Globe and Mail

Stay together for the kids, judge tells troubled parents

Thursday, January 9, 2003 – Print Edition, Page A1
The Globe and Mail

EDMONTON -- Parents who separate are "abhorrent," and couples should suffer through troubled marriages for the sake of their children, a veteran Alberta judge has told his court in comments that are creating controversy.

"That parties who decide to have children together should split for any reason is abhorrent to me," Provincial Court Judge Albert Chrumka said Tuesday as he faced two separated parents.

"They have a responsibility to the children and to each other to make sure, for whatever reason they may have gotten together, not to separate."

Yesterday, after family lawyers and social advocates complained about the comments, Assistant Chief Judge Peter Caffaro issued a statement, saying Judge Chrumka "regrets that his words may have offended some members of the public. This was not his intention. His overriding concern was for the welfare of the children involved."

When asked whether Judge Chrumka would be censured, Judge Caffaro said that "hasn't been considered."

Judge Chrumka made the remarks while hearing the case of a woman who left her two young sons in a parked car on a hot day last summer. Their father, who has joint custody, told the judge about other alleged parenting inadequacies of his former common-law spouse.

"I get upset where children are involved, because I feel we, as adults, have a responsibility to give them the very best that we can," the Edmonton Journal reported him as saying.

"If that means we have to suffer as parents because we don't like each other any more, then we still have to stay together for the benefit of the children."

The 25-year-old woman, whose sons were aged two months and one year when police officers broke a car window to rescue them last summer, was handed nine months probation for causing a child to be in need of protective services, a charge under the Alberta Child Welfare Act. The parents cannot be identified, to protect their children's privacy.

Though several legal observers said a judge's personal opinions have no place in court, the woman's lawyer had no problem with Judge Chrumka's remarks.

"He's certainly within his rights to make the comments that he made. No doubt I'll find myself getting some flak for saying that. I just don't see anything wrong with what he said. My client understood it, I understood it in the context of which it was said," lawyer Hamish Henderson said.

However, several Edmonton family lawyers and social advocates took issue with the judge's statements.

"I think the remarks were inappropriate," said Brian Fish, an Edmonton lawyer who does family law and criminal work. "I think [they are] inclined to make people disrespect the bench. People see comments like that that are obviously coming from a lack of perspective, and they say, 'Well, you know, that's inappropriate and maybe the judge should have a little bit of education and be a little more sensitive.' "

Mr. Fish and other lawyers said that Judge Chrumka, who was appointed in 1979 and sits on the court's criminal division, is a well-respected member of the judiciary.

"This is a complete surprise. It seems to me in many ways to be somewhat out of character. I think most people think that he's quite fair as a judge and not inclined to be that opinionated."

Marla Miller, an Edmonton family lawyer, said a person's marital status is not a good indicator of one's effectiveness as a parent.

"Staying together doesn't make you good parents, and being apart doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be bad parents. So I think it's pretty hard to generalize and make a statement either way to say that all parents who stay together are good and all parents whose marriages don't stay together are bad."

Karen Smith, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, said many factors can make marriages intolerable, including abuse and addictions.

"Judges should be sticking to the case that's in front of them and the facts that are in front of them and using their impartiality to deal with those particular things, not bringing their own personal biases into other situations and trying to convert people to their way of thinking."

Although each case is different, research on the impacts of divorce or separation on children indicates that most suffer short-term difficulties but do not experience long-term consequences, said Robert Glossop, executive director of programs and research for the Vanier Institute of the Family.

However, he said, Canadians, for whom four in 10 of today's marriages will end in divorce, should not be sanguine about the effects on children.

"We need to take it a little bit more seriously and do our best to strengthen marriage, and when we don't succeed there, do our very best to minimize the consequences of separation or divorce on kids.

"At the same time, . . . I'm not sure it's even fair to expect unhappy adults to stay wed to one another simply for the sake of the children. I'm not even sure it's the right way to pose the question because I don't think it's going to happen."

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