TWO YEARS AGO, Terri admitted that she abused the battered-women's shelter system. Although her husband had never assaulted her, she told a Winnipeg conference examining false allegations in family law that she lied to shelter staff, and to herself, because it was absurdly easy and because she had something to gain.
Terri says her husband's drinking problem made their seven-year relationship a rocky one, and that she had left him before. Her mother urged her to go to a shelter, she says, in the belief that the counselors would help her achieve independence. Terri (who requested anonymity to spare her now former husband further embarrassment), says she telephoned a Winnipeg shelter and was told only abused women were admitted.
"I went to the door and I cried and said that my husband was abusive. My kids weren't with me because I didn't want them to see how I had to get in." Terri says the intake worker accepted her story at face value. So she retrieved her sons, then three and six years old, and went back to the shelter where staff began coaching her on how to gain the upper hand in divorce court.
Terri says residents were told that "the first thing we needed to do was obtain a restraining order against our spouse. We were instructed to write down our complaints on paper and bring them with us when we went to see our lawyer." In Terri's case, the result was a ten-page affidavit alleging not that her husband was physically abusive, but that he displayed characteristics one might expect in an alcoholic. "A lot of the stuff I wrote up in the court document was about his hygiene. I complained about always having bladder infections because he never had a bath." On the basis of this affidavit, she says, "I got the restraining order and soon after I got full custody of my children with no visitation for my husband."
Later, the full import of her actions sank in. "I realized what I had done. My children had not seen their father for a year, yet I was never afraid that he would harm them or myself," says Terri, now a 36-year-old therapist. "It was not a fair fight. I had the shelter and the women's movement on my side."
During parliamentary committee hearings on child custody and access last year, women's-shelter spokespeople showed up in full force. Their propensity to stereotype all fathers in custody battles as abusive and all mothers as besieged victims came as no surprise to lawyers and community activists alarmed by the role shelters now play in divorce matters. In addition to providing moral support to women who appear on their doorstep, shelters also supply letters of endorsement that are highly prejudicial to the women's spouses in court despite the fact that the shelter employees have never met the men involved, have only heard one side of the story, and have only known the women for a short time under highly artificial conditions.
Susan Baragar, who practices primarily family law in Winnipeg, describes herself as a feminist but believes nevertheless that it is "all too easy" for women to get these letters from shelters, and warns that they are a highly potent weapon.
Judges are "most definitely swayed" if a woman is staying at a shelter and court documents include a letter from the facility implying that the father is dangerous, says Ms. Baragar. "I mean, you've got sort of a 'professional' now saying he shouldn't see his kids."
Ms. Baragar, herself, has used the tactic on behalf of her own clients. She cites a recent case in which she represented a woman who "came in with this two- or three-page letter which I attached to the affidavit, and [the father] was denied access on that basis. Nothing else. It depends on the judge. Some judges are more cautious than others. But in that particular case he was absolutely denied access."
Ms. Baragar says the opposing lawyer "argued that this was not an unbiased letter, that both parties had not been interviewed. He got absolutely nowhere." Since the parent who first secures legal child custody is almost certain to be awarded it later (authorities are reluctant to disrupt the children's lives once again), relationships between fathers and children are being ripped asunder in some cases merely on the say-so of a shelter worker.
In 1995, a Manitoba shelter worker wrote a two-page letter on behalf of a resident. The worker was able to discern, from their first meeting, that the woman "had been a victim of abuse in her childhood and now as a adult." Writing that she hoped "the court will recognize this letter of support," the worker pronounced the woman to be "intelligent, insightful, and sincere."
But in 1997, after hearing submissions from the woman's spouse and the Winnipeg Child and Family Services, a judge came to a different conclusion. Only in her early 20s, the woman had already made seven sexual-abuse complaints to police involving eleven different people. (The only complaint in which a charge was deemed warranted resulted in an acquittal.) "At one time or another," wrote the judge, the woman had "accused her father, brother, and sister of sexually abusing her." In the judge's view, her credibility was undermined by the fact that, "despite these allegations she had no hesitation in living with her father and her sister and in exposing her father to her own children." The woman eventually abandoned her custody bid, and the children were placed in the care of their paternal grandmother.
In Burlington, Ont., in 1995, a counselor at a women's shelter wrote a supportive letter regarding a client and her relationship to her then two-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son. Although the children had joined their mother in the shelter only eight days earlier, the staffer felt no hesitation in declaring the woman to be a "loving and devoted mother" and in expressing the "strong feeling" that child custody should be awarded to her rather than to the husband she was leaving.
But this woman's maternal track record was in fact less than stellar. Four years earlier, the Children's Aid Society had successfully convinced a court that she was a danger to her son and an older daughter, then aged twelve, who did not accompany her to the shelter.
