SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
BY SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
Marjorie leans against the window sill in an Edmonton courthouse, rolling her eyes with impatience. “It’s Saturday, for Christ’s sake,” the mother of three grumbles. “I’ll skip out if I can.” Marjorie, who refuses to give her last name, is a reluctant participant in a workshop on divorce. So is Jerry Miller: the solemn-faced father of two teenagers complains that he is “upset by this outside interference on a family matter.” But since last October, when Alberta introduced Canada’s first compulsory divorce education program, anyone who wants to go to court with a dispute about child support, custody or access must first attend a six-hour course called Parenting After Separation. The irreverent call it “Splitsville High.” Here, learning how to negotiate with a hostile spouse is lesson number 1. “On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your ability to communicate with your ex?” asks instructor Stephen Andrew. Hands fly up for the lowest score: about a third, it seems, can barely speak to their former partners without a fight. Only two claim a civil relationship. The rest fall into an uneasy middle ground. “Oh,” says Andrew, “we’ve got our work cut out for us today.”
Welcome to divorce 101, a modern attempt to solve an alltoo-modern problem. Alberta’s program teaching parents how to handle marital breakup is part of a divorce reform movement now sweeping North America. Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Ontario and several other provinces are planning to introduce similar courses. Meanwhile, divorce schools are now available in 40 American states and mandatory in three. Often, the initiative comes from judges tired of playing King Solomon to vindictive parents. Courtrooms are jammed with thousands of parents fighting over child support, custody and access. Aggravating the problem are recent massive cuts in legal aid, forcing many parents to represent themselves. Meanwhile, a small but vocal fathers’ rights movement is playing gender politics, claiming that a biased legal system is routinely leaving them with hefty support payments and little in the way of access.
Late last month, those fathers got a chance to air their controversial views in the political arena, along with grandmothers, women’s groups and representatives of children’s rights organizations. In the first of a series of cross-country hearings, a special joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons explored the emotional, psychological and legal aspects of custody and access. The atmosphere in both Toronto and Montreal was poisonous: men sneered and heckled so viciously when women talked about wife battering that Conservative Senator Ermine Cohen began to cry, fearing that the hearings had become a “war zone.” The committee travels to Vancouver, Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg later this month, then continues to the Atlantic provinces in May. “Everybody has a brother or sister, parent or neigh-
bor involved in a divorce,” says Liberal Senator Anne Cools, one of the most outspoken members of the committee. “It’s now time to look at the plight of the children. The problems are enormous.”
Divorce, once meant to liberate families from unnecessary misery, appears to have caught many children in its crossfire. In the 1970s, the traditional wisdom that children might be harmed by divorce came to be viewed as quaint—as hopelessly outdated as Father Knows Best. The Creative Divorce, a 1970s best-seller and The Brady Bunch, a popular sitcom about a sprawling blended family, signalled a shift to a positive new attitude. “If divorce could make one or both parents happier, then it was likely to improve the well-being of children as well,” explains American social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in her controversial 1997 book, The Divorce Culture. Now, she says, “we are sadder but wiser.”
And angrier. Anti-divorce sentiment is leading the push for tougher divorce laws. The backlash is particularly strong in the United States, where close to half of all marriages break down. Last year, Louisiana introduced “covenant” marriages, in which couples opt for a contract, making it more difficult to divorce. In Canada, the numbers are stark: before the introduction of the Divorce Act in 1968, the divorce rate sat at eight per cent. By 1987, a year after the institution of no-fault divorce, that figure had skyrocketed to 44 per cent; last year, it had fallen to 40 per cent. “The levels have come down, and are relatively stable,” says Robert Glossop, director of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. “But they are stable at
PARENTS ARE STRUGGLING TO PUT KIDS FIRST
a historically unprecedented high rate.” Last year, he notes, about 60,000 children were involved in a custody dispute.
