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Fathers face uphill battle in our courts

The Toronto Sun
November 1, 2001

Fathers face uphill battle in our courts
By HEATHER BIRD -- Toronto Sun

There may have been many who were shocked by the acquittal of Carline
Vandenelsen, the Stratford woman who kidnapped her triplets, but I am not
one of them. The justice system is so mother-biased, nothing surprises me
any more.

However, I had hoped, somewhat foolishly it seems, that a jury of ordinary
men and women might be able to see what the learned experts apparently
cannot. I was wrong. So Ms. Vandenelsen, the woman who ignored a court
order to flee with her children to Mexico, has escaped scot-free. For now.

It is absurd enough to be laughable if custody and access weren't such
painful topics for many Canadians, most of them men. In the years that
I've been writing this column, I've only ever encountered one woman who
was denied access to her child in a decision where it was apparent that
the (female) judge had agonized before ruling. And, after spending some
time with the crazed mom, it was patently obvious that she wasn't fit to
mother a cat, much less a child.

I wish I could say the same about the men. I routinely hear from fathers
who are frustrated or thwarted by the system when it comes to seeing their
sons and daughters. One case in particular stands out, a circumstance
where the man first begged me not to reveal his identity and then later
backed out of having his story told altogether. He was afraid that he
would lose what precious time he had with his little girl.

So what, you might say. That's the price of divorce. When you decide you
don't want to be married to the other parent any longer, you automatically
forfeit the right to see your children every day. And that's true. Except
in his case, when his ex-wife died, he -- the biological dad -- was refused
custody of his child in favour of the dead woman's sister.

How the little girl originally came into her aunt's care is understandable.
The mother was murdered by a stranger while the toddler was at
daycare and, when no one appeared to claim her by 6 p.m., the centre
called the sister, who was listed as a contact in the event of an emergency.

Whenever there is a killing, the police first look to the victim's circle
of intimates for a suspect. Thus, the natural father found himself under
scrutiny for some time. He wasn't concerned because he knew he would
be cleared and, instead of fighting, he used the time to get his affairs in
order for the day his daughter arrived.

His parents sold their home and moved into a house with an apartment in
the basement. The plan was for the retired couple to provide daycare while
dad was at work. Eventually, and as expected, the police arrested the man
who committed the murder, which freed up the father to arrange for his
little girl to move back home. To his shock, when he told the aunt of his
intentions, he was informed he had a custody fight on his hands.

What followed was a probing series of assessments by social workers who
examined all aspects of the extended family dynamics. They found he was a
fit father but, by the time the case finally made it to court, the little
girl was almost five and there was a body of thought that she had bonded
so strongly with the aunt, it would be wrong to remove her. Now things may
have changed (and I hope for his sake they have) but the last time I
checked, he was paying support to his dead ex-wife's sister and seeing his
child on weekends. His parents wanted to continue the fight but he was
afraid that if he did, he would lose what little he had.

A psychiatrist with a specialty in family law once explained to me that
there is an inherent bias in the system because of the place the concept
of "mother" holds in our culture. Everybody has one, he says, and when the
subject of mothering or ability to mother is raised, people automatically
inject their feelings about their own into the mix. Rejecting someone
else's right to mother feels uncomfortably close to rejecting one's own
mother, even on a subconscious level.


This bias overlooks the emotional and psychological needs of children.
They need both mother and father, preferably in equitable doses, but if,
and only if each parent is found suitable for the job.

We'll never know what the jury was thinking in the Carline Vandenelsen
trial when they bought her defence of necessity. (That's the one where she
says she believed her children needed her so it was all right to steal them.)

And who knows what the Court of Appeal judges are going to think of this
one when it lands upstairs. Justice might prevail. But only if the case is
heard by a panel of orphans.

Heather can be e-mailed at or visit her home page.
Letters to the editor should be sent to

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership. All rights reserved.
Toronto Sun Home:
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Related articles:

Runaway mom walks
by Jane Sims -- London Free Press, 27 Oct 01

Abduction of triplets a 'necessity,' jury rules
Verdict clears mother: 'They've just declared open season' on children: father
by Francine Dubé -- National Post, 27 Oct 01

Stratford, Ont. jury acquits mother in abduction of eight-year-old triplets
by Staff -- Canadian Press, 26 Oct 01


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