Alleged Gender Bias and Family Court

One issue that comes up very commonly in the “men’s issues” movement is an alleged bias in the Family Court system. Some men maintain that women are awarded custody, alimony/spousal support and/or child support more often and in higher amounts than themselves for no good reason.


A Bias in the Law?

The Department of Justice, in their 2002 report “Putting Children First” noted their opinion that there was no bias on the part of the legislation itself, while also conceding “while the law may be gender neutral, in a majority of cases the mother is a sole custodian or, in a joint custody arrangement, she is the primary caregiver with the father having the role of an access parent.”

This report goes on to state “There is no reason to believe that this gender differentiation is a result of systemic bias in the Canadian courts. It is more likely that in the vast majority of cases the parties have themselves agreed on this arrangement. The social realities or parents’ perceptions regarding parenting roles may be responsible.”

As the “tender years” doctrine (which stated that mothers should be the sole breadwinners) has fallen out of favour in place of the “best interests of the child” doctrine, at least on paper, one can assume that there is no de jure bias in the laws as written. As judges still have control over awards, however, bias may still exist.

Prevalence of Sole Mother Custody

The most common point brought up is that women are often chosen as the custodial parent when a relationship dissolves. The research seems to indicate that this is true.

A research report by Le Bourdais, Juby & Marcil-Gratton (1999) notes the following breakdown of custody:

  • 81 percent sole mother
  • 7 percent sole father
  • 13 percent shared custody

This suggests that while the majority of the time the woman is awarded custody, there is no information provided about the way that custody was determined. For that information, we turn to the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY).

The NLSCY, recorded in a Department of Justice report (2000) notes that in 1995, slightly more than half of relationships (52%) where custody was established did not involve a court order. This may suggest that men are choosing to give up custody voluntarily. The same report, however, also notes that in cases where a court order did exist, almost 80% of the time a court order was established, the mother was granted sole custody.

The large mother sole custody number drops slightly (but still substantially) when the child gets older, with 80.6% of mothers of children 0-5 being given sole custody, while only 74% of mothers of children 6-11 did.

Another interesting element from this survey is that contact with fathers drops the longer the relationship has been broken up. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this.

Two questions that I don’t believe have existing data to answer them include whether men apply for custody less often, and whether men win custody more often when they apply for it.

One argument is that men are counselled by family lawyer they are unlikely to win if they do apply, and secondly that only those with so-called “slam dunk” cases will even bother. This could explain some of the disparities claimed in other countries where men who ask for custody are more likely to win than women — but where men simply don’t contest custody.

Alimony / Spousal Support and Child Support

Alimony or spousal support is money that is paid to a spouse (an ex-husband or ex-wife) after a divorce. It is usually time-limited, and designed to compensate the spouse who gave up earning power during the marriage (often to raise children.)

Kelly (2013), using data from the 2011 General Social Survey noted that 96% of spousal and child support awards in Canada were paid by the father to the mother. This is interesting when you consider that according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (2013), 38% of women outearned their husbands. Similar numbers are reported in Canada (Sussman & Bonnell, 2006) and England. (Ben-Galim & Thompson, 2013)

Despite men being eligible for spousal support, it is awarded less often. It’s unclear from the research whether this is the result of men not applying for alimony or spousal support – or whether judges, who have significant discretion over awards, are choosing not to give it to men.


Ben-Galim, D., Thompson, S. (2013) Who’s Breadwinning? Working Mothers and the New Face of Family Support. Institute for Public Policy Research.

Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Bureau of Labour Statistics. (2013) Accessed electronically on Nov  2, 2015 from

Selected Statistics on Canadian Families and Family Law: Second Edition. (2000) Department of Justice. Accessed electronically on Nov 2, 2015 from

Final Federal-Provincial-Territorial Report on Custody and Access and Child Support: .Putting Children First. (2002) Department of Justice. Accessed electronically from

Kelly, M.B. (2013) Payment patterns of child and spousal support. Juristat. Accessed electronically on Nov 2 2015 from

Le Bourdais, C., Juby, H., Marcil-Gratton, N. Keeping Contact with Children: Assessing the Father/Child Post-separation Relationship from the Male Perspective (1999) Department of Justice. Accessed electronically on October 21 from

Sussman, D., Bonnell, S. (2006) Wives as primary breadwinners. Perspectives on Labour and Income. 7(8)

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Alleged Gender Bias and Family Court," retrieved on July 23, 2019 from

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Beginnings of an Online Crisis Chat Service

On June 29th, the Distress Centres of Dufferin/Wellington, Durham, Peel and Toronto joined together to launch an online crisis chat service. Texting through an unadvertised shortcode based on a service in the US or visiting our website provides access to a trained volunteer responder between 2pm and 2am.

After running the service for a few months, we’ve begun seeing some important elements emerge from the data. They include elements like the length of the chats, the service volume, the elements necessary for high-quality chats and texts,

Chat Length

The average interaction is 45-60 minutes. This is much longer than helpline conversations which tend to be closer to 20-30 minutes for individuals who are not in crisis. This is because of the time required to process what you’re reading and to consider writing your response.

Service Volume

The service operates for approximately 12 hours a day and fields an average of 10-15 text sessions and 5-10 chat sessions a day, but has received as many as 64 chat/text interactions in a week during periods of high volume.

Number of Responders

We are close to 150