the woman
had "accused her father, brother, and sister of sexually
abusing her." In the judge's view, her credibility was
undermined by the fact that, "despite these allegations
she had no hesitation in living with her father and her sister
and in exposing her father to her own children." The
woman eventually abandoned her custody bid, and the children
were placed in the care of their paternal grandmother.
In Burlington, Ont., in 1995, a counsellor at a women's
shelter wrote a supportive letter regarding a client and her
relationship to her then two-year-old daughter and 12-year-old
son. Although the children had joined their mother in the
shelter only eight days earlier, the staffer felt no
hesitation in declaring the woman to be a "loving and
devoted mother" and in expressing the "strong
feeling" that child custody should be awarded to her
rather than to the husband she was leaving.
But this woman's maternal track record was in fact less
than stellar. Four years earlier, the Children's Aid Society
had successfully convinced a court that she was a danger to
her son and an older daughter, then aged 12, who did not
accompany her to the shelter.
After monitoring the situation for three months, a
Children's Aid worker told the court that both children
"admitted being afraid of their mother much of the
time." On one occasion she allegedly threatened her
spouse with a knife and then threatened to commit suicide. On
another occasion, she allegedly "opened the car door
while it was travelling along the highway and threatened to
jump." The worker noted that "Both of these
incidents occurred in the presence of the children."
Nevertheless, the courts awarded custody of all three children
to the woman.
At yet another shelter, in Orillia, Ont., a staffer wrote a
letter in 1994 addressing the question of who should get
custody of two boys, aged two and three. Despite the fact that
no trial had yet been held, this staffer declared that their
mother "had been physically assaulted" by her
husband before fleeing to the shelter. The mere fact that the
mother had shown up at a shelter was proof that she was
"a conscientious and caring parent." The letter
ended with the declaration that "it would be a great
disservice" to the children if custody was not awarded to
their mother. With the aid of the letter, the woman secured
In 1997, a Toronto shelter worker wrote a letter on behalf
of a woman who had been in residence for six weeks. It flatly
announced that the woman had been "physically and
emotionally" abused by the husband she was leaving and
said that since "her children are her life," she
should be assisted in gaining custody. However, in a report
dated a week prior to the shelter's letter, a psychologist who
interviewed the woman during her stay noted that she'd told
him her husband "has never struck her physically."
Interim custody has been awarded to the mother.
Ms. Baragar has had women's shelter letters expunged from
the record when attempts have been made to use them against
her own clients. "There is a rule that you're technically
not supposed to just attach reports to somebody else's
affidavit," she says. "When I see letters like that
I go pretty hardcore and insist that a separate affidavit then
be sworn - which gives me the right to cross-examine the maker
of the statement. [The shelter workers] usually chicken out.
They haven't wanted to swear affidavits." Many lawyers,
she says, are unfamiliar with the tactic.
Mary McManus, a lawyer in Victoria, B.C., shares many of
Ms. Baragar's concerns. While she thinks "shelters are
very important and fulfil a useful function," she feels
staffers should refrain from expressing opinions regarding
situations about which they have limited knowledge.
"The workers at the shelters come with different
backgrounds, experience, and education. What they say may well
be justified, but may not be as well."
Ms. McManus agrees that the courts "tend to place a
great deal of weight on just the fact that a woman went to a
shelter. I've had a lot of experience in bail hearings where
men have been accused of abusing their spouse and the fact
that the spouse is in the shelter can be accepted as evidence
that there has been abuse."
Greta Smith, the executive director of the B.C./Yukon
Society of Transition Houses says her organization has no
policy regarding shelters writing letters on behalf of
clients. While she admits it's "possible that some
transition houses would write supportive letters," the
idea makes her uncomfortable. "I guess I would have to
see the letter. I'm sorry, I have some difficulty with that.
The fact that people would write letters without some good
solid reasons for writing a letter. Without seeing the letter
and without finding out what the circumstances are, it would
be very difficult to make comment on that."
When asked whether it's possible that some women are going
to shelters as a divorce tactic, Ms. Smith replies:
"Anything in this world is possible, but I do not believe
Louise Malenfant, a community activist in Winnipeg, calls
shelters "one-stop divorce shops for women," and is
disturbed by their `no questions asked policy.' She claims
that in addition to helping women who make false allegations
of wife abuse, shelters in her city have helped manufacture
Over the past four years, Ms. Malenfant has been an
advocate for 62 individuals who claimed to be falsely accused
of child sexual abuse during divorce proceedings. In a third
of those cases, she says, a women's shelter was involved.
At 1996 public hearings into the Manitoba Child and Family
Services Act, Ms. Malenfant alleged that children were taken
into a room that was off limits to their mothers, subjected to
a sexual abuse awareness program, and inappropriately
questioned by shelter staff.
"If you expose children to sexual material and you
question them repeatedly over the course of a week or two,
that child can literally repeat what they've been
taught," Ms. Malenfant told the National Post.
She maintains that even mothers who would not have
otherwise accused their spouses of incest were compelled to
treat such allegations seriously after they arose during a
shelter stay. Ms. Malenfant has publicly called for an inquiry
into women's shelters, and has written letters to government
officials protesting their policies. As a result, that
particular issue seems to have disappeared. "It was like
somebody sucked that problem right out of the place," Ms.
Malenfant says. "I have not seen a new women's shelter
case in over a year. I don't know what [the government has]
done; all I know is that it stopped."
"It's extremely disturbing," says Ms. Baragar of
the role shelters have been playing in custody and divorce
proceedings. "I get very angry about it from a personal
basis, because I think that there are very real cases of abuse
and what I see happening in the courts is that those cases now
have less value because of the lies that are so easily"
In the last year, Ms. Baragar says she has sensed a growing
cynicism from the bench.
"Judges are now more willing to believe that this is
just a lie. You know, it got to a point for a while that I
couldn't pick up a woman's affidavit where she wasn't accusing
him of abuse. You'd get page after page of what was being
called abuse, and people were quite prepared to go to women's
shelters for it.
"I mean, not everything is abuse. Just because it
wasn't a fun fight doesn't mean it was abuse."
© 1998 Southam Newspapers Inc.