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Does the FRO have a feminist perspective?

The Women's Post, "Canada's national newspaper for professional women",  July 7th, 2005, by Joseph Young

When families fall apart, they can make for the bitterest of enemies. The intensity of their hostility, the personal rhetoric, the posturing and positioning, and the utter faithlessness of remembrance in the relationship's good deeds and consequences is a breathtaking phenomenon. It's as if the positive qualities and countless achievements are struck from history as a revisionist might strike the Holocaust. Into all of this the family court system wades, often inelegantly. Divorce lawyers drive up the emotional and financial toll of separation and transformation. Family and friends frequently collude to make things worse.

And when government decides to rear its head, well, it's a mess for all the world to see. Witness the recent attention on Ontario’s euphemistically branded Family Responsibility Office. A job in advertising doubtlessly greeted the person who came up with its title, because it suggests some sort of feel-good missionary work to hold together the sanctity of the institution.

The basic intent of the office is to ensure that parents – mostly fathers – live up to their commitments. No problem there. Deadbeat parents – mostly deadbeat dads, as they've been alliterately coined – are a pox. Children have a tough enough row to hoe when families come asunder, but when one parent then has to foot the bills as the other roams rather free of obligations, the seeds are planted for the next generation's poverty, struggles and a rather obvious or invidious perspective of relationships and parenting.

The difficulty is that not everything works in a black-hat, white-hat kind of way. Each partner in the relationship bears responsibility for the breakup, and thus each partner bears responsibility for the patchup that follows as the family transforms into two discrete units. That changed family requires support from its creators for a sufficient period to minimize the obstacles for what it created – the children. But it also requires cooperation on visitation, on generosity of spirit for a lot of soft-quality elements of the changed family, and even some benefit of the doubt going forward into a new situation.

But the office is getting it in the ear lately for the rigidity of its enforcement and the seeming clout of its jurisdiction. It has a hardened way of dealing with a very tender environment and its critics feel it has been taken hostage by a feminist perspective on parenting.

Many parents – namely, many fathers – see the FRO’s powers to take away a drivers' licence or permit a greater degree of privacy for the custodial parent as excessive. That drivers' licence is often the basis upon which someone can earn a living, and taking it away on the surface appears to defeat the entire purpose of trying to gain restitution for missed payments. How can you work and pay if you can' t work?

Now, let's be clear: A certain element of the public opposition is a smokescreen. The so-called "fathers' movement" arises too often from a hostility to the entire process of child and spousal support, not from the genuine issues of how divorce alters partnerships, and shouldn't be taken seriously. Its literature reads like near-misogyny and too often gets in the way of reasonable dialogue on this issue. Still, there' s more than a little substance to the concerns that the office uses a club when a smaller stick would do.

Some jurisdictions are beginning to look at less adversarial ways of resolving family disputes, mainly to keep the lawyers from disproportionately benefitting and to find a mediated way to ensure payments will flow uninterrupted. A lot of the rationale in this is to start the process more decently and civilly, to keep some sense of consensus in the creation of a pact to fulfill obligations. Ontario has tried several times to create such a system, but it seems thwarted by the political advantage that comes in characterizing deadbeat parents – er, deadbeat dads, that is.

It's not as simple as that. And the office is out too far for the 21st century. It needs to be stripped of some of its qualities to provide a more considerate strain of mercy in this tender area. While its intentions seem noble – we can't have another generation of single-parent supporters of children, not with so many unions splitting – its apparatus to do the right thing has led to the wrong thing. It's not that divorce should end up making friends of the separated couple, but the government shouldn't have any hand in making sure that couple ends up enemies.