Terri says her husband's drinking problem made their seven-year relationship a
rocky one, and that she had left him before. Her mother urged her to go to a shelter, she
says, in the belief that the counsellors would help her achieve independence. Terri (who
requested anonymity to spare her now former husband further embarrassment), says she
telephoned a Winnipeg shelter and was told only abused women were admitted.
"I went to the door and I cried and said that my husband was abusive. My kids
weren't with me because I didn't want them to see how I had to get in."
Terri says the intake worker accepted her story at face value. So she retrieved her
sons, then three and six years old, and went back to the shelter where staff began
coaching her on how to gain the upper hand in divorce court.
Terri says residents were told that "the first thing we needed to do was obtain a
restraining order against our spouse. We were instructed to write down our complaints on
paper and bring them with us when we went to see our lawyer."
In Terri's case, the result was a 10-page affidavit alleging not that her husband was
physically abusive, but that he displayed characteristics one might expect in an
alcoholic. "A lot of the stuff I wrote up in the court document was about his
hygiene. I complained about always having bladder infections because he never had a
bath." On the basis of this affidavit, she says, "I got the restraining order
and soon after I got full custody of my children with no visitation for my husband."
Later, the full import of her actions sank in. "I realized what I had done. My
children had not seen their father for a year, yet I was never afraid that he would harm
them or myself," says Terri, now a 36-year-old therapist. "It was not a fair
fight. I had the shelter and the women's movement on my side."
During parliamentary committee hearings on child custody and access earlier this year
(the final report is due in early December), women's shelter spokespeople showed up in
full force. Their propensity to stereotype all fathers in custody battles as abusive and
all mothers as besieged victims came as no surprise to lawyers and community activists
alarmed by the role shelters now play in divorce matters. In addition to providing moral
support to women who appear on their doorstep, shelters also supply letters of endorsement
that are highly prejudicial to the women's spouses in court -- despite the fact that the
shelter employees have never met the men involved, have only heard one side of the story,
and have only known the women for a short time under highly artificial conditions.
Susan Baragar, who practices primarily family law in Winnipeg, describes herself as a
feminist but believes nevertheless that it is "all too easy" for women to get
these letters from shelters, and warns that they are a highly potent weapon.
Judges are "most definitely swayed" if a woman is staying at a shelter and
court documents include a letter from the facility implying that the father is dangerous,
says Ms. Baragar. "I mean, you've got sort of a 'professional' now saying he
shouldn't see his kids."
Ms. Baragar, herself, has used the tactic on behalf of her own clients. She cites a
recent case in which she represented a woman who "came in with this two- or
three-page letter which I attached to the affidavit, and [the father] was denied access on
that basis. Nothing else. It depends on the judge. Some judges are more cautious than
others. But in that particular case he was absolutely denied access."
Ms. Baragar says the opposing lawyer "argued that this was not an unbiased letter,
that both parties had not been interviewed. He got absolutely nowhere."
Since the parent who first secures legal child custody is almost certain to be awarded
it later (authorities are reluctant to disrupt the children's lives once again),
relationships between fathers and children are being ripped asunder in some cases merely
on the say-so of a shelter worker.
In 1995, a Manitoba shelter worker wrote a two-page letter on behalf of a resident. The
worker was able to discern, from their first meeting, that the woman "had been a
victim of abuse in her childhood and now as a adult." Writing that she hoped
"the court will recognize this letter of support," the worker pronounced the
woman to be "intelligent, insightful, and sincere."
But in 1997, after hearing submissions from the woman's spouse and the Winnipeg Child
and Family Services, a judge came to a different conclusion. Only in her early 20s, the
woman had already made seven sexual abuse complaints to police involving 11 different
people. (The only complaint in which a charge was deemed warranted resulted in an
acquittal.) "At one time or another," wrote the judge, the woman had
"accused her father, brother, and sister of sexually abusing her." In the
judge's view, her credibility was undermined by the fact that, "despite these
allegations she had no hesitation in living with her father and her sister and in exposing
her father to her own children." The woman eventually abandoned her custody bid, and
the children were placed in the care of their paternal grandmother.
In Burlington, Ont., in 1995, a counsellor at a women's shelter wrote a supportive
letter regarding a client and her relationship to her then two-year-old daughter and
12-year-old son. Although the children had joined their mother in the shelter only eight
days earlier, the staffer felt no hesitation in declaring the woman to be a "loving
and devoted mother" and in expressing the "strong feeling" that child
custody should be awarded to her rather than to the husband she was leaving.
But this woman's maternal track record was in fact less than stellar. Four years
earlier, the Children's Aid Society had successfully convinced a court that she was a
danger to her son and an older daughter, then aged 12, who did not accompany her to the
After monitoring the situation for three months, a Children's Aid worker told the court
that both children "admitted being afraid of their mother much of the time." On
one occasion she allegedly threatened her spouse with a knife and then threatened to
commit suicide. On another occasion, she allegedly "opened the car door while it was
travelling along the highway and threatened to jump." The worker noted that
"Both of these incidents occurred in the presence of the children."
