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In pursuit of deserved fatherhood
by Paola Bernardini
An army of divorced fathers is requesting modifications to the Divorce Act. Every year in Canada more than 70,000 marriages go awry. In addition to mothers who cannot get alimony from their ex-husbands, there are fathers who ask for custody of their children. They want the law amended to allow prosecution of those parents who falsely accuse their previous partners of psychological abuse and sexual harassment in order to prevent them from seeing their children, or who try and estrange the children from the other parent.
These men would like for the law to become similar to Italian rules, which state that the parent entrusted with custody of the children who does not encourage the children to establish a stable relationship with his/her former spouse commits a crime: this was reaffirmed on March 13, 2000 by the Italian Court of Cassation.
This is also what Anne C. Cools, Liberal MP, has been purporting for years through motions to the Parliament, where she states, with statistics, that false allegations of child abuse have become a routine trick in divorces. Anne C. Cools points the finger at those lawyers who lend themselves to these dirty tricks and even encourage them.
These data are contained in a report entitled "For the Sake of the Children" presented by the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access to Attorney General Anne McLellan in December 1998. The minister replied that she needed three years to examine the recommendations and verify the feasibility of eventual interventions by the Federal government, also considering Provincial jurisdictions.
MP Cools’ battle is shared by Reform MP Paul Forseth, from British Columbia, who’s coming to Toronto on April 1 (10:30 AM, at All Saints Church, 2850 Bloor St. W.) and will take part in a conference organized by FACT (Fathers Are Capable Too), an association of parents of both sexes, fighting for children’s rights and custody-related issues and which maintains that children need both parents even after a separation or divorce.
Paul Forseth, Justice Critic, was a member of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, and during the meeting will illustrate the work done through testimonies by 525 people and a voyage across Family Courts. The report suggests that the Federal government should review the Divorce Act, which has been untouched since 1997; but no signal came in spite of the promises made by the Attorney General on the occasion of the Throne Speech.
MP Forseth will talk about the tragedy of divorced fathers who are prevented from seeing their children, in connection with the latest suicide, that of 34-year-old Darrin Bruce White, from Prince George, BC, who hung himself on March 12 after a judge repealed his long legal battle to get the custody of his four children. The discussion will focus on negated custody, the lack of a clear law and other problems facing divorced parents and their children.
"Minister McLellan cannot wait any longer for passing amendments to this law," says Arthur Lowe, vice president of the Victoria Men’s Centre, another group of divorced parents from British Columbia supporting the initiative of Toronto FACT. "I will be seeking a meeting with the new Attorney General of British Columbia to discuss these matters immediately and to attempt to enlighten the NDP on the ever deepening crisis in the administration of Family Law. Ms. McLellan has a lot to answer for…
"Every day children in this country are losing their fathers, figuratively and literally. Where are the country’s priorities? Something is wrong with this picture. Chretien should ask for her resignation. Perhaps a call to Anne Cools would be worthwhile in getting the ‘big picture’ message clear and consistent across the country. Fathers must be left with enough money to live and parent with dignity; it must be recognized that both parents have an obligation to financially support their children. Reduction in [after tax] income should be shared by both parents if their ability to parent is likely to be impaired. Darrin White’s death was eminently avoidable. I believe the timely implementation of the recommendations of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access would have prevented his death."
These are the accusations and requests that the Victoria Men’s Group has always carried forward. "In our association we have heard many stories, we’ve seen many, many desperate people, too," continues Arthur Lowe. "In most cases the problems are linked to allegations made by the former spouse, and the corresponding impossibility to see one’s children. A tragedy of enormous proportions. And there is no way out, unless the very basis of the law is reformed, and therefore the culture of most Anglo-Saxon women and of several judges."
Nico Loiacono tells about his experience with the Victoria Men’s Group. "Here in Canada it’s not like in Italy, where there are solid principles about family life and married life, and when you go to the church you swear to live together ‘till death do us part.’ Anglo-Saxon women think differently, and the increase in divorces proves it. Many women, especially in British Columbia where a Provincial law grants divorced mothers and single mothers money and even a house. Being thus advantaged they do not hesitate to kick their husbands out."
