No anti-male bias in the tragic White family case


[This article and the next one sorely need to be analyzed in their own right. I hope that their unfeeling "Let them eat cake" attitude (and other nasty ones) is transparent to the reader. Nevertheless, they underline the serious dangers of desperate people failing to find appropriate legal help--and show how mercilessly treated the lay people who try to help them can be.]


Marie Gordon, an Edmonton lawyer who deals in family law, looks beyond the news stories to examine the facts of a high-profile case


Marie Gordon.

Edmonton Journal. Edmonton, Alta.: Apr 7, 2000


A somewhat tragic example of organized gender bias "spin" occurred last month with the suicide of 34-year-old Darrin White of Prince George, B.C.


The headline in the Edmonton Journal of March 27: "Father's suicide renews calls to reform Divorce Act," conveyed the message that flawed and unfair legislation had been the cause of White's death.


The alarming article, and many like it published across the country, included lengthy quotes from fathers' rights advocates, including Liberal MP Roger Gallaway and Senator Anne Cools, all opining quite shamelessly about the inevitability of a future increase in the suicides of wronged fathers, and the massive unfairness of the legal system that would inevitably cause those suicides.


Suicide specialist Jeffrey Asher talked about the terrible impact of divorce on men (as if all men are the same), and bemoaned the fact that in most cases women get custody of the children, the house, its contents and a "steady income" from the former husband.


As a family lawyer who has acted for mothers and fathers alike over the past 20 years, I shook my head.


The readiness of outsiders (with ongoing political causes needing fuel) to judge this case, and to exploit it for their own agendas, is exceedingly troubling.


The (Ottawa Citizen story published in the Journal) article's blatantly biased reporting on the topic, and the callousness of the commentators, gives one grave concern about the "fathers' rights" movement in Canada today.


An examination of all of the facts in this case yields a somewhat less one-sided conclusion about cause and effect. The following facts are extracted from the 11-page full-text judgement in this case issued by Master Baker of the B.C. Supreme Court on February 21, 2000:


- The couple had three children, aged 10, nine and five.


- The wife left the home with the children on January 18, 2000.


- The husband had been charged with assault.


- Shortly after the separation, the husband had taken most of the funds from the joint account, setting up a new account in his own name. The wife had made the mortgage payments through a joint line of credit while the husband remained in the home.


- Since the separation, the husband had given the wife a total of $20.


- Both the husband and wife were qualified and certified railroad locomotive engineers.


- The family had moved from Ontario to B.C. in 1995 to accommodate a change in the husband's employment. The wife had to quit her paid employment with the railroad in Ontario and arranged for the move of the children and the household to B.C. Since moving to B.C., the wife had found only one month's paid employment as a commissioned sales person. At the time of the hearing she was unemployed, anticipating receipt of social assistance.


- The husband's 1996/1997-1998 average annual income was $67,500.


- The husband alleged he was under serious emotional stress at the time of the hearing on child and spousal support, and filed an affidavit stating "I am currently on stress leave and receive approximately $400 per week." There was no documentation corroborating the amount of disability income, or evidence confirming the disability from his physician or employer.


- Expecting that Darrin White would need his claimed eight-week disability, the court reduced his guideline income to $60,300.


-Rather than have a lawyer help him, the husband was represented at the hearing by Todd Eckert, the President of PCAC (Parent-Child Advocacy Association).


The husband's financial statement, claiming monthly expenses for himself of $5,938 was described by the Court as "unreliable," "not corroborated," "fanciful" and "speculative."


- Three days before the commencement of proceedings in the B.C. Supreme Court, but after Provincial Court proceedings had started, Darrin White had entered into a contract with the mother of a child from a previous relationship born back in 1985, whereby he agreed to pay her $439 per month child support plus add-ons.


- However, from 1988 until February 2000, there had never been any formal agreement or order for White to pay support for this child. White had not seen his daughter for three years, and blamed his current wife for that. The court concluded that the agreement was one "purely of convenience" and said "it taxes credulity to accept that in arranging this contract with Ms. Johnston, the defendant had any dominant purpose other than to attempt to protect income from the plaintiff's claim and to allege hardship pursuant to section 10(2)(d) of the Child Support Guidelines."


- Darrin White's "undue hardship" claim to reduce his obligation to pay child support for the three children of his current marriage was not accepted.


- The court awarded guideline child support for three children of $1,071 per month and taxable/deductible spousal support of $1,000 per month on an interim basis (the latter would equate to approximately $600 after tax each month).


Private, and Tragic


The reasons why Darrin White chose to end his life in March 2000 are undoubtedly complicated, private and tragic, not only for him but for those, including his children, who have survived him.


Ms. White is left to care for three small children without any physical, emotional or financial support.


Many, who have their own private grudges against spouses seeking support, hold her responsible for what happened to her husband. What a travesty.


One might have hoped that sound, sensible legal advice from a responsible family law practitioner might have assisted Darrin White in fairly representing his concerns to the court, and in getting through a difficult and painful separation without destroying himself or his family.


Responsible lawyers don't tell fathers that every dollar they have to pay to a former wife is a personal affront.


Responsible lawyers assist clients to understand the whys and wherefores of child and spousal support, and to make balanced and effective representations to the court. They don't assist in putting forth bogus arguments to reduce available income, and they don't encourage clients to feel like martyrs to the cause.


One can only wonder what the impact was on Darrin White of being represented by an extremist fathers' rights "advocate" whose arguments in court certainly didn't help, and may have hindered White's position.        [Next]


Senator Anne Cools is quoted saying that "like so many men in this situation, he had no voice, no outlet and no representation."


Unfortunately, Darrin White chose to be represented by a non- lawyer from an organization that views all men as victims under the Divorce Act.


The potent mix of emotion, bitterness, confusion and hurt is a volatile substance, and is potentially easy to exploit and manipulate for the "larger cause."


And for the men's rights movement to sensationalize and exploit his death in the national media seems almost unconscionable.


Witness the comment offered up by another activist with the Parent-Child Advocacy Association, Peter Ostrowski, in the March 23, 2000 issue of the National Post.


"Darrin had no problem with the child support," says Ostrowski. "What put the rope around his neck was the $1,000 spousal support he was ordered to pay for his estranged wife, who is exactly qualified in the same job and had no reason she couldn't go back to work."


Perhaps someone should explain the basics of labour force participation to Ostrowski when there are three young children to be cared for in the home.


Ms. White moved to B.C. and left a paying job to accommodate her husband's career in any event, something that many wives do.


As if women in Canada needed any more disincentive to seek spousal support, Ostrowski's quote conveys a new threat to wives as they press forward to claim an entitlement to spousal support. The latest available Canadian statistics from the Department of Justice indicate that only a very small fraction of women ever ask for spousal support, even though their post-separation standards of living are almost invariably lower than those of their husbands.


Only16 per cent of divorcing wives in this study asked for spousal support, and spousal support was only incorporated into 6.2 per cent of final divorce Orders. (Source: Department of Justice, Evaluation of the Divorce Act 1985 -- Phase II Monitoring and Evaluation, May 1990)


And so here ends the story of a family law case gone terribly wrong, but not by reason of the "anti-male" bias of the family court system.


Nor did this private tragedy have anything to do with reforms to The Divorce Act. You can draw your own conclusions from the facts that the media, unfortunately, never got around to reporting.