|Since their son's divorce last year, when their ex-daughter-in-law packed up and moved to Ontario, Ron and Gloria Evans of Edmonton have spent over $15,000 on legal fees and airline tickets trying to see their two young granddaughters. That investment has yielded just one brief visit. Their situation is not uncommon. While the courts award access to parents and grandparents who find themselves in circumstances similar to those of the Evans family, these legal dictates continue to be frequently ignored by custodial parents. At the same time, the provincial government all but overlooks such defiant breaches of the law and continues instead to crack down on non-custodial parents who are behind in their support payments.|
Despite repeated court orders to the contrary, the Evans' only visit with their granddaughters was on the front porch of their home September 26. "It was the older granddaughter's birthday. They were brought over by their mother's boyfriend, two hours late, Mrs. Evans recalls. When the girls, ages eight and 10, did not arrive at the appointed time, and there was no way of contacting their mother, the grandparents assumed the children were not coming. "My son [the children's father] had gone to work. My husband was asleep. When they finally came, the girls stayed at the bottom of the front porch, with the boyfriend holding onto them the whole time." "It was awful," says Mrs. Evans sadly. "The girls looked at me like I had horns and a tail." After 10 minutes of stilted conversation, frequently interrupted by the boyfriend, and during which Mrs. Evans says the girls appeared frightened and confused, the man took her grandchildren away. "I kept expecting them to come in, but they didn't."
At least Mrs. Evans had a visit, however brief. Some parents and grandparents do not get even that. Still, there had been hope this all too common scenario would change. When the MLA Review of the Maintenance Enforcement Program and Child Access a panel set up by provincial Justice Minister Jon Havelock submitted its report to the government in June, it included 23 recommendations for strengthening access for non-custodial parents and their families. On October 5, Alberta Justice decided to accept only two of the recommendations. The others will, according to a government news release, be subject to a comprehensive evaluation before the year 2001. However, the province accepted all 41 recommendations from a report on strengthening maintenance enforcement against delinquent parents for money. Carolyn Van Ee is the past-president of Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society, a lobby group for non-custodial parents and their extended families. "What I'm
hearing from people inside the government is that they don't want to deal with the access issue because it is politically incorrect, it's too emotional, a real hot potato," she says. "But they can deal with the money, the maintenance, because it looks good for them."
[A photograph was shown here in the article.
The caption was:
The Evans with photos of their grandchildren:
They didn't even come in.]
The Evans' son Rick, a truck driver, split with his wife in March 1996. After the divorce was finalized in July 1997, Rick's ex-wife prepared to leave for Ontario with the girls. The family discovered her plan and applied for a court injunction to stop her. "She then claimed physical abuse, but the judge threw that out because she never had any proof," Mr. Evans says. They were granted the injunction, but their ex-daughter-in-law defied it and left Edmonton anyway the following month. She moved in with her sister in Toronto and registered the girls in school there under her maiden name. When Mr. and Mrs. Evans began phoning the woman's family, everyone denied knowing where she and the girls were. By retaining a lawyer in Ontario, the couple was able to get another court order forcing the ex and the children to return, which was served on the sister. The order was ignored. They got another court order, this time for the legal apprehension of the girls. At that point, the ex drove to Edmonton, retained a lawyer, filed an affidavit, and drove back to Toronto. She finally returned to Alberta on August 18,1998, one day before she would have been in contempt of court. In further violation of the same court order, the ex refuses to tell the father or the family where she lives. "You can get a court order," says Mr. Evans. "The problem is, how do you enforce it?"
Karen Sigurdson, public affairs officer for Alberta Justice, admits her department accepted the 41 recommendations for maintenance enforcement because they are easier to enforce. "Money is easier to administer, so where we can take quick action, we will," she says. "Access issues are more complex, and these need more research."
[see also Marlene Graham on access enforcement]
But Mrs. Van Ee points out the two recommendations accepted by Alberta Justice pertaining to sanctions for breach of access and failure to exercise access are already covered in the Criminal Code in penalties for defying court orders. "The problem is enforcement. You go before a judge and he says, 'What would you have me do? Throw her in jail?' And they are reluctant to fine her because they see that as taking money away the children," she says. "There has to be some consequences for denying access." Mrs. Van Ee says the lack of political will in the provincial government to deal with access, while at the same time pushing maintenance, is the result of a gender bias in society against fathers. "About 95% of custodial parents are women. Men go into court, and most are granted access because that's what's best for the child. But too often they have to deal with a vindictive spouse, who will use any excuse not to let them see their kids," she says.
[see also Canadian Child Custody Awards by Gender]
Still, access enforcement might get some support from the federal government, which is considering changes to the Divorce Act. A draft of a report from the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access Reform was recently leaked to the media. It contains such recommendations as making attendance at education programs for divorcing parents obligatory; making false accusations of physical abuse a Criminal Code offence; making unreasonable prevention of court-ordered access an offence under the Divorce Act; and making grandparents and extended family members a legal third party in a divorce. "I believe that the law should make, no preference for one parent over another and the system has to vindicate and support the principle that children deserve both parents," says Senator Anne Cools, a member of the federal committee. Parliament has not supported that principle, she says, and that is why the courts support the gender bias against men. "When a marriage dissolves, that is the end of marital responsibilities, not parental ones, and the law must reflect that. Children are not property, they are gift and we owe them a duty."
[see also In the best interest of the child]
The joint committee's recommendations have yet to be accepted by Parliament; it is possible they could suffer the same fate as did the Alberta recommendations, and be put off because another level of government is unwilling to support equality among parents. Meanwhile, the Evans family keeps pushing, and keeps paying. "Our lawyer says we're about halfway there," says Mr. Evans, which means it may cost the family another $15,000 before they have proper visits with the girls. "We haven't had to mortgage the house, but we're getting close. But it's not the money; we're worried about what is happening to our granddaughters."
The Alberta Report has since gone national in Canada under the new name The Report Newsmagazine.
Additional reading: Two articles in Der Spiegel (translated into English)