There is no doubt that some children are better off after their parents divorce. “Many are relieved that they no longer live in abusive families, with fear and violence and squabbling,” says University of Alberta sociologist Susan McDaniel. But there is growing evidence that many children suffer long-term damage. Judith Wallerstein, a renowned California psychologist, was the first to announce the bad news in the early 1980s, when she began to publish reports of a study on children from divorced families. Her findings were ominous: they warned of long-term psychological, emotional and social problems, including high rates of suicide. Experts debate how many children are affected and to what extent. “But it doesn’t matter whether it’s 20 per cent or 50,” says Rhonda Freeman,
head of the Toronto divorce support service Families in Transition. “In 25 years, I have yet to meet a child who has no effects.”
In the cramped waiting room of Freeman’s downtown centre, children have left stark testimony to their feelings. A bulletin board, divided down the middle, offers kids a chance to express both the good and the bad things about divorce. Most important. Freeman told the children to place the board where their parents would have no way of avoiding it. On the “bad” side is scribbled: “You don’t do anything with both parents together any more.” As well: “I am still sad. They are still fighting.” On the “good” side? “I got two cats.” “They stopped fighting.” In between are crayoned pictures of parents and children, some together, some apart, plus houses and a radiant sun.
Freeman, a pioneer in helping families cope, is convinced that three primary factors lead to severe psychological difficulties: parental conflict, poverty and parental abandonment. In turn, those psychological problems are increasingly linked to teen pregnancy, drug abuse and other social problems.
And policy-makers are starting to add up the costs.
Paul Szabo, federal MP for Mississauga South, who last year introduced legislation to make divorce counselling mandatory across Canada, has produced two booklets about the public burden of divorce. Szabo writes: “The consequences of family breakdown are greater demands on our health and social programs and more crime.”
Should parents stay together for the sake of the children? A recent Statistics Canada poll shows that those under 30 are more inclined than baby boomers to believe they should. Still, few would advocate a return to the punitive pre-Divorce Act days when it took an Act of Parliament to end a marriage, and even then, only on grounds of adultery, often using pre-arranged photos taken by private eyes. “Divorce is necessary,” says York University sociologist
Anne-Marie Ambert. “It is a safety valve for serious cases of abuse, overt hostility and an absolutely miserable marriage.” At the same time, Ambert’s extensive research for her book Ex-Spouses and New-Spouses shows that a large proportion of divorced couples come to regret their decision. “In one-third of the cases, there were no serious grounds for divorce and they themselves would say things like, ‘If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t do it.’ ”
Intriguingly, secular voices are joining the typically faithbased chorus against divorce. “I think people often give up too easily,” says best-selling author and psychologist Peter Kramer (,Should You Leave?). “People are more energetic and zestful and satisfied when they fulfil their obligations than when they forsake them. And our greatest obligation is probably to children.” Still, Kramer concedes, “for all that this has been studied, nobody knows whether staying in a bad relationship is worse for children. I think the quality of divorce has probably improved somewhat. People have to start looking at divorce as a stable social institution, at making it more child-friendly.”
In fact, while some couples end their marriages War of the Roses-style, others are forging responsible, civilized reconfigurations, often with two active households. “Couples part without destroying the lives of those they love,” writes California sociologist Constance Ahrons in The Good Divorce. “These divorces don’t make headlines—what they do is model the beginnings of a quiet social revolution.” Such parents are helping to ease the transition by reducing the acrimony, and remaining active in their children’s lives. There is a burgeoning market for storybooks about blended families, with such titles as We’re Doing It and Being a Family. Since its introduction in Canada in 1987, Rainbows, an international support group for children, has at-
WHO GETS THE KIDS?
Custody outcomes in 1994
‘PEOPLE HAVE TO START LOOKING AT DIVORCE AS A STABLE INSTITUTION, AT MAKING IT CHILD-FRIENDLY’
tracted thousands to weekly peer-support sessions held in schools, churches and community centres across the country (page 44). There is also a growing acceptance of a new cultural norm: the multi-parent families that span two or more households.
Tommy Cloherty is part of that quiet revolution. When the Montreal production clerk’s marriage ended eight years ago, he had no intention of losing touch with his daughter and son, now 15 and 13. At the time of their breakup, he and his spouse, Mary Ann Cloherty, put aside their ill feelings. “We avoided courts,” says Cloherty, who is legally separated. Now, the children alternate, in three-week stints, with each parent. Friends and acquaintances, he reports, find it unusual that he and his new partner, Diane Paquette—also divorced with two children—are on such good terms with his exwife. “Mary Ann has been over here for dinner,” says Cloherty. “It’s weird but it works. The kids are happy, so we’re happy.”
