There’s equality, and then there’s equality. How parental alienation impacts fathers.
Divorce is brutal. Anyone who has been through one or supported someone going through one knows the incredible emotional and financial toll it takes. Couples enter into a costly legal maze from which everyone emerges poorer, and no matter what reassurances children are given, they know intuitively that their world is being turned upside-down and that their lives will never be the same.
One of the more insidious aspects of family breakdown is Malicious Parent Syndrome (MPS), a harmful behaviour by which the custodial parent manipulates children to fear and resent the non-custodial parent. MPS was first described in 1995 by Dr. Ira Turkat, a psychologist who, according to his website, “specializes in family law disputes, including child custody, parental alienation, false allegations, relocation, hostile divorce, relationship poisoning, settlement regret, and related matters of merit.” Turkat originally referred to MPS as Malicious Mother Syndrome, but while he originally described this behaviour as exhibited by mothers at a time when joint physical custody and equal parenting time were very rare, it is now widely recognized that fathers also engage in MPS tactics.
MPS can take many forms, all intended to inflict punishment. Turkat identified four criteria that must be met. One parent may interfere with visitation rights, be they court-ordered or negotiated. They may interrupt communications or participation in school events or extra-curricular activities. They may engage in excessive or frivolous legal actions based on outlandish accusations, repeatedly misleading the child and others about the other parent’s suitability. They may even break the law.
While some researchers question the classification of these behaviours as an actual syndrome, there is no doubt that the behaviours described exist and, more often than not, are targeted by the custodial against the non-custodial parent, and therein lies the inequity. Family law in Canada varies by province, but overall joint physical custody is now far more common. However, there is a huge gender gap in how sole physical custody is awarded, especially when young children are involved, and stability of residence is especially important.
In 2018-2019, the federal Department of Justice produced a snap-shot of the situation compiled from six participating superior courts located in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Yukon for a total of 2,651 orders. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make significant decisions on behalf of a child in areas such as health care, education, and religion, with joint custody being the most common arrangement at 61 percent. Mothers held sole legal custody 27 percent of the time, while fathers had sole legal custody in 3 percent of the orders.
Physical custody refers to the primary residence and day-to-day care of the child. Shared physical custody, meaning that the child resides at least 40 percent of the time or at least three full days a week with each parent, was awarded 31 percent of the time. However, mothers were awarded sole physical custody of all the children 56 percent of the time, versus 7 percent for fathers. That’s eight times more often. One might assume that sole physical custody was awarded due to threatening behaviour, but only 2 percent of custody and access cases involved a restraining clause that is typically put in place to ensure the safety of a child or former spouse.
Sole physical custody means far more contact time, emotional influence and bonding, and while most sole physical custody orders (59 percent) included access terms agreed upon by the two parties, 41 percent included “reasonable or liberal access arrangements,” meaning that schedules were left open and flexible. Only 19 percent of the court orders included specific access arrangements for birthdays, holidays, school events, etc., which leaves total control with the sole custodial parent.
Jim is a 55-year-old engineer. He’s also a divorced dad who has been tormented by what is called “restrictive gatekeeping.” “Let me give you a great example,” Jim says. “I have a 9-year-old boy, and his mother has completely shut down every channel of communication. I can’t talk to him. I didn’t even know where he lived because she moved without discussing it with me. I mean, I eventually located him, but I had to search for him!”
It all started when Jim moved on from the marriage and started dating again. Until that point, the relationship was cordial and cooperative, but things got pretty nasty in no time. Jim decided to visit his son’s school to drop off a present. It was simply a matter of signing in, wearing a badge, and being accompanied by a staff member. Obviously, there is strict supervision with security checks. Nobody can just walk in off the street and ask to see a child, but Jim is, after all, a parent with rights, or so he thought. “So the first time I did this, it was to deliver a birthday present,” Jim recalled. “I followed all the procedures, signed in, saw him for maybe two minutes in the hall at lunchtime, gave him his Lego, got a hug, returned the badge to the office and left.” That evening, Jim got a call from the police wanting to know why he was sneaking around the school stalking his child.
