Teen feels shut out of di­vorce case

The Province - - NEWS - IAN MULGREW

I feel I’m ma­ture enough to have a say in how in­volved my par­ents are in my life.”

S.

Kids say the darn­d­est things, but judges don’t al­ways lis­ten even when out of the mouths of babes comes wis­dom be­yond their years.

Iden­ti­fied only by an ini­tial in court doc­u­ments to pro­tect her pri­vacy, S. is a 17-year-old who was re­cently de­nied a voice in her par­ents’ long-run­ning di­vorce bat­tle by the B.C. Court of Ap­peal — even though her life is the is­sue.

Speak­ing with Post­media News, the pre­co­cious, self-as­sured teen crit­i­cized the pro­ceed­ings as pa­ter­nal­is­tic and the idea that judges can dic­tate whom she will have a re­la­tion­ship with as un­re­al­is­tic.

“I wish the courts would keep up­dated with a child or young per­son, what they want, their opin­ions, keep up­dated on what’s go­ing on in their life,” said the univer­sity stu­dent who hopes one day to be a doc­tor.

“I feel as though, es­pe­cially with the ap­peal, I feel as though I’m in the room, but I’ve been muted. Like I’m the per­son it’s about, but I don’t have a say, and that doesn’t make sense to me. You would think you would value my voice and what I have to say. Even if they say we each should go to coun­selling — I can refuse. They’re not go­ing to pull me in hand­cuffs.”

This was a novel sit­u­a­tion, but the case will res­onate with all par­ents — moth­ers and fa­thers — who have faced dif­fi­cul­ties main­tain­ing a re­la­tion­ship with a child through pro­tracted lit­i­ga­tion.

Af­ter a brief re­la­tion­ship, in De­cem­ber 1999 the mother iden­ti­fied by the court as D. and the fa­ther, P., were mar­ried in Japan. They planned a wed­ding cer­e­mony for the sum­mer of 2000 in Van­cou­ver, but D. be­came preg­nant and on the eve of the cer­e­mony P. ended the re­la­tion­ship. He flew back to New York, where he lived.

S. was born in April 2001 and a sep­a­ra­tion agree­ment be­tween her par­ents was reached in March 2002.

The Supreme Court granted the cou­ple a di­vorce in Jan­uary 2003 — D. re­ceived cus­tody and guardian­ship, and P. was granted stip­u­lated ac­cess, but that proved prob­lem­atic given the con­ti­nen­tal sep­a­ra­tion and the ac­ri­mony.

Be­tween Fe­bru­ary 2005 and Au­gust 2009, five sep­a­rate court or­ders were is­sued re­gard­ing P.’s ac­cess but he was un­able to es­tab­lish reg­u­lar con­tact and ac­cused the mom of alien­at­ing S. in what had be­come an in­ter­minable le­gal bat­tle in court.

In 2016, a court psy­chol­o­gist pro­duced a re­port mak­ing sev­eral rec­om­men­da­tions to re­store re­la­tions and a hear­ing was sched­uled for June 2017 to deal with those is­sues, trig­ger­ing S.’s de­mand to be heard.

“I have lived with my mom all my life,” she ex­plained. “My fa­ther has been in and out of my life, ran­domly. There have been pe­ri­ods of time where there was no con­tact up to two and three years. There was never con­sis­tency in hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with me. So I wanted my opin­ion to be heard in the court and for them to un­der­stand what I wanted.”

S. was 15 at the time. “I found a lawyer through Ac­cess Pro Bono and she helped me write an af­fi­davit and just fig­ure out how to get in­volved in the court pro­cesses. I had a pri­vate in­ter­view with the judge and he asked me some ques­tions. Look­ing back, I don’t to­tally feel like I had a chance to say ev­ery­thing I wanted to.”

Ac­tu­ally, she felt in­tim­i­dated and scared be­cause the judge told her she could be forcibly put aboard a plane and sent to spend time with her fa­ther.

“Hear­ing that the courts had so much power over my life,” S. said, “it felt like the judge was God in a way. I don’t know why he would say those things. I felt very pow­er­less.”

She was also in­sulted at the in­sin­u­a­tion that she had been brain­washed by her mother:

“I am my own per­son. I have a pretty strong sense of self I’d like to think. And she’s never said any­thing bad about him, she’s al­ways told me, es­pe­cially when I was younger, ‘Would you like to call your dad, I have his phone num­ber? Do you want to go to New York? It’s open to you.’ ”

In the end, the judge re­fused her re­quest to be rep­re­sented by a lawyer and in­stead or­dered a gov­ern­ment-funded am­i­cus cu­riae, or friend of the court, ap­pointed. The at­tor­ney gen­eral ap­pealed that de­ci­sion and the prov­ince’s top bench over­turned it say­ing an am­i­cus was in­ap­pro­pri­ate: “S.’s voice has been heard di­rectly, through af­fi­davits and an in­ter­view with the cham­bers judge, and in­di­rectly through the re­port of the psy­chol­o­gist.”

S. in­sisted she is of an age where she should have a say in what hap­pens in her life, but the court treated her like a child and said she was in­ca­pable of de­cid­ing what was in her best in­ter­ests.

“I feel I’m ma­ture enough to have a say in how in­volved my par­ents are in my life,” she main­tained.

S. was adamant that she doesn’t want a re­la­tion­ship with her dad and the court can’t change her feel­ings no mat­ter what it de­cides.

“I guess I am draw­ing a line in the sand. I don’t feel like I need him in my life. I’ve sur­vived this long with­out hav­ing him in my life and I think I’ve done pretty well for my­self … I feel like he wants to have a re­la­tion­ship and he’s not hear­ing me that I’m not in­ter­ested.”

The ad­ver­sar­ial lit­i­ga­tion process hasn’t helped — it prob­a­bly ex­ac­er­bated the dis­pute. That’s why there is a move­ment to keep fam­i­lies out of court. In Aus­tralia, for in­stance, cen­tres have been es­tab­lished as hubs for multi-dis­ci­plinary teams that as­sist fam­i­lies through breakups to re­duce le­gal con­flicts. Rather than par­ents find­ing them­selves on op­po­site sides of a bit­ter lit­i­ga­tion fight, ex­perts pro­vide sup­port to re­duce an­tag­o­nism and find so­lu­tions that work for both par­ties.

“I wish they had that here,” S. said. “When I was younger, if they had some­thing like that, it would have been a lot more pos­i­tive.”

In­stead, she wor­ries about the long-de­layed hear­ing and the psy­chol­o­gist’s re­port.

“I don’t think, like it wasn’t my choice to be born into this, with my par­ents split, all this lit­i­ga­tion and the stress. But I’m here and I have to fig­ure a way to deal through it. I’ve been try­ing to in the most re­spect­ful way, by find­ing a lawyer to rep­re­sent me ver­sus run­ning away or lash­ing out.”

It has only left her frus­trated.

“I feel all this lit­i­ga­tion has pushed us apart even fur­ther,” S. said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s about me any more. I still feel I’m not heard so I don’t know what I have to do as a young per­son to be heard. They make it so dif­fi­cult for us. They re­ally do.”

A 17-year-old was re­cently de­nied a voice in her par­ents’ di­vorce case, even though she was a key part of the it.

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