Loiacono, in Canada for 27 years, is a member of the cohort of divorced fathers, and today he’s fighting in support of those who are in the midst of divorce but do not want to give up the chance to see their children. He clarifies: "My story is not a desperate one, because I divorced my wife with no great trauma, but this does not mean I should not fight to change an old law, full of pitfalls."
Nico, born in the vicinity of Bari, does not stop at the first obstacle, and is willing to take risks to stick to his beliefs. Like in 1973 when, after graduating at a jewelers’ school in Valenza Po, he packed up and flew to Toronto. "Why Canada? Because that way I could avoid serving in the army; let’s say it was a legal way to dodge the draft, although I’ll tell you that I still miss Italy after all these years. From Toronto I moved to Victoria, where I worked for some years as a jeweler, then I entered the construction industry. Brick upon brick, I built up my life, even on the ashes of my marriage," he adds with a touch of self-irony.
He says: "That’s why I keep up my volunteering with the Victoria Men’s Group: I want to help those who suffer and who do not know how to cope with their problems. For instance, our group supports those who do not know how to behave in a divorce suit, or how to ask for custody of their children. We also give them a list of lawyers with the positive and negative results they got in the past, so that they can decide whom to turn to, and whom to trust. Let me exemplify, a man, married for many years, lost his house even if he was entitled to at least 25 percent of it. That happened because his lawyer did not tell him to sign some papers, so his ex-wife sold the house and kept the money. What would you think of such a lawyer?"
Soon these stories turn to children. "Children had with Italian women and children had with Anglo-Saxon women. Here in Canada many women, of course not all of them – I wouldn’t like to generalize – have a child with a man, then another with someone else, and so on.
It’s a cultural matter, reinforced in British Columbia by the availability of welfare and grants. The fact that they dump their mistakes on someone else is not important. You see, it is not enough to say that ‘the pill did not work,’ or that precautions were not taken: whether you admit it or not, this is a highly questionable way, from both the legal and moral points of view, to extort a child from a man, who’s seen more as a stranger to be milked for cash than as a father. This generates jealousies and nastiness, and the children get estranged from their father." When he says nastiness he means allegations of psychological abuse and sexual harassment. "Too often I’ve seen men thrown in jail simply because they had bathed their kids before bedtime. These accusations have, unfortunately, become a routine in divorce suits, and the data speak for itself." This is also shown in the "For the Sake of the Children" report: in MP Roger Gallaway’s motion to amend the Divorce Act, he states that legal battles over child custody often lead lawyers to encourage their clients to complain of psychological abuse, and women in particular to complain about violence and abuse in order to gain the upper hand in disputes.
"It’s a war among miserables," Loiacono says, "and when a father divorces in Canada we reach the paradoxical situation that he’s allowed to raise everybody’s children but his own. When a woman accuses her husband of abuse or harassment, judges forbid him to raise his child, and if he’s lucky the poor father can see them only in the presence of a social worker. But he can freely raise someone else’s children, because with the same lightheartedness they use in accusing their former husbands many women take home strangers and make stepfathers out of them. Law allows it, and culture as well."
Tales continue on in the case of Salvatore Cino. Born in Racalmuto, in the Italian province of Agrigento, he’s the eldest of six brothers; his parents moved to Canada when he was five, and have been living in Stoney Creek, on the outskirts of Hamilton, ever since.
Little Talia, Salvatore’s daughter, was born in 1996, and spent her first six months among her cousins. For more than three years, she’s been living in British Columbia, where her mother brought her after her divorce from Salvatore. Her paternal grandparents have never seen her since. Not even on her fourth birthday, one month ago. But Talia is always in their hearts, and in their dreams she’s playing in their yard, under the peach and apricot trees, with her school, church and playground across the street.
