Divorced dads can't catch a break
A decade after a recommended overhaul of Canada's divorce system – and more
equitable child-custody arrangements – fathers still face an uphill battle.
Fri., Oct. 2, 2009
More than a decade after a landmark study recommended an overhaul of
Canadian divorce law, courts still haven't caught up to the new reality of
Canadian family life. A generation of dads who can't stand being apart from
their children is pushing for change.
When Walter Mueller first walked into the support group, he was asked to
draw a picture of his life for the dozen or so men in the room.
Mueller drew three. In each one he was hanging out with his 9-year-old
daughter and 8-year-old son – splashing at the family's cottage, riding
bikes, trekking through a theme park. The picture isn't nearly so pretty for
many divorced Dads.
Mueller has seen some pushed to the brink of suicide and financial ruin in
their quest to remain a significant part of their children's lives. He's
heard others complain they've been relegated to the role of visitors and
virtual ATM machines.
"I was fearful of losing my children – how my life would go on. I didn't see
a light in any tunnel," says the 45-year-old Whitby dad, whose wife agreed
through mediation to let him see his children almost half the time. "I would
have spent every nickel, every dime, every penny I own to get to see my
children. Money doesn't matter when it comes to love."
A decade after Ottawa's Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access
recommended an overhaul of Canada's divorce system – and more equitable
child-custody arrangements – fathers still face an uphill battle.
"It's as bad or perhaps worse now," says retired MP Roger Gallaway, who
co-chaired the committee and its landmark 1998 report, "For the Sake of the
Children," and still gets calls from fathers shocked at their treatment in
the family court system.
"Men are still being deprived of their children. The courts have not changed
their attitudes all that much."
Family courts around the world have seen a "dramatic increase" in court disputes
launched by divorcing dads determined to see their children more than every
second weekend and Wednesday evenings, observes Australian law professor Patrick
"There has been a significant change in fathers' attitudes towards parenting
after separation," says Parkinson, one of the architects of drastic divorce
reforms in Australia that are aimed at boosting shared custody.
"They're more likely to be there in the birth room than smoking a cigar in the
waiting room. They're still not doing nearly as much as women, but they're more
involved, and when the relationship breaks up they're saying they're not going
to be second-class citizens – they're not going to be cut out of their kids'
lives." Despite mounting research that says the healthy development of children
depends on having a strong bond with both parents, Canadian judges still award
sole custody to Mom 45 per cent of the time. While joint custody awards have
more than doubled – up from about 20 per cent to 46.5 per cent between 1994 and
2005 – the term is really a misnomer. The kids still live with their mother most
of the time, although Dad is supposed to have a say in major decisions.
"Fundamentally, men get screwed in family court," says one veteran divorce
lawyer on condition her name not be used. "Judges make sure that assets are
split equally, but they don't do that on custody and child-related issues."
Many of the fathers going to family court seeking more time with their kids
don't fit the stereotypes of "dead-beat" or "disappearing" dads commonly
portrayed in the media. They're men who've changed diapers and helped with
homework but feel largely cut out of their kids' lives post-separation.
They include the airline pilot who was so stressed from his custody battle, he
called a fathers' hotline for help, saying he couldn't remember landing his
plane. Or the dad who had to be talked down from a bridge on Christmas Eve.
They are the men who sign up for DADS (Dads Aiming for Direction and Support),
one of the few support groups for fathers struggling in the family courts.
"I can't tell you how many men I've met who have spent $50,000 and $60,000
trying to see their kids, who come in here so broken, you're just worried
they're not going to make it through to the next week," says Jan Langlois,
clinical advisor for the John Howard Society of Durham Region, an agency that
usually focuses on ex-convicts but has helped everyone from police officers to
bankers since starting DADS in 1995.
She's seen fathers forbidden from their child's graduation because it's not
their visitation day, ex-wives who refuse to hand over the kids when Dad is five
minutes late for pickup. The free 10-week program, one of the few for men across
the GTA, is in such demand, it's now being expanded.
"I don't see men who don't want to pay child support. I see men who end up
sleeping on their parents' couches because they're broke (from legal bills) and
don't want to see their children go without."
Some have become cut off from their kids altogether by ex-wives who move across
the country or defy access orders with virtual impunity, says Langlois.
She's seeing more left devastated by Ontario's 30-year-old "zero tolerance"
directive, an initiative from the Ministry of the Attorney General aimed at
forcing police and Crown attorneys to crack down on the scourge of domestic
abuse against women. By alleging assault, a woman can pretty much assure that an
ex-spouse will be removed from the house and tied up in a costly criminal trial
during which she'll have interim custody of the kids, setting the stage for how
the case proceeds.
