News Articles on MESA Archive (return to list)
The National Post - March 23, 2000
Anti-male bias in family courts blamed for man's suicide
by Donna LaFramboise
A Prince George, B.C., man killed himself
after being ordered to make family support payments that
amounted to twice his income, a death some are blaming on a
family-court bias against men.
Last week, the RCMP recovered the body of
34-year-old Darrin White. Listed as a missing person since March
12, Mr. White hanged himself in woods near the University of
Northern British Columbia campus.
The father of four children, aged 5, 9, 10
and 14, he was involved in a custody battle with his estranged
wife, Madeleine White.
"Darrin didn't have a chance," says Peter
Ostrowski, an activist with the Parent-Child Advocacy Coalition
(PCAC), which tried to assist him. "He was thrown out of his
house on two days' notice with nowhere to live. He was expected
to pay a lawyer a $5,000 retainer and appear in court
repeatedly. Meanwhile, he was supposed to be working night-shift
driving 800-ton trains loaded with iron ore."
Legal documents show Mrs. White, 33, left the
family home on Jan.18, taking the couple's three children with
her. (Mr. White's eldest child lives with her mother, Melodi
Johnston, in Weyburn, Sask.) On the same day, police charged Mr.
White -- who denied any wrongdoing -- with wife assault.
In response to a restraining order issued
against him, Mr. White wrote on a court form: "I believe we can
work out our problems through a marriage counsellor or any other
way Madeleine chooses. I love my family and I love my wife both
very much ... My children need their dad and I need them."
On Feb. 21, Mr. White was given less than 48
hours to vacate the matrimonial home after Master Douglas Baker,
a junior judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, awarded
Mrs. White exclusive occupancy.
On March 1, Master Baker issued a 14-page
written decision ordering Mr. White to pay $1,071 a month in
child support plus $1,000 a month in alimony -- with the first
payment of $2,071 due immediately.
Although the order acknowledges that the
Whites were both "qualified and certified railroad locomotive
engineers," it concludes, without explaining why: "It is not
reasonable at this time to expect" Mrs. White, a full-time
homemaker since 1995, to return to railway work "in the
immediately foreseeable future."
Mr. White had recently taken stress leave
from his job but, because of time constraints, was unable to
supply the court with documents proving he would be receiving
only $400 a week in gross income (or about $950 net a month)
while off the job.
The court order reads: "I must conclude that
the current interruption to the defendant's income stream is
temporary and of short duration ... I attribute to the defendant
an annual income for [child support] guideline purposes of
Mr. White had already been paying informal
child support to Ms. Johnston for his oldest daughter. When his
marriage broke down this year, he appears to have been concerned
about whether this daughter would continue to receive a fair
share. In February, he signed a contract with Ms. Johnston
obliging him to pay $439 a month.
"Darrin and I never spent one day in a
courtroom," says Ms. Johnston. "We were always able to work
things out between us."
Master Baker was unimpressed. "I seriously
question that the payments in respect of [the daughter] are
actually being made and conclude that the agreement ... is an
agreement purely of convenience," reads his decision.
Two weeks before Mr. White killed himself, a
doctor signed an insurance form indicating he was suffering from
divorce-related depression, cognitive impairment and an
inability to concentrate. Mr. White was not fit, said the
doctor, to work on even a part-time basis.
"Darrin had no problem with the child
support," says Mr. 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."
Activists in Montreal, Regina and Toronto say
divorce-related suicides by men treated harshly by the courts
are all too common.
The Alberta-based Men's Educational Support
Association devotes a page on its Web site (www.mesacanada.com)
to nearly two dozen men, including many British citizens, who
have taken their own lives in such circumstances.
It also reports on Brian Armstrong, an
unemployed New Hampshire welder who lived with his parents
before being jailed in connection with child support arrears.
After allegedly being beaten by guards, Mr. Armstrong lapsed
into a coma and died this year.
Todd Eckert, who as president of PCAC also
tried to help Mr. White, wants to know when divorced fathers are
going to be treated with some more compassion.
"How many more fathers have to die? Here's
four kids now that will never see their father again."
Adds Ms. Johnston, "Darrin was a kind and
decent man. Our daughter and myself will miss him very much."