A group in the Diocese of Ottawa has taken up the cause of separated and divorced dads and their children.
“The project is motivated by the pain experienced by both separated fathers and their children,” says a news release from Lloyd Gorling, who is heading the project as a lay member of synod.
A working group in the diocese’s Anglican Network for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation will study the issue in response to a 1997 synod resolution moved by Mr. Gorling. The group will ask all interested people to give input. Mr. Gorling – who is not a separated dad himself but says he is interested in the issue from
a social justice standpoint – is looking for parish volunteers to help pull together information and host discussion groups.
Well-known fathers’ rights advocate, Senator Anne Cools, may be invited to speak in the diocese.
“Many fathers find themselves cut off from a meaningful role in the lives of their children after separation from their former conjugal partners,” the news release continues. “In spite of great efforts to maintain the parental role, fathers lose custody of their children in over 90 per cent of separations.”
Mr. Gorling acknowledged in an interview that not all separated dads seek custody and said he did not mean to suggest that men are fighting for – and losing – the battle in 90 per cent of cases. But choosing not to seek custody can often be a rational decision on the part of the father, he said.
While separated parents may agree to share custody, the mother’s lawyer often successfully pushes the woman to go for sole custody instead, he said.
Mr. Gorling is hoping to gather theological views on the issue. “Where are we as Christians on this?” he asks. “What are God’s plans for these families?”
He makes some potentially explosive comments in his news release, including: “The most frequent reason for fathers fading from their children’s lives is the interference of the mother as well as the failure of the legal and court system to recognize and to understand the importance to children of being raised by both parents,” and “Fights to get control over the children in order to get support payments is one of the largest single factors in court custody battles today.”
Victor Wehrle chairs the Anglican Network which vetted the news release. Mr. Wehrle said Mr. Gorling’s first draft of the news release was modified to make it more balanced. He added that Mr. Gorling has researched the issue and would not have pulled statistics out of the air.
Mr. Wehrle said he saw a televised documentary on the issue which indicated lawyers were advising mothers of a surefire way to gain custody: call 911 and lodge a complaint against the father, getting him evicted from the home and having to fight for access to his children through a lawyer.
But a researcher with the federal Department of Justice disputes information contained in the news release. Louise Savage says no statistics exist on how often fathers seek custody and what sort of success they have when they do, leaving the field wide open for anecdotal interpretation from fathers’ rights groups on the one side and feminist groups on the other.
“We have no family court data in this country,” Ms. Savage said. “It’s not like the criminal courts.”
The central registry of divorce cannot even provide accurate custody statistics since it is often separation agreements which contain custody arrangements, she said.
What is known, however, is that the economic situations of women after separation in most cases are substantially worse than those of men. If mothers are seeking custody in order to get child support, they’re shooting themselves in the foot, Ms. Savage said.
The current Divorce Act does not prevent parents choosing shared custody arrangements, she noted.
A joint House of Commons and Senate committee released a report in December after hearing many stories of fathers being denied access to their children. But it’s the people who are unhappy with their custody arrangements who show up to complain, Ms. Savage said. Disgruntled dads showed up in force before the committee.
The committee recommends a stronger role for both fathers and children in divorce, although it does not suggest changes as strong as some fathers had hoped. It suggests the terms “custody” and “access” be replaced by the term “shared parenting” in order to reduce conflict, but not to legislate mandatory joint custody.
It also recommends that children get more of a say through a variety of mechanisms, that mandatory education be ordered for parents who can’t agree on what to do with the children after divorce and that parents who do agree on custody arrangements prepare a detailed plan covering schooling, religious education, holidays and the like.
Mr. Gorling’s group is to report back to the 1999 Ottawa synod.