Nevertheless, the courts awarded custody of all three children to the woman.
At yet another shelter, in Orillia, Ont., a staffer wrote a letter in 1994 addressing
the question of who should get custody of two boys, aged two and three. Despite the fact
that no trial had yet been held, this staffer declared that their mother "had been
physically assaulted" by her husband before fleeing to the shelter. The mere fact
that the mother had shown up at a shelter was proof that she was "a conscientious and
caring parent." The letter ended with the declaration that "it would be a great
disservice" to the children if custody was not awarded to their mother. With the aid
of the letter, the woman secured custody.
In 1997, a Toronto shelter worker wrote a letter on behalf of a woman who had been in
residence for six weeks. It flatly announced that the woman had been "physically and
emotionally" abused by the husband she was leaving and said that since "her
children are her life," she should be assisted in gaining custody.However, in a
report dated a week prior to the shelter's letter, a psychologist who interviewed the
woman during her stay noted that she'd told him her husband "has never struck her
physically." Interim custody has been awarded to the mother.
Ms. Baragar has had women's shelter letters expunged from the record when attempts have
been made to use them against her own clients. "There is a rule that you're
technically not supposed to just attach reports to somebody else's affidavit," she
says. "When I see letters like that I go pretty hardcore and insist that a separate
affidavit then be sworn - which gives me the right to cross-examine the maker of the
statement. [The shelter workers] usually chicken out. They haven't wanted to swear
affidavits." Many lawyers, she says, are unfamiliar with the tactic.
Mary McManus, a lawyer in Victoria, B.C., shares many of Ms. Baragar's concerns. While
she thinks "shelters are very important and fulfil a useful function," she feels
staffers should refrain from expressing opinions regarding situations about which they
have limited knowledge.
"The workers at the shelters come with different backgrounds, experience, and
education. What they say may well be justified, but may not be as well."
Ms. McManus agrees that the courts "tend to place a great deal of weight on just
the fact that a woman went to a shelter. I've had a lot of experience in bail hearings
where men have been accused of abusing their spouse and the fact that the spouse is in the
shelter can be accepted as evidence that there has been abuse."
Greta Smith, the executive director of the B.C./Yukon Society of Transition Houses says
her organization has no policy regarding shelters writing letters on behalf of clients.
While she admits it's "possible that some transition houses would write supportive
letters," the idea makes her uncomfortable. "I guess I would have to see the
letter. I'm sorry, I have some difficulty with that. The fact that people would write
letters without some good solid reasons for writing a letter. Without seeing the letter
and without finding out what the circumstances are, it would be very difficult to make a
comment on that."
When asked whether it's possible that some women are going to shelters as a divorce
tactic, Ms. Smith replies: "Anything in this world is possible, but I do not believe
Louise Malenfant, a community activist in Winnipeg, calls shelters "one-stop
divorce shops for women," and is disturbed by their 'no questions asked policy.' She
claims that in addition to helping women who make false allegations of wife abuse,
shelters in her city have helped manufacture incest accusations.
Over the past four years, Ms. Malenfant has been an advocate for 62 individuals who
claimed to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse during divorce proceedings. In a third
of those cases, she says, a women's shelter was involved.
At 1996 public hearings into the Manitoba Child and Family Services Act, Ms. Malenfant
alleged that children were taken into a room that was off limits to their mothers,
subjected to a sexual abuse awareness program, and inappropriately questioned by shelter
"If you expose children to sexual material and you question them repeatedly over
the course of a week or two, that child can literally repeat what they've been
taught," Ms. Malenfant told the National Post.
She maintains that even mothers who would not have otherwise accused their spouses of
incest were compelled to treat such allegations seriously after they arose during a
shelter stay. Ms. Malenfant has publicly called for an inquiry into women's shelters, and
has written letters to government officials protesting their policies. As a result, that
particular issue seems to have disappeared. "It was like somebody sucked that problem
right out of the place," Ms. Malenfant says. "I have not seen a new women's
shelter case in over a year. I don't know what [the government has] done; all I know is
that it stopped."
"It's extremely disturbing," says Ms. Baragar of the role shelters have been
playing in custody and divorce proceedings. "I get very angry about it from a
personal basis, because I think that there are very real cases of abuse and what I see
happening in the courts is that those cases now have less value because of the lies that
are so easily" being told.
In the last year, Ms. Baragar says she has sensed a growing cynicism from the bench.
"Judges are now more willing to believe that this is just a lie. You know, it got
to a point for a while that I couldn't pick up a woman's affidavit where she wasn't
accusing him of abuse. You'd get page after page of what was being called abuse, and
people were quite prepared to go to women's shelters for it.
"I mean, not everything is abuse. Just because it wasn't a fun fight doesn't mean
it was abuse."
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