Fathers’ rights advocates argue that such arrangements should be accepted as the norm. Department of justice statistics show that in 1994, only 20.5 per cent of the 78,800 divorce cases where a custody decision was made resulted in a shared parenting arrangement. Of the remaining cases, only 9.8 per cent granted custody to fathers. ‘You cannot have an effective role when you see your children for 48 hours every second weekend,” says Sean Cummings, a Halifax divorce counsellor. “In many cases, fatherhood is happening between the hours of 4:30 and 6 p.m. at McDonald’s every second Friday.” The National Shared Parenting Association —an organization led largely by fathers that has joined ranks with grandparents—is lobbying for a change in the Divorce Act, making shared custody automatic in every divorce, except in cases involving abuse. And activists want the courts to stop using the words “custody” and “access”—with their implications of ownership. “If I am married, I am a parent,” says Cummings. “But if I get divorced, I have access. Well, access is something we have to refrigerators and cars. It should be referred to as ‘parenting time.’ ”
“I remember Daddy used to tuck me in at night and I remember I was still waiting and he didn’t because that was when he first divorced,” says six-year-old Kimberley Gauthier.
“Now we are living far from Daddy and we only get to see him a little bit of time,” says her eight-year-old sister, Anne-Marie.
“The divorce is bad because I don’t always to like to go from one to the other and back again,” says 11-yearold Philippe Gauthier. “I like being with both at the same time. It gets complicated. ”
Every second weekend, Montreal businessman Gerald Gauthier, 49, drives six hours down the 401 so he can spend time with his three children in Toronto. “They live with their mother and I have what is known as visitation rights,” says Gauthier, who has been separated since 1995.
Gauthier is appealing the decision that allowed his wife to move to
Toronto last year. “It is very difficult to accept that a court can take your children away from you and call you just a paying visitor,” says Gauthier. “I really haven’t accepted that yet and I don’t know if I ever will.”
Many angry fathers insist that the legal system is stacked against them. “Pick a courtroom—any courtroom,” says Stacy Robb, a 42-year-old former truck driver and president of D.A.D.S. Canada, one of several fathers’ rights groups. ‘Time and again, mom is getting custody and dad is paying support.” Robb and other fathers’ rights advocates claim that women “routinely” make false allegations of abuse to win custody of their children. And Katherine McNeil, a Vancouver child custody consultant, backs up fathers’ claims that women make false accusations to win custody. “It happens regularly,” says McNeil. She tells of a recent case in which a father was jailed and lost custody of his children after he was charged with assaulting his wife. “He was a stay-at-home dad, bonded with the kids, and the mother’s conduct was abhorrent,” she says. “But the judge was a traditionalist who favored custody to the mother.”
York’s Ambert says that, while some fathers have legitimate grounds for complaint, “the simple fact is that, on average, mothers have the raw end of the deal.” Mothers, especially in the first few years after divorce, often bear the financial responsibility. In Canada, non-custodial parents—mostly fathers—owe a total of $1 billion in support payments to ex-spouses. “A lot of fathers who see their children regularly and think they are good fathers are actually what you call Sunday daddies,” says Ambert. “They are simply having a good time with their kids, whereas mothers are responsible for school schedules, homework, doctors appointments, babysitters.”
Women’s advocates, and many men, are appalled at the guerrilla-like tactics of such radical fathers rights’ groups as D.A.D.S. Canada and FACT, who have jammed the telephone lines of child support enforcement agencies, picketed “deadbeat moms” and “deadbeat judges,” and posted vitriolic messages on the Internet. Robb defends his organization’s activities: ‘They call us fanatics because we’ve got the moxie to get up and say, ‘Hey, something’s wrong with the system.”
But women’s groups say that FACT and other men’s groups —most of them formed within the past two years—are reacting to recent government initiatives to crack down on parents who owe child support, as well as to new federal guidelines that generally increase payments to custodial mothers. “It’s a backlash,” says Toronto lawyer Carole Curtis. “Men are against women’s demands for better treatment after separation.”
