Sunday, December 21, 2008
Published December 18, 2008
By Isaac Olson • TLN
Though the holiday season can be a joyous time for many Canadian families, it can also be a time of sadness for those whose children are in the legal custody of the other parent.
Officials with Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) say the country has done little to encourage co-parenting and, as divorce and separation becomes a fact of life in modern times, the government's inaction is creating a detrimental situation that could and should be avoided for the betterment of children, parents and society as a whole.
The spirit of giving
F4J Canada has recently launched "Project Save Christmas" to help impoverished families celebrate the season while reviving the spirit of giving in those who are barred from spending the holidays with their children.
According to a F4J Canada press release, 40 per cent of children in poverty are in single-parent homes. F4J officials are encouraging members who are not allowed to give gifts to their own children to instead give to children in need. Officials are also encouraging members to write or e-mail Santa Claus to let him know that "all we want for Christmas is our children and equal parenting."
"Children are the spirit of Christmas for every parent," stated Kris Titus, the National Coordinator of F4J Canada. "When a parent loses a child, Christmas becomes a nightmare, not a joy. Most feel helpless and politicians aren't listening, so this year we will appeal to Santa himself."
The fight for co-parenting
"Co-parenting can be successful as long as long as both parents' goals are to do what is right for the child," said Titus. "The reason of divorce is to separate from that person, but not to separate children from that person. There are now more than one million children in Canada that were raised by only one parent."
Citing an approximate 125,000 Quebec fathers unable to see their 300,000 children, Daniel Laforest, president of F4J Quebec, agreed with Titus. In a society where divorce has evolved into an everyday occurrence, the custody laws have failed to catch up to skyrocketing separation rates, he said.
"With more women in the work force and divorce so much easier than it was 50 years ago, we have moved to another family concept that is not stabilized right now," said Laforest. "The justice system and laws are not synchronized or adapted to the new society. We are in a transitional period and, for now, the fathers are the biggest losers. The children, unable to live with their fathers and mothers, lose as well. It has dramatic consequences on our society." Currently under court proceedings for a highflying protest in Toronto involving superhero-clad activists unfurling a banner from a crane, Titus, a mother of four boys, said she takes the fight for equal parenting very seriously.
Over the years, F4J has developed a reputation of civil disobedience as organizers work to inform the public of their message. This passion is derived from a desire to see their children as well as an urgent need to change current laws — laws they say have yet to improve. "I certainly wouldn't be getting myself arrested and potentially going to jail if I had seen any improvements," said Titus.
Laforest and Titus both linked the increase in children raised by one parent to the recent spikes in gangs, juvenile delinquency, high school dropouts, depression and other social issues. Children raised solely by one parent are more prone to trouble for a variety of reasons that range from poverty to a lack of proper guidance, explained Titus.
While children watch one parent get stonewalled and the other working long hours to fill the economic hole left by the separation, they often become confused, angry and, at times, delinquent, said Titus. When parents combat each other in court battles that sometimes take years, she said, children are exposed to negative life lessons that often damage social skills.
Laforest, who made an unsuccessful bid for Montreal's Laurier-Sainte-Marie riding in last October's federal election, said he has faith the laws will, with time, change to include more shared custody but, until that happens, it is vital to society that people fight for equal parenting. As it stands, his organization has over 2,000 supporters working to educate the public and change the legal system, he said.
"The best solution is to not have divorce," said Laforest. "But when divorce happens, the best solution is to give both the mother and father access to the children."
For the Sake of the Children
This year represents another milestone in family law. Dec. 9 marked the 10th Anniversary of the "For the Sake of the Children" report that recommended shared parenting as well as 47 other recommendations to improve family law in Canada. These recommendations, however, have yet to been implemented, states the F4J website.
"We never had a conclusion in respect to these recommendations over the last 10 years," said Laforest. "This has created a dramatic situation across Quebec, the country and the world. As a human a problem, it is probably the worst because of the effect on the children. We can't build a society where the fathers fight against the mothers and the mothers fight against the fathers for the children."
National Child Day
Canada's National Child Day, held on Nov. 20, was enacted in 1993 to pay tribute to the country's children while recognizing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which Canada is party to, spells out the basic human rights to which the world's children are entitled.
"I don't think Canada respects the principle of National Child Day nor the resolution," said Laforest.
The day should be used to recognize children, said Titus, but Canada has yet to do anything that officially acknowledges the country's youth. For now, her organization has dubbed it "National Childless Day."
"If Canada is truly committed to helping kids, the country needs to take a hard look at the parenting structure," said Titus, who noted that, besides their hope of 50/50 co-parenting across Canada, her organization would like, at the very least, to see a federal law that stipulates a higher court, not the family court, declare whether a parent is fit for the job.
According to Statistics Canada, custody is granted through court proceedings in three out of every 10 divorces. In the remaining divorces, couples arrived at custody arrangements outside the divorce proceedings or they did not have kids.
In 2002, Canada saw, for the first time, less than 50 per cent of mothers getting total custody. Of the 35,000 dependents for whom custody was determined through divorce proceedings in 2002, the custody of 49.5 per cent was awarded to the wife. The proportion of dependents awarded to mothers has declined steadily since 1988, when women were awarded custody 75.8 per cent of the time. In contrast, 41.8 per cent of 2002 cases resulted in joint custody.
Under a joint custody arrangement, children do not necessarily spend equal amounts of time with each parent, argues Titus. Often one parent, most commonly the father, is squeezed out of the picture by being allotted, for example, only one night a week with his kid(s), she said.
These statistics fail to cover unwed parents, which, Titus observed, is a whole other problem. When unmarried parents separate, she said, fathers are not protected under federal laws. While each province has its own laws in place, separated unwed fathers can potentially face an uphill legal battle when it comes to parenting. Often times they aren't even recognized on the birth certificate, said Titus, and therefore they have no rights to the child.
"We are going in the wrong direction," said Laforest. "We are destroying the image of fathers and creating a situation where there is no place for them in our culture. We have only one way to think in our Quebec society: women are victims and men are guilty people. We need to change that."