Examining child custody issues in Canada: Part One

One in four Canadian marriages end in divorce, and many of those breakups are not amicable – especially when children are involved. Things can get even more messy if parents can’t agree on the issue of custody. In those cases, it’s up to a judge to decide an arrangement based on “the best interests of the child.” And in Canada, that typically has meant awarding one parent with primary care.

The latest data from the Department of Justice shows mothers receive sole custody in 77 percent of cases, while fathers get it in only 9 percent of the time.

After making dozens of trips to the Alberta Law Courts for a variety of issues relating to the custody of his two children, Russ McNeill believes the current system isn’t working.

“I don’t think the judicial system treated me fairly. I don’t think it treats any man fairly. I think it’s designed to put everybody into a cookie cutter that basically says dads get every second weekend and a mid-week visit,” he says.

Story continues below advertisement

In addition to draining him and his ex-wife emotionally, McNeill says the system pits the parents against each other.

“I don’t see that actually stopping the conflict. If anything, it increases the conflict because the other parent feels they’re being removed from their children unjustly and they’re very angry so they will look harder to find anything possible to find fault with the other parent,” McNeill adds.

He would like to see the current model be changed to adopt more of a shared parenting arrangement. 

Dr. Edward Kruk, an associate professor of social work, has been studying the family court system and the effects sole custody decisions have on parents.

“We have kind of a indeterminate or shall we say a discretionary best interest of the child standard where judges are just guided by their own idiosyncratic biases and sort of subjective views of what’s best for a child,” Dr. Kruk says.

He says what’s needed is an approach that still focuses on the best interest of the child, but from the perspective of the child.

“And children are telling us clearly that their best interests are served by equal time with each parent.”

Dr. Kruk argues that a parent should not be separated from a child unless there’s a proven history of violence.

Story continues below advertisement

Senator Anne Cools, who has spent decades studying the psychological effects of separating a child from a parent, is also an advocate of shared parenting.

In 1998, she was a member of a special joint committee that looked at issues of parental custody and access to children. The committee’s principal recommendation was that shared parenting should be presumed in family court – a recommendation which has not been accepted by successive governments.

But Senator Cools is not giving up her fight, and is currently working on a bill that would have a regime of shared parenting.

“I want balance and equilibrium and fairness because those children haven an entitlement to meaningful involvement and continuing involvement with each and both of their parents,” she says.

Until that happens, McNeill has a piece of advice for other parents who are going through a divorce: “Go to mediation. Stay away from lawyers.”


With files from Slav Kornik, Global News 

This is part of a two-part series. On Sunday in the second part, we will look at the emotional and psychological effects on parents and children when separated. 

Sponsored content