One of the most painful and discouraging side effects, piled on top of the emotional stress of divorce, is that it’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume that there’s something wrong with the father. “Everybody seeing you as the bad guy is one of the three things that is most hurtful in this situation,” Jim explains. “The other two are, in effect, grieving the loss of a child, and that nobody understands what you’re going through. You really feel alone!”
A second encounter underscored the Catch-22. A few weeks later, with arms loaded with Christmas gifts, Jim was denied access at the school, but a teacher offered to deliver them on his behalf. He was appreciative and left. A subsequent phone call to the principal revealed that a letter on file stipulated that Jim required permission from his ex-spouse to see his son outside of the agreed-upon contact times, which are regularly thwarted by her. In spite of living in his office for ten years to save money for support payments (equalling roughly 40 percent of his income, plus braces for three kids, plus health insurance payments, plus, plus…), in spite of no questionable behaviour requiring court restrictions, in spite of no cheating, Jim found himself firmly grabbed by the you-know-whats. “We had a privately-negotiated agreement for access which wasn’t ratified by a judge, and so cannot be enforced, so it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Oh, and she insisted on sole custody!” A lawyer advised Jim to budget $200,000 if he wanted to put up a fight. He’s not alone.
Naveed’s tale of woe provides enough drama to fill a season of Days of Our Lives. It is impossible to whittle down all the gory details into a few concise paragraphs. Suffice it to say Naveed has lived a relentless ordeal that has spanned decades and continents as he has tried to gain and increase access to his boys. Like Jim, Naveed could have been saddled with killer legal fees, but he decided to represent himself in court, something that a judge may find a condescension of the legal profession.
“After spending over $10,000 for a lawyer who did nothing for my boys and me, I decided that the person who can best tell our story is me,” Naveed says. “After a full workday, I’d come home and spend my evenings studying the law and studying the case. I’d also study the judges assigned to my case to learn everything I could about his or her past rulings. And, I was successful in arguing before four other judges prior to coming up against this one unreasonable judge.” That judge was Barbara Baird-Filliter, the first female leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in New Brunswick, who served when the PCs were completely shut out of the Legislature following a historic sweep of all seats by Frank McKenna’s Liberals in 1987. “Other judges gave me more and more time with my boys, so I was successful until I faced her. And due to outrageous accusations made by my ex-wife, because I was gaining more access, Judge Baird decided to order a psychologist to observe me with my boys!”
After being unable to find a mutually agreed-upon evaluator, Naveed consented to a psychologist retained by his ex-wife’s lawyer. After thorough testing, meetings, and home observations involving parents and kids, the report concluded that “the information gathered for this assessment did not uncover any elements which would suggest that the time [the boys] spend with their father is not positive for them. This is why there is no reason to limit the time the children spend with their father.” The report also concluded the mother’s negative opinion of the father was clearly influencing the children’s perception of him. In spite of this, Naveed recalls the judge saying, “Sir, if you think I am going to give you more time with your boys, you are sadly mistaken. Move on!” He was stunned and demanded to know, “What was the purpose of the report you ordered!? It says I am not a threat to my boys, and it even recommends we spend more time together, and again she told me to drop it!!” That’s when Naveed realized he was up against an intransigent bias, but there was nothing he nor anyone else could do. Removing a judge from a case is next to impossible, even for experienced lawyers.
Following more accusations by his ex-wife and what he felt was further prejudice by Judge Baird, Naveed itemized what he believed to be incidents of bias in his case. He submitted a letter of complaint to the Law Society and the Chief Justice of New Brunswick. Then one day, Naveed had a stroke of luck. His LinkedIn account notified him that his profile had been viewed by one George Filliter, who, you guessed it, was the judge’s husband and also a lawyer. “I took a screenshot and forwarded it to the Chief Justice and the Canadian Judicial Council. I complained my case had the appearance of being decided at the judge’s dinner table — not in court. Two days later, I got a phone call. The authorities obviously agreed with me because they decided to remove Judge Baird immediately!”
