Globe and Mail

Divorcing each other, not their children

Friday, January 10, 2003 – Print Edition, Page A10
The Globe and Mail

Evidently, Alberta Provincial Court Judge Albert Chrumka has never been in a bad marriage. He mustn't know anybody who has ever been in one, either. Those may be the only reasonable explanations for his unreasonable assertion that parents have a responsibility to stay together -- no matter how much they have to suffer -- for the sake of their children.

"That parties who decide to have children together should split for any reason is abhorrent to me," he said this week during the sentencing of a woman who locked her two babies in a parked car on a hot day. The comments came when the children's father, who has joint custody, grumbled about parenting issues with his former spouse.

Judge Chrumka regrets the remarks insofar as they may have offended some people, according to Assistant Chief Judge Peter Caffaro, who added that his colleague's overriding concern was for children.

But Judge Chrumka's children-first solution is no solution at all, or at least a simplistic one. He is merely attempting to set a different moral tone for a country where, according to the latest tally, 71,144 couples officially ended their marriages in 2000. And where custody of about 37,000 dependents, most of them under 18, was granted through divorce proceedings in 1999 and 2000.

Sure, some parents think of their kids and take the for-better-or-worse vow to heart. Others don't; almost 38 per cent of marriages won't see a 30-year anniversary, according to Statistics Canada.

But what those numbers don't say, and what Judge Chrumka failed to mention, is that divorce doesn't have to mean mom and dad are divorcing themselves from responsible parenting.

Indeed, federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said he had the best interests of children in mind when he recently proposed changes to the Divorce Act that would make the process of divorce smoother.

The amendments would attempt to quell knock-down, drag-out divorce proceedings that pit parents against one another, using children as pawns, by eliminating the adversarial terms "custody" and "access" and replacing them with "parenting orders." Ottawa would also funnel more cash into counselling programs and push for more mediation rather than courtroom battles in order to shield youngsters from the blow of divorce.

In a study released last fall, U.S. researchers found that if divorced parents sought counselling soon after their marriages fell apart, they could help their children avoid problems usually experienced by children of divorce: depression and other mental and emotional issues, increased drug use and lower academic achievement.

Parental divorce isn't as repugnant for children as Judge Chrumka suggests, as long as smarter ways are developed to take some of the sting out of it.

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