Teen feels shut out of divorce case
I feel I’m mature enough to have a say in how involved my parents are in my life.”
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.