Women’s advocates believe that there are good reasons why mothers are granted access in the majority of cases. “Mothers are the primary caretakers,” says Vancouver lawyer Faura Spitz. “It is not biased to recognize that and give them custody.” Lawyers representing women say that fathers’ demands for custody are often just bargaining chips. “Mothers are so frightened of losing custody that they will give up money at the drop of a hat,” says Curtis. “And fathers are willing to let them do that.” Family law specialists say that many divorced women are open to co-parenting arrangements, but find that fathers drop out of children’s lives. Even
FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN?
“It requires phenomenal co-operation and a certain level of income,”
Curtis observes. “To have two houses, or even two apartments, is very expensive.”
Not all divorced parents have the level of trust, respect and ability to communicate required for shared parenting to work. “You have to value each other and respect each other,” says Wallerstein. “You have to be able to say, ‘Jimmy is sick today,’ without the other parent saying, ‘I’ve heard that excuse before.’ ” Shared parenting, she points out, means a closer emotional proximity. “You have to have parents who can stand living close without going to pieces when they learn every detail of the other’s life.
The child is going to come back and say, ‘Oh, Daddy has a new girlfriend.’ What are you going to do?
Muzzle the child?”
At the same time, the current legal presumption that the primary caretaker should win custody may not adequately recognize the critical role of both mothers and fathers. “It is sensible to maintain a collaborative situation where both parents are available to the child psychologically, financially and socially,” says Adam Horvath, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Edward Kruk, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia believes it is crucial to distinguish between a father’s involvement in child care and actual attachment. “Fathers form very close bonds with their children,” says Kruk. “In the vast majority of families, both are primary parents in the sense of children’s attachment.” But Kruk cautions against what he calls a “one-shoe-fits-all approach” to divorce. He believes in preserving the relationship that children had with their parents before the breakup. “When fathers are very involved in all aspects of child rearing,” says Kruk, “they can continue to do that.”
The emotional pain of divorce is often accompanied by a
harsh economic sting. “A decline in the standard of living is inevitable because you have two households to support,” says Queen’s University political scientist and child support expert Ross Finnie. Carl, a Mississauga, Ont., airline employee, and his wife, a flight attendant, tried to avoid the financial crunch by continuing to live in the family home. “I am a mole,” says the father of two children, aged 12 and 14. “I live in the basement.” Although shift work helps keep them apart, they often end up in arguments, sometimes in front of the children. Still, he adds, “the children have a home, whether it’s stable or unstable.”
when parents are granted joint custody, many children eventually gravitate to the mother’s home. “The majority of my clients want fathers to have more access,” says Spitz, “and can’t get them interested.”
Last June, the federal government introduced new child support guidelines, hoping to eliminate some of the friction over child support. The mandatory guidelines link the size of the payments to the salary of the non-custodial parent. A parent with two children earning $50,000 pays $700 a month, for instance, and one earning $20,000, $285. It has eliminated disputes in certain cases and helped lift women and children out of poverty. But critics say the guidelines, which the court is required to apply in almost every case, in fact, are creating more fights over custody. According to the guidelines, a parent must pay the amount specified in the tables if they have custody less than 40 per cent of the time.
Mothers have rights. Fathers have rights. But what’s best for the children? “The whole debate should come back to a child focus,” says Freeman, “to what a child needs.” Experts say it would be a mistake to legally impose shared parenting on every divorced family.
But many fathers claim the law is unfair. Alar Soever, a Toronto geologist, has custody of his two children, aged 10 and 7, five nights out of every 14 during the school year, with holiday time shared equally with his wife. Based on that custody agreement, the judge calculated that he spends 38 per cent of his time with his children and ordered him to pay $1,200 per month. “I end up with a lower standard of living than my wife, even though my ex-
“Growing up is much bigger than being with your daddy or your mommy,” says Wallerstein. “A lot of it takes place on the playgrounds, with friends, listening to music by yourself.” Nor can every divorced couple manage to reach the postdivorce ideal of shared parenting.
penses are fairly similar to hers,” says Soever, who is challenging the order in court. “The issue is whether I get credit for my parenting.”
Critics argue that Canada’s family law system pits parents against each other in a win or lose situation that is damaging to children. “The notion that litigation solves custody or parenting problems is ludicrous,” says University of Ottawa family law professor Julian Payne. “It may even make them a lot worse.” Do lawyers promote hostility? “It is an adversarial system and some lawyers take the position that their job is to put their client’s best interests first,” says Halifax lawyer Philip Mix. A lawyer, he says, might inform a client, “if your spouse sees the children any more than 40 per cent of the time, then there is a possibility that your support will be reduced.” That, adds Mix, “is not illegal, or immoral— it’s a statement of the law. But it creates another area whereby the parties will war.” But Payne argues that it is unfair to blame lawyers for the hostility parents—and children—feel when a family comes apart. ‘The battle is not created by the legal system,” he says. “These people are in conflict, and human nature is often at its worst in the divorce process.”
Cathy Simons, an Ottawa legal secretary, used the mediation process to help hammer out a parenting agreement with her ex-husband after they separated seven years ago.
FOR THOUSANDS OF PARENTS, LIFE AFTER DIVORCE IS A SERIES OF COMPROMISES AND NEGOTIATIONS
She and her ex met in their mediator’s living room and painstakingly went through all their conflicting issues. “He would give on a point, and I would give on a point,” says I Simons. The result was a detailed document that specified how much time their two children would spend in each household and how decisions would be made on medical and education issues. ‘The idea was to reinforce that we were joint parenting,” explains Simons. In practice, she says, “it is parallel parenting—he deals with issues his way and I deal with issues my way.”
Rarely do the two even speak. Instead, the children, Abigail, f 8, and Roy, 10, carry a lined black notebook back and forth between their two homes. Each parent writes in times and dates for the children’s appointments, birthday invitations ¡ and other reminders. So strained is their relationship that they also rely on the black book to settle disputes about discipline or school problems. Now the former spouses are renegotiating their agreement in a new round of mediation—one that is proving even more difficult than the last. “Each parent wants to maintain the time they had,” says Simons. “But the children want to make sure they get to go to their sports or dance activities. They start saying, ‘It doesn’t really matter I which parent we are with—we have a life here.’ ”
For Simons, and thousands of other Canadian parents, life after divorce is a series of compromises and negotiations.
“When you have children, you really cannot get rid of your f ex,” notes Ambert, “not if you care about the well-being of | your children.” Many cannot—or will not—cope with that reality Some parents become disheartened and fade out of J their children’s lives. Others remain in a perpetual post-marital war zone. “Let’s not be sanctimonious,” says Ambert. “Sometimes people are so humiliated and betrayed that even good parents can’t put kids first.” And some critics believe that legislators should stay out of the divorce process altogether. Curtis estimates that about 10 per cent of her clients are “hostility junkies” who never stop fighting. She tells of ! parents needing an immediate court order: “She’s in a shel| ter because he beat her up or he’s at the airport, on his way ;f to Saudi Arabia with the kids. We have to let go of the notion that we can solve all these cases.”
The divorce workshop in Edmonton wraps up on time, at 4 p.m. Participants—including Maijorie—line up to receive the blue certificate that will prove to the court that they attended the Parenting After Separation course. Blane Collison, a 28-year-old photographer, sporting a broad smile and a gold ring in his right ear, says the course has already made a difference in his life. For a time, his former wife, Shelley Collison, had refused to allow him to see their two-year-old daughter, Blaire. But she changed her mind after attending the workshop a month earlier. “It made me focus on Blaire, not on my problems with Blane,” the 28-yearj old administrative assistant explains. “He is her father and you can’t deny the child. If you do, they end up resenting you as they get older.”
Wallerstein applauds the Alberta initiative. “They must have some very enlightened judges,” she says. “There is a need to help families deal with their issues, and a need to teach them how to do so.” In the end, does a child of divorce have any hope for a happy future? “You can’t tell the next day,” she cauj tions. “But are some children able to have good lives and good marriages and good careers? Yes, of course. The issue is ¡ better parenting.” □