"It's been a death sentence to me as a father in the eyes of my children," says
a Toronto dad who agreed to a plea bargain, resulting in a conditional discharge
on what he says were false allegations, rather than risk a long and costly
trial. He's since spent $100,000 trying to convince a court that the sole
custody awarded to his wife isn't in the best interests of his three sons.
The fact that so many decisions around custody and access are made orally in
Ontario's family courts makes it virtually impossible to know how many fathers
are like an Owen Sound man who says false allegations of child abuse 15 years
ago still haunt his support payment case and cost him custody of his 16-year-old
daughter, even though he was never charged or tried.
But one thing is quite clear. Stepping into Ontario's overburdened family courts
can be like stepping into quicksand: Toronto father Vitaly Levin has spent
$84,000 so far convincing the court to let him see his girls, 9 and 2 1/2 , half
"Judges call it sole custody," says the technology worker. "I call it stolen
That's why so many men opt to represent themselves, or spend Wednesday nights in
the nursery of Danforth Ave.'s Eastminster United Church, where Danny Guspie,
founder of Fathers' Resources International, offers two-hour divorce strategy
"One thing that seems to be very much in common with the men I see is that they
just want the bleeding to stop," says Guspie. "They take the view, `Can we not
just stop fighting over the failure of our relationship? We screwed up, must we
perpetuate that in our children? Just tell me what I have to pay, but don't make
me sleep in my car. And when I come to get the kids, don't give me a hard
Of course, not everyone believes that men get the short end of the stick in
family court. "Mothers feel equally angry with the system and also feel they
don't get a fair shake," says Ontario family court judge Harvey Brownstone, who
has written a best-selling book, Tug
of War, as a warning to warring couples to try to avoid court at all costs.
He's heard men complain that they risk going to jail if they don't pay support,
yet their ex-wives are seldom penalized for lying on the stand or defying
court-ordered access to the kids.
But Brownstone adds that in his experience, jailing mothers "has made things
worse, not better," noting that the kids often end up in foster care while the
court sorts out where they should live.
"They (men jailed for not paying support) have the keys in their own pocket.
They can pay and get out."
Pamela Cross, a family lawyer and director of the National Association of Women
and the Law, contends too many women still suffer abuse at the hands of men who
refuse to pay court-ordered child support. They also have to deal with the
fallout when fathers don't show up for their access time, leaving devastated
kids waiting at the door.
Men who push relentlessly for more time with the kids tend to be driven more by
control issues and cash than quality time, argues Cross. Since child support
payments are based on the so-called "40-per-cent rule," if a father has the
children more than 40 per cent of the time, he can seek a reduction in payments
(whereas if the mother has them more than 40 per cent of the time, she gets full
Many parents and lawyers blame 1999 Divorce Act reform for turning kids into
"economic hostages" and driving up custody disputes.
Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley, a former criminal lawyer, has been
praised by some family law lawyers for recognizing the unique problems plaguing
the family courts. He's been quietly meeting with family law experts across the
province the past few months and recently announced a $150 million increase in
legal aid funding, much of it for family law cases, and said he's determined to
streamline and speed up the court system while providing more upfront services
such as mediation to keep cases out of the courts.
Judges are getting tougher with obstreperous parents – be they fathers or
mothers – and sensitive to the importance of dads in their children's lives,
says family law lawyer Steven Benmor. As a handful of recent cases have shown,
they're also more willing to switch custody if one parent is habitually denying
access or turning the kids against the other parent.
Australia's Parkinson studies family law issues around the world and says
father's groups that have been pushing for more equal access to their children
have been unfairly labelled as fanatics, especially in Canada where the fight
between feminists and so-called father's rights groups have been, in his view,
"There are some way-out and wacky men's groups, but the closer you get to some
of these groups, the more you see decent, down-to-earth men who are distressed,
who are upset, some of them are angry, and they're human beings. All they're
saying is, `I love my kids and I want to do the best for them.'"We need to get
away from this warfare and think about the children."
Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre
Across Canada there is very little in the way of support for Fathers and
feminists generally attempt to label
any organization that provides any support for fathers as "waky" or angry.
If you attend any meeting of divorced fathers you will find that most don't
drink and are very conservative devoted fathers.
Most of them are more interested in
talking about parenting issues than being angry at the system but all will agree
that our legal system is deeply troubled and is stacked against fathers beyond
the comprehension of those who are first learning
that fathers in Canada in reality have few legal rights in practice.
Ottawa Mens Centre
(613) 797 3237