moved that Bill C-235, an act to amend the Divorce Act (marriage counselling required before divorce granted) be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, Bill C-235 is a bill concerning the Divorce Act. However, it is not about parents, it is about children.
On December 22, 1967, Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. At the time, the number of divorces in Canada was 10,000 per year. In 1987 divorces peaked at 90,000, one in every two marriages. Today there are about 80,000 divorces per year or an effective rate of over 40%. However, there are also about one million common law couples and their breakdown rate is 50% higher than for married couples.
Common law relationships represent less than 20% of all couples but account for over 60% of all cases of domestic violence; 20% of parents break up before their children reach the age of five; 25% of children enter adult life with some sort of significant mental, social or behavioural problems; and 50% of all children will experience divorce or family breakdown before they reach their 18th birthday.
Lone parent families represent about 16% of all families in Canada but they account for 52% of all children living in poverty. One out of four children do not live at home with their biological parents and 70% of young offenders come from broken homes.
There are other impacts related to family breakdown. Domestic violence for instance is another important issue. Seventeen per cent of homicide victims in Canada are divorced or separated, and although as a group they only represent 6% of the population, 12% of those committing homicides were also separated or divorced, and 23% of women killed in registered marriages were separated at the time of the incident.
The research evidence is clear. It shows that children who witness abuse between their parents are affected as much as if they were abused themselves.
Let us consider the recent statistics about children from fatherless homes in the United States: 63% of youth suicides, 85% of children with behavioural disorders, 75% of high school dropouts, 85% of youth sitting in jails, 80% of rapists. They are five times more likely to be poor and more likely to be abusers of drugs and alcohol. Forty-one per cent of youth showing anxiety, depression and physical aggression come from fatherless homes and are twice as likely to get involved in crime. They are also 11 times more likely to have violent misbehaviours and more likely to have problems achieving intimate lasting relationships themselves.
It is very clear from those examples alone that divorce is child abuse, and that is why as responsible legislators we cannot remain silent.
What would Pierre Trudeau say today? I have no doubt that he would not change his basic premise that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, but I would like to think that today he would add the qualifier “unless it affects the business of the nation, including the well-being of our children”.
Bill C-235 basically calls for court ordered mandatory counselling prior to the granting of a divorce. The requirement does not apply where the grounds are physical or mental cruelty, where the court agrees that counselling is inappropriate or when one party cannot be brought to counselling. It is therefore estimated that only 10% to 20% of divorces would be affected by such legislation.
The purpose of the legislation is not primarily to seek reconciliation of marriages but rather two points. One is to ensure there is a viable parenting plan in place which is child centred and in the best interest of the children. Second, it is to address the tragic prevalence of post-break up acrimony which is far more likely to occur after separation.
Divorce has been described by many as being like a runaway train. Parents are often ignorant of the facts and do not understand the wide ranging consequences or ramifications, particularly on their children. The related issues are much more complex and touch virtually every aspect of our society.
Some would suggest, however, that parenting education after divorce is quite frankly too late. However, when we consider that 75% of divorced persons remarry within five years and we understand that children are the real victims of divorce, it is never too late to mitigate the devastating impacts of divorce.
In a recent book written by Dr. David Royko called Voices of Children of Divorce , he expressed his experiences with children who had undergone mandatory programs as a result of divorce. I will relay to the House some of the comments and quotations from the children interviewed by Dr. Royko. Some said:
It gives me bad dreams. It hurts a lot. I cry a lot. If I have to go back and live with mom, I'll run away or kill myself. I'm totally caught in the middle. I felt sick a lot, like I might throw up. I was scared. I thought that no matter what happened someone was going to hate me.
You can go nuts after awhile. I feel pushed around by everyone.
If I had three wishes, the first one would be to be thin because my parents fought about how much I eat. I heard my dad yelling at my mom that if she had got custody, I'd turn out to be a fat pig just like her.
My parents' fight for custody was the scariest thing in the world and it made me realize that marriage is stupid and having kids is something I'll never ever do.
If I had three wishes, I'd like to be a cop, I'd like to have a machine gun and I'd like to have a nuclear bomb. It all makes me so mad, like I want to kill everyone.