After monitoring the situation for three months, a Children's Aid worker told the court that both children "admitted being afraid of their mother much of the time." On one occasion she allegedly threatened her spouse with a knife and then threatened to commit suicide. On another occasion, she allegedly "opened the car door while it was traveling along the highway and threatened to jump." The worker noted that "Both of these incidents occurred in the presence of the children." Nevertheless, the courts awarded custody of all three children to the woman.
At yet another shelter, in Orillia, Ont., a staffer wrote a letter in 1994 addressing the question of who should get custody of two boys, aged two and three. Despite the fact that no trial had yet been held, this staffer declared that their mother "had been physically assaulted" by her husband before fleeing to the shelter. The mere fact that the mother had shown up at a shelter was proof that she was "a conscientious and caring parent." The letter ended with the declaration that "it would be a great disservice" to the children if custody was not awarded to their mother. With the aid of the letter, the woman secured custody.
In 1997, a Toronto shelter worker wrote a letter on behalf of a woman who had been in residence for six weeks. It flatly announced that the woman had been "physically and emotionally" abused by the husband she was leaving and said that since "her children are her life," she should be assisted in gaining custody. However, in a report dated a week prior to the shelter's letter, a psychologist who interviewed the woman during her stay noted that she'd told him her husband "has never struck her physically." Interim custody has been awarded to the mother.
Ms. Baragar has had women's-shelter letters expunged from the record when attempts have been made to use them against her own clients. "There is a rule that you're technically not supposed to just attach reports to somebody else's affidavit," she says. "When I see letters like that I go pretty hardcore and insist that a separate affidavit then be sworn which gives me the right to cross-examine the maker of the statement. [The shelter workers] usually chicken out. They haven't wanted to swear affidavits." Many lawyers, she says, are unfamiliar with the tactic.
Mary McManus, a lawyer in Victoria, B.C., shares many of Ms. Baragar's concerns. While she thinks "shelters are very important and fulfill a useful function," she feels staffers should refrain from expressing opinions regarding situations about which they have limited knowledge.
"The workers at the shelters come with different backgrounds, experience, and education. What they say may well be justified, but may not be as well." Ms. McManus agrees that the courts "tend to place a great deal of weight on just the fact that a woman went to a shelter. I've had a lot of experience in bail hearings where men have been accused of abusing their spouse and the fact that the spouse is in the shelter can be accepted as evidence that there has been abuse."
Greta Smith, the executive director of the B.C./Yukon Society of Transition Houses says her organization has no policy regarding shelters writing letters on behalf of clients. While she admits it's "possible that some transition houses would write supportive letters," the idea makes her uncomfortable. "I guess I would have to see the letter. I'm sorry, I have some difficulty with that. The fact that people would write letters without some good solid reasons for writing a letter. Without seeing the letter and without finding out what the circumstances are, it would be very difficult to make a comment on that." When asked whether it's possible that some women are going to shelters as a divorce tactic, Ms. Smith replies: "Anything in this world is possible, but I do not believe that happens."
Louise Malenfant, a community activist in Winnipeg, calls shelters "one-stop divorce shops for women," and is disturbed by their 'no questions asked policy.' She claims that in addition to helping women who make false allegations of wife abuse, shelters in her city have helped manufacture incest accusations. Over the past four years, Ms. Malenfant has been an advocate for 62 individuals who claimed to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse during divorce proceedings. In a third of those cases, she says, a women's shelter was involved.
At 1996 public hearings into the Manitoba Child and Family Services Act, Ms. Malenfant alleged that children were taken into a room that was off limits to their mothers, subjected to a sexual-abuse awareness program, and inappropriately questioned by shelter staff.
"If you expose children to sexual material and you question them repeatedly over the course of a week or two, that child can literally repeat what they've been taught," Ms. Malenfant told the National Post.
She maintains that even mothers who would not have otherwise accused their spouses of incest were compelled to treat such allegations seriously after they arose during a shelter stay. Ms. Malenfant has publicly called for an inquiry into women's shelters, and has written letters to government officials protesting their policies. As a result, that particular issue seems to have disappeared. "It was like somebody sucked that problem right out of the place," Ms. Malenfant says. "I have not seen a new women's-shelter case in over a year. I don't know what [the government has] done; all I know is that it stopped." "It's extremely disturbing," says Ms. Baragar of the role shelters have been playing in custody and divorce proceedings. "I get very angry about it from a personal basis, because I think that there are very real cases of abuse and what I see happening in the courts is that those cases now have less value because of the lies that are so easily" being told.
In the last year, Ms. Baragar says she has sensed a growing cynicism from the bench.
"Judges are now more willing to believe that this is just a lie. You know, it got to a point for a while that I couldn't pick up a woman's affidavit where she wasn't accusing him of abuse. You'd get page after page of what was being called abuse, and people were quite prepared to go to women's shelters for it.
"I mean, not everything is abuse. Just because it wasn't a fun fight doesn't mean it was abuse."