Talia, like many other kids, is a victim of divorce laws that all too often forget about feelings. Her father cannot remember how many complaints he’s filed with that BC Court, where as many times he’s been told ‘you’ll see her soon’ or ‘you’ll be able to have her even four hours a day.’ All for nothing.
So last year his case went to the Supreme Court. Judge E. Robert Edwards declared that Talia "does not necessarily have to see her paternal grandparents. I’m not convinced that it would be in the girl’s best interest to bring her to Ontario and foster a relationship with the people she stayed with in the first months of her life."
This is what the judge wrote. So the previous court order that authorized Salvatore Cino to bring Talia in Stoney Creek for one month, to renew her ties with her grandparents and other relatives, was voided. And Salvatore fell into despair. "We got married in 1996 in British Columbia, then my wife Elizabeth Turudija , from Alberta, and I moved to Stoney Creek. Talia was born, and a few months later my wife went away, bringing my daughter with her. That was the day my nightmare began. I traveled to British Columbia so many times, sleeping in hostels for weeks, and I even had to leave my job to look for Talia. My ex-wife moved several times, and she’s still on the move. She’s changed her telephone number, in short she’s doing anything she can to keep me from seeing my daughter even for a hour. All too often justice is hampered: if a mother does not want a father to see his children, judges seldom rule against her, unless other factors come into consideration," says an embittered Cino.
He even risked never seeing her daughter again, when his ex-wife accused him of abuse. "When we divorced I had to appear six times in court, and after 20 days I was able to see my daughter. I accepted to give her $300 as monthly alimony and I could see my daughter 3 days per week, from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m." Dark eyes, blonde hair, little Talia looks happy in the pictures Salvatore carries with him at all times. Ten, 20, 30 shots, all of the girl whom her father regards with bright eyes. "Then everything crumbled when she accused me of abuse," Cino continues. "Police investigations began, a psychologist grilled me. I got very depressed when they brought me in front of the Minister of Children of British Columbia who forbid me any contact with my daughter." Months of investigations, then the accusations fell. The judge recognized Salvatore’s full innocence, and reinstated his right to see his daughter, but in the presence of a supervisor, warning him that if he didn’t behave they would take his girl away forever.
Statistics favour mothers
Marriages in Canada have steeply declined in the last few decades, and the divorce ratio has been steadily increasing since the late Sixties. Before 1968 few divorces were filed in Canada; with the Divorce Act of 1968 (and its amendment in 1985) the foundations for legalization were laid. The 55 divorces per 100,000 people of 1968 had become over 300 by the late Eighties. In 1990 there was a slight decrease, and by 1996 they were 241.
Canada’s highest divorce ratio is to be found in British Columbia and Alberta. In 1996 the ratio in BC was of 281 per 100,000, while in Alberta it was of 270. Another Province where a high ratio was recorded was Quebec (249), while PEI only had 174. Ontario and Quebec have shown strongly decreasing trends, and New Brunswick a slightly decreasing one. PEI, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan moved the other way, and Newfoundland shows a strong increase.
When couples with children divorce, mothers stand better chances than fathers to get custody of their kids.
In 1995, for instance, judges assigned the children to their mothers in 65 percent of the cases. Fathers only got them 11 percent of the time. In the last few years, however, consensual custody agreements have increased, and in 1995 21 percent of the divorces were "amicable," against 1 percent in 1986. At the same time, the number of children involved in divorce litigations decreased: while in 1982 they had been over 65,000, in 1995 they numbered 48,000.
The number grew in the past decades. In 1996 there were 1.1 million single parents, more than double the 1971 figure (478,000). By far, the majority of them are composed of women. In 1996, divorced mothers represented 83 percent of the total, almost a million in Canada (945,000). This is a 20 percent increase from 1991.
In the same period, the number of single fathers increased by 16 percent, from 165,000 to 192,000. Currently, about one fifth of the Canadian families with children (19 percent) has a father living out of the household: up from the 1991 16 percent, the 1981 14 percent and the Sixties’ less than 10 percent