We have to listen to the voices of our children. Children are the real victims of divorce and the impacts on those children as a result of divorce are too serious to ignore.
The report of the special joint committee of the Commons and Senate on custody and access, entitled “For the Sake of the Children”, also recommended mandatory parenting education for parents seeking custody orders of children. This is a major change in the philosophy of parliamentarians, the legislators of the Commons and the Senate, with regard to the Divorce Act which for far too long has been parent centred and has not taken the best interests of children to heart.
There are existing programs in place. In Alberta, for instance, there is a program called Parenting After Separation which began as a pilot project in Edmonton in February 1996. It is a six hour, court mandated, education program for divorcing parents.
For those who would suggest that counselling cannot work, let us look at what some of the participants had to say about their participation in the Parenting After Separation mandatory education.
The first participant said “The class helped me determine that I would do everything to work things out ourselves for our daughter's benefit rather than go to the court and be adversarial”.
Some said “Thank you very much. You have boosted my confidence level in realizing that divorce doesn't have to mean war”.
Another said “This course is great. It should be mandatory for all those who are separating to teach both parents about their responsibilities toward their children. It helped me to get to the real important issue”.
Another said “It makes me feel that I should not fight because it hurts my child. This course helped me realize that things can be worked out”.
Finally, one participant said “I was really ticked off that my lawyer told me I had to take this course so I came with somewhat of an attitude. Am I ever glad now that I came. I did not realize how much I was hurting my children”.
Parenting education programs are not new but classes tailored to the specific needs of divorcing families are a relevant recent phenomenon in Canada and the U.S.
Fifteen years in the U.S. there was one program. Five years ago there were dozens. Now there are hundreds. Mandatory counselling is now required in 18 U.S. states and in Florida even children of divorce are required to attend a program to help them cope with the impacts of their parents divorce.
Parenting education programs are now available in every province of Canada although they are mandatory only in Alberta and on a pilot basis in B.C.
Effective June 1, 1998, the attorney general of B.C. introduced mandatory parenting courses in Burnaby and New Westminster. It is a three hour course and the parents take the course separately. It teaches dispute resolution as well as the impact of family breakdown on children. In his announcement, the attorney general stated “This is not for parents. It's for children. We want to reverse the adverse impact of the divorce process on children”.
Not only is there broad reluctance for any intervention, but 95% of couples ordered by the courts to take counselling do so with great reluctance. Interestingly enough, 90% of those who go through the program are grateful that there was a program. The Alberta experience is that in 5% of cases the parents discover that divorce is not going to solve their problem and reconcile their problems and are dealing with them in a constructive fashion.
When the custody and access joint Commons-Senate committee did its one year study, consulting right across Canada, it found three positive results from the U.S. programs. First, parents participating in the programs were more likely to communicate positively with their children about the other parent and non-residential parents had greater access to their children; second, parents demonstrated improved communication skills; and third, programs lowered the exposure of children to parental conflict and increased each parent's tolerance for the parenting role of the other parent.
It is clear that constructive intervention at a time of high emotion after parents have separated is very effective based on actual programs running. It is not a wish, it is a fact.
Children do have rights. They have the right to the continuing care and guidance of their parents and the right to a continuing relationship with their parents. They have the right to know and appreciate what is good in each parent without one parent degrading the other. They have the right to express love, affection and respect for each parent without having to stifle that love because of fear of disapproval of the other parent.
They have the right to know that the parents decision to divorce was not their responsibility. They have the right to not be a source of argument between the parents. They have a right to honest answers to questions about changing family relationships. They have a right to experience regular, consistent contact with both parents and to know the reason for cancellation of time or change of plans.
They have a right to a relaxed, secure relationship with both parents without being placed in a position where one parent is pitted against another. They also have the right to be treated as important human beings with unique feelings, ideas and desires.
Children are the real victims of divorce and mandatory counselling will provide reasonable guidance to ensure that there is a viable parenting plan in place and that post-break up acrimony will be mitigated as much as possible.
As I said earlier, the bill is not about parents. It is about children.
Healthy outcomes of children mean stronger families and ultimately a stronger country. For that reason, a constructive intervention for divorcing parents not only makes sense for the parents but for society as a whole.