Unfortunately for Naveed, the grief became worse since then. He hasn’t heard from his boys in eight years when his ordeal went trans-continental when his ex-wife took their boys to South America to be with her family. So, try to imagine how complex the legal battle got at that point, and you’ll understand why Naveed pointed out that fathers are far more likely to commit suicide when dealing with parental alienation and struggling to gain access to their children.
And then there’s Josh, who has been subjected to more police interventions than the mafia, all because his ex-wife had 911 on speed dial. It all started with a false accusation of domestic assault that allegedly took place in front of Josh’s residence, and that resulted in the police erring on the side of caution and restraining him in a police vehicle. Josh was required to notify the police in the event of a change of address or employment and was to abstain from communicating with his ex-wife, directly or indirectly. The details given by his ex-wife were not borne out in a witness statement given to police by others who were on the property and in close proximity at the time. Josh eventually appeared in court, where the charge was dropped. His ex-wife was charged with assault. It was not the first time, and he was not the only victim.
“It’s the silver bullet technique,” Josh says. “She filed two emergency intervention orders (EIOs) in the same week against me, accusing me of violence, although in our 22-year marriage, there had never been an incident, never a call to the police, which was why the EOIs were not granted.” Her lawyer, who happened to also be her sister-in-law and aunt to the children, wrote a letter to the officer of the court stating that her client had just been assaulted by her ex-husband and that they needed a quick court date to acquire custody of the children. They appeared in court 20 days later. This was prior to Josh appearing in court to have the charge against him dropped and prior to his ex-wife being charged following further investigation. Too bad, so sad, too late for Josh.
The whole unseemly situation prompted Josh to pursue a conflict of interest investigation with the Law Society, the premise being that he had a personal family relationship with his ex-wife’s lawyer, who herself was active in the Society and whose office partner, who took over the file in an attempt to neutralize the accusation of conflict, was the former president. “I filed my complaint, and they had to have an independent reviewer brought in, who wasn’t involved with the Law Society, to investigate,” Josh says, “and he found my concern over the conflict of interest to be completely warranted. Even her partner, who took over the file, knowing about the conflict and being in the same office was completely unacceptable. I have messages between my ex and my sister-in-law plotting to keep me running to court!” And run and run he has, three-and-a-half years later, still fighting for a shared custody arrangement that was torpedoed in the narrow margin of time prior to his charges being dropped and his ex facing charges herself.
This would be a good time to reiterate an important fact. Both mothers and fathers are culpable for behaviour meant to alienate the other parent, but here is one form of parental alienation that is exclusively the mother’s, and it begins prior to birth. I know of a 32-year-old man, whose identity I am protecting, who discovered, two years after a relationship ended, that he has a daughter. He found out quite by accident and has never been allowed to develop a relationship with her, nor has his family, who are regularly disappointed when she is expected at family gatherings but does not arrive. The father will drive three hours to see her at a mutually agreed-upon time to arrive at an empty house. His ex-girlfriend wanted a baby but not the commitment to a spouse or partner. I’ve personally known another woman who became involved with a man and deceived him about being on birth control with the intention of having a child without his knowledge. I don’t know how it turned out because I ended the friendship, and have wondered how she would respond to the child’s questions regarding the father’s identity.
It’s all deeply heartbreaking. Jim is luckier than most men in his situation. “I’m a self-employed professional with a successful partner who can at least make ends meet,” he says, even though the longer-term financial hit is huge. A man who is not in a professional income bracket might find himself living in a rented room or some miserable one-bedroom with kids’ bunk beds in the living room, as Jim did at the beginning of his separation. That being said, Jim finds himself living in a dark time.
In fact, he’s currently entangled in a conflict wherein his ex-wife, who emigrated from Europe, is demanding Jim sign a passport application for a son he has been unable to locate since 2019, potentially enabling a move overseas without his consent. “I guess I’m coping pretty well, but suicide is an all-to-common outcome for men in this situation.” In fact, men are four times more likely than women to die this way; men are three times more likely to die from alcohol-related illnesses, five times more likely to die from drug overdoses or experience chronic homelessness, nine times more likely to be incarcerated, and 11 times more likely to be seriously injured or killed on the job.
If there is a patriarchy that supposedly favours men, then it certainly doesn’t favour divorced fathers.