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Lawyers for kids a flawed idea

Calgary Herald

Column

Lawyers for kids a flawed idea

Louise Malenfant

For The Calgary Herald

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Although we can't blame her for trying to protect the interests of children in divorce cases, I have trouble agreeing with Children's Services Minister Iris Evans over the need for children to be represented by lawyers in contentious custody cases, (Kids Get Rights to Lawyers, the herald, May 4). 

There aren't too many people left in Canada who haven't lived in or near one of these family meltdowns, where allegations of abuse and virulent denials make it seem impossible to determine who is telling the truth and who is living in the danger zone of violence.

Evans believes that if children are given legal representation, it will signal a zero-tolerance policy when abuse allegations are made.  The Plan hasn't worked for Ontario, however, where the Office of the Children's Lawyer (OCL) has operated for more than a decade.  As the family advocate of Parents Helping Parents, I have advised the people of Ontario to stay away from the OCL or get rid of it as soon as possible if it has already entered the case.  Our organization's mandate is to reduce high-conflict divorce by ensuring that every person receives a full and fair investigation when abuse allegations are made in custody battles.  Unfortunately, the last place to find fairness is in the Office of the Children's Lawyer.

The OCL of Ontario subscribes to the theory that it is critically important for a child to have one primary parent, known as the "anchor parent" in their jargon.  While they don't say it in so many words, they are referring to the custodial parent, the primary caregiver - the mother, of course.  According to this theory, it is critical that the family courts do everything to make the anchor parent happy, for it stands to reason that she will then be able to make her children happy.   Even in cases where the children's lawyer readily acknowledges that false allegations of child abuse are being made, they argue that the only way to end the conflict is to end visitation for the accused parent, all in a bid to "make the anchor parent happy."  I have seen this disturbing bias applied like a cookie cutter to any case where allegations of abuse or access denial is rampant.

It doesn't seem to matter that many of these mothers have a history of conflict with the world, and they are just as likely to cut off all ties with their own families as they are with the paternal families.  According to the OCL, nothing must interfere with the power of the anchor parent to make decisions for the children, even if that means subjecting them to the degradation of repeated investigations for abuse that are never verified by police or child welfare authorities.

Far from reducing conflict, the OCL watched as nearly 85,000 cases entered the arena of family court in 1999, with almost half of the litigants opting to get rid of lawyers altogether and represent themselves.  This idea is a budget breaker, as the elimination of visiting rights brings more people into the courtroom, not less, where devastated families fight for years to resume contact with the lost children.

So, perhaps, there are those who will understand if I get a little nervous when Evans calls for zero tolerance on allegations of abuse in divorce proceedings.  Zero tolerance is just another code word for "presumed guilty," which suggests that Alberta's children's lawyer will have the mandate of imposing strict restrictions on any case where allegations of abuse are made.  The inherent bias of zero tolerance creates a system of injustice which is a recipe for disaster.  Corner any animal, and eliminate freedom, due process and basic needs, and what you get is a very dangerous and explosive animal ready to do harm to himself and others.  Add to this volatile mix  the emotional trauma that always attends divorce, and what you end up with is a policy that may even endanger the safety of women and children.

As for the idea that more lawyers will enhance the operation of the legal system, no offence, but lawyers are already the primary weapons for prosecuting false allegations in the courts.

If we are honestly looking for solutions, then we need not look any further than Edmonton's pilot project for a special investigator, which has operated in that city for two years.  With a mandate to investigate any allegations arising in custody battled before the Court of Queen's Bench, this office has brought back the art of effective investigation to these volatile cases.  This program needs to be explained for the entire province of Alberta, as it has succeeded in reducing false allegations, reducing violent explosions, and returning the court to a level of respectability it enjoyed before perjury destroyed its reputation.  Lawyers have a poor track record for reducting anything, but investigators and their talents bring with them a realistic hope of bringing peace to the family court and holding back those family disasters that chill us to the bone.

lmalenfant@shaw.ca

Louise Malenfant is the Family Advocate of Parents Helping Parents.

 Copyright  2003 Calgary Herald

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Posted 2003 06 19


Parents Helping Parents

Louise Malenfant

malenfant.jpg (2818 bytes)

Family Advocate, Parents Helping Parents

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Louise Malenfant passed away in 2006.  She is being missed.

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