National Post

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Better to suffer than to split, judge says

'We as adults have a responsibility' to children

Charlie Gillis
National Post

EDMONTON - An Alberta judge was under attack yesterday for launching into a moral lecture in court about the social ills of divorce in which he said feuding parents should stay together for the sake of their children no matter how miserable their marriage.

Judge Al Chrumka, a normally staid member of the provincial bench, extended a partial apology yesterday for remarks he made while sentencing a single mother for leaving her two infant sons in a car on a hot day. But he stopped short of retracting his words -- including his expression of "abhorrence" for parents who split up rather than sticking it out for the sake of their youngsters.

"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," he said during Tuesday's court proceedings. "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."

His statements stemmed from his exasperation with the parents in the case before him.

The woman, who may not be legally identified, had been charged under Alberta's Child Welfare Act with causing a child to require protective services. She apologized for leaving the boys in the car last July in 24C heat while she stopped at a government building for a half-hour. But she also raised the judge's ire by complaining about the challenges of raising children.

"Nobody," she said, "gives you a manual and says this is what you're going to do with your kids."

When the boys' father, who has joint custody, offered his own grievances about parenting, the judge lost his patience.

"That parties who decide to have children together should split for any reason is abhorrent to me," he added. "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."

The remarks drew both criticism and applause, as women's advocates and family values groups lined up on either side of the divorce issue.

Jan Reimer of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters said such beliefs can keep women in abusive situations long after they should leave.

"Children are often used by the abuser to continue to get back at the mom," said Ms. Reimer, a former mayor of Edmonton. "For that reason, we always highly recommend when there is dispute over custody and access that they be screened for family violence.

"People need to better understand the dynamics of domestic violence and look at that when they're dealing with custody."

Martha Ludtke, executive director of Red Deer-based Central Alberta Women's Outreach, noted 40% of households afflicted by spousal abuse are also afflicted by child abuse.

"So while [Judge Chrumka's] concern for children everywhere is applauded, he's missed a pretty essential connection," she said. "If parents are not doing anything to remedy the toxicity of their relationships, the toxicity of the relationship extends to the children.

"So the children are being poisoned. What are you going to do?"

Officials with the Canada Family Action Coalition credited Judge Chrumka for speaking his mind on a controversial topic, agreeing with the substance of his remarks if not the sweeping way in which he presented them.

"In my experience, the majority of divorces are based very much in adult selfishness," said Brian Rushfeldt, the group's executive director, who has worked as a counsellor in both public and private services.

"There was little regard between the adults in those cases, but often very little regard for the children and what it was doing to them. I think his point of view is legitimate in many cases of divorce, and intervention should always be focused on trying to make the marriage work and keep the adults together."

Judge Chrumka, who sentenced the 25-year-old mother to nine months' probation, offered regrets if his remarks "offended some members of the public."

A statement released by the Assistant Chief Judge, Peter Caffaro, said: "This was not [Judge Chrumka's] intention. His overriding concern was for the welfare of the children involved."

Certainly the outburst ran counter to Judge Chrumka's reputation as an even-handed, if at times sharp-tongued jurist. While he has been a strong proponent of individual responsibility, Judge Chrumka has tempered past decisions with mercy, especially in cases where defendants clearly needed emotional assistance or professional treatment.

A legal expert who has studied controversial statements by Canadian judges doubts the remarks warrant penalty.

Gerald Gall, a University of Alberta professor and author of The Canadian Legal System, said a jurist can utter opinions -- even ones without empirical basis -- provided those views do not directly influence their decisions.

"I don't mind if judges are outspoken because it tells you what they really think about an issue," said Mr. Gall, who dedicated six pages of his book to bizarre and sometimes hare-brained remarks by judges.

"I don't think we should stifle their remarks when they're just stating an opinion."

Judge Chrumka may, however, find his authority challenged when his views on divorce and child welfare are relevant to a case, Mr. Gall said, or he may get some feedback from other members of the bench.

"His chief judge may say to him, 'Look, cool this off. We don't want to attract all this bad publicity and just be a little more judicious about what you say.' "

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