Feuding families

How involved should the courts become?

PATRICIA CHISHOLM February 5 1996

Feuding families

How involved should the courts become?

PATRICIA CHISHOLM February 5 1996

Feuding families

How involved should the courts become?

The face of the Canadian family has changed dramatically over recent decades, leaving many people struggling to understand their roles within an almost unrecognizable institution. In this vacuum, some have turned to the courts for clarification—and cash.m

Last week, two Ontario cases demonstrated the law’s uneasy involvement in the sort of disputes that were once settled all in the family.

WHEN A MOTHER SUES HER KIDS

Siblings Stephen, Agnes and Martha Bolseo could hardly believe what was happening. Without any warning, in March, 1990, they learned that their widowed mother, Veronica Godwin, was suing them for support. Another sister, Magdalene Horton, later joined the suit voluntarily to show solidarity with her siblings. (Yet another son,

Paul, was not sued.) Although she works as a live-in caregiver for an elderly woman in St. Catharines, Ont., Godwin, 60, said that she needed the money to supplement her monthly income, which, including her widow’s pension, comes to about $850. Her adult children—mostly

well-educated and well-employed—argued that their mother was not in financial need and that, in any case, their upbringing bordered on the abusive. After a 1992 trial in St. Catharines, the Ontario court ruled in favor of Veronica Godwin, applying a littleknown provision of Ontario’s Family Law Act, under which grown children must support a parent in need “who has cared for or provided support for the child.” Last week, the Bolseo children failed to convince the Ontario Court of Appeal to reverse that decision—and must continue to pay their mother $1,000 in monthly support for the rest of her life.

Behind the unusual order lies the story of a deeply troubled family. In his January, 1993, decision, Judge P. W. Dunn found that the home environment had not been a warm and nurturing one and that discipline was often physical. (Godwin said her husband, Bert Bolseo, was an abusive alcoholic who moved out in 1973 and died two years later.) The judge concluded, however, that while the children’s upbringing might have fallen short of today’s expectations, it was not unusual for

the 1950s and 1960s. But the children argued that Godwin was a poor mother and, to make matters worse, had squandered her

assets, including $55,000 she received from the sale of the family home in 1988.

Godwin’s kids do not dispute their ability to pay. Stephen, 42, is a federal civil servant in Ottawa; Agnes, 38, is a special education consultant in Toronto; and Martha, 37, works in business administration in the same city.

None have children. Magdalene,

40, of St. Catharines, is a divorced mother of five who lives on social assistance. All would speak only through their lawyer.

“My clients are beyond angry,”

said their counsel, Herschel Fogelman. “This just doesn’t sit right with them.”

Although the statutory obligation to support parents dates back to the 1920s, it has rarely been used. Some experts, however, predict that the growth of Canada’s elderly

population, together with a shrinking social-

safety net, may prompt more aging parents to go the Godwin route. If nothing else, said Alan Mirabelli, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, “this case reminds us that family responsibilities go on for a lifetime, no matter how we perceive them.”

WHEN KIDS SUE THEIR FATHER

To tell hear it, court Andrew was and a last Elliott resort. Stewart Last week, the 11-year-old twins from Kanata, Ont., appeared outside the courthouse in nearby Ottawa, surrounded by reporters and television cameras. They were there, they said, to sue their father, David Stewart, 39, who divorced their mother, Eva Stewart, in 1988. The claim, which the boys say they drafted themselves, maintains that David Stewart owes the twins $760 for violating a separation agreement under which he is to pay $40 every time he misses a scheduled visit with his children. But after court officials told the boys that their claim must be heard in a higher court, and that as minors they must be represented by a lawyer, they went home without filing their documents.

The money is not the point, however, the quiet-spoken Elliott later explained. “I just want my dad to start seeing us again,” he said. “I couldn’t think of any other way, because we’ve tried everything else.” Eva Stewart, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother who has remarried, denies that she is using her sons to get back at her ex-husband. “How could I possibly benefit from this?” she says. “I just expected that he would feel ashamed of himself and then come and see the kids.”

But David Stewart’s lawyer, Colin McCorriston, said that his client loves Elliott and Andrew very much and is angry about the public spectacle the attempted lawsuit has created. “He believes it is a totally inappropriate way to resolve these difficulties,” McCorriston said. But private mediation has

failed on the visitation issue— although David Stewart does pay the required child support. Stewart, a technician who works on photocopy machines, has established a new relationship and is the father of twoyear-old twins. According to McCorriston, he saw Elliott and Andrew in October, midDecember and shortly after Christmas. But under the agreement, he is to see them every other weekend and on alternate holidays. Last week, the boys were turned down for le-

gal aid, but Eva Stewart said they will still try to find a lawyer. Painful as their action may be, it is better, the boys say, than waiting for their father to call.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

CHRISTINA WOLNIUK