From the National Association of Women and the Law
Susan Delacourt's recent article - "The Great Canadian Child-Custody Dispute" frames the current federal consultations on child custody and support as a battle between "warring parties" that will not be "appeased." She says it's the feminists vs. the fathers' rights groups. This analysis does no justice to the serious issues at stake. It sets the stage for the Department of Justice to move with a gender-blind, "neutral" approach that purports to be "for the kids", but that may end up cutting like Solomon's sword.
The National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), the Ontario Women's Network on Custody and Access, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) and other women's equality-seeking groups are asking government to consider the impact of proposed shared-parenting options on the children's best interest - as well as on women's rights to security and equality. The following press statement released last week sets out the reasons why.
Gender-Based Examination in the Best Interest of Children
Women's groups are meeting with the media today to release our response to the current country-wide public consultations on changing family law in Canada being conducted by the federal and provincial governments. We have prepared a comprehensive brief which has been sent to these governments on options being proposed in the public consultation paper, "Custody, Access and Child Support in Canada: Putting Children's Interests First."
We do not believe the options in this paper do put children's interests first. We believe, in fact, that some of the options being proposed may put children and women's safety in jeopardy. Our serious concerns have brought us here today.
The current consultations are a follow-up to Joint House of Commons/Senate hearings on custody and access held across the country in 1998. Those hearings were often acrimonious and controversial. The resulting report of the hearings was similarly controversial. The federal and provincial ministries responsible for family law have been studying it and other options for divorce-law change since 1998, in preparation for a final response from the federal Minister of Justice family-law reform, scheduled for the spring of 2002.
The public consultations currently underway take two parts: one is a call for response from the public to the consultation paper; the other is a series of meetings with interested groups being held in various locations across the country. Responses to the consultations are expected to guide changes to the Divorce Act, and could radically change family-law court decisions for Canadian families in the future.
We are here today because we are concerned about a number of options presented by the federal and provincial governments in the consultation paper, and the potential negative impact they may have on children and women. In particular, we are concerned about the prevalence of options suggesting "shared-parenting" models as a foundation for family-law decisions.
Today in Canada, as in the past, it is still women who are the primary caregivers with respect to the physical, emotional and practical needs of children - both before and after divorce, and regardless of custody orders.
Although we believe that the opportunity for fathers to engage meaningfully with their children and to share fully in caring for them is very important, we also know that imposing a shared-parenting arrangement on angry, uncooperative and sometimes even violent spouses who have little experience in shared caregiving during marriage, would be a terrible mistake.
Research on shared-parenting models that have been tried in other countries shows that enshrining them in family law does not change parenting patterns after separation and divorce, or provide additional parental support for children. Even more disturbing, when an ex-partner is abusive, these provisions can actually jeopardize women and children's security and well-being, even when courts are directed to consider violence in making their decisions - and increasingly, abusers will use them to further harass former partners through increasing litigation.
Parents who are able to cooperate and communicate after divorce seldom need a court order to determine child caregiving arrangements. It is those situations of high conflict and violence that are more likely to require family-court orders such as those being outlined in the consultation paper. And it is in just those situations where "shared-parenting" orders are not in the best interests of children.
We fear that the principle that a child has a right to equal access to both parents after divorce will quickly be transformed into the father's right to obtain equal access to the children, and that this right will supercede children's and women's safety and well-being.
The recent Dillman case in Alberta, where a mother was ordered by family court to bring her two young children to visit their father in jail, where he was serving time for sexual assault, tragically illustrates the extent to which some fathers and some courts will go to maintain a father's right of access - even when sexual abuse of children is at issue.We are calling on the federal and provincial governments to recognize the well-researched problems with many of the options outlined in the consultation paper.
But we also want to express our concern about the current reform options presented in the consultation paper because they are deliberately gender neutral. They do not recognize or address the differential experiences of men and women in families, or the differential experiences among women in Canada.
Gender neutrality does not recognize the financial inequalities of parents after divorce. Women remain the primary caregivers of children, regardless of court custody decisions, but an increasing number of them live below the poverty line. This is doubly so for Aboriginal women, women of colour and women with disabilities.
Women's workload has also been increased in the past decade by cuts to social programs and supports such as health care, which have downloaded additional responsibilities for family caregiving to women.
Violence against women and children in the home remains a widespread, serious and pressing issue, which has serious, sometimes lethal impacts on women and children attempting to escape, many of whom must seek family court decisions to protect their children from abuse.
An examination of parental decision-making and responsibility, of supports for children and parents, of the emotional, physical and financial well-being of children after divorce, cannot be separated from these realities for their mothers.
An examination of family law cannot be gender neutral and still put children first.
The groups here today, therefore, are requesting that the federal and provincial ministers of justice undertake a gender-based analysis of family law reform, and that they evaluate the impact of the proposed options, in particular models for "shared parenting", both on children's well-being and on women's equality rights.
We are also calling on the federal and provincial governments to examine the impact of proposed family law reform options on women and on children from all communities, taking into account the context, conditions and obstacles for Aboriginal women, women of colour, women with disabilities, poor women, lesbians, and other women from groups who are subjected to discrimination.
Government must take into account the sexism, racism and class bias that operates in society, as well as in law. It must carefully assess all law reform for any potential to exacerbate the existing inequality of women in the family and in society. The best interest of children is inextricably linked to all aspects of women's equality.
We are asking governments not to cave in to a fathers'-rights-groups agenda, but to assess carefully whether the presumption of maximum contact, shared parenting, mediation and parenting plans proposed in the consultations will truly be best for the children of divorcing parents.
Finally, we call today on Anne McLellan, federal Minister of Justice, to hold consultations with women's equality seeking organizations, from a gender-based perspective, in order to discuss the issues raised in the consultation document and, more generally, in the reform of family law. ___________________________________________________The Ontario Women's Network on Custody and Access was created in March 2001 to respond to the federal consultations on custody and access. Some of the members of this Network include:
The National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women (METRAC) The DisAbled Women's Network (DAWN) Ontario Education Wife Assault (EWA) Faye Peterson Transition House London Battered Women's Advocacy CentreNorthwestern Ontario Women's CentreAction ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes
Our brief is also endorsed by:
Women's Resources of Simcoe County, MidlandMy Friend's House, CollingwoodGreen Haven Shelter for Women, OrilliaThe Status of Women Office, Equity Services, Carleton University
Additional endorsements will also be forthcoming.
The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), and the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) also support this initiative today.
For more information, please call:
Pam Cross, METRAC: (416) 392-3135Eileen Morrow, OAITH: (416) 977-6619
Pour des entrevues en franÃ§ais, communiquer avec:
AndrÃ©e CÃ´tÃ©, NAWL/ANFD: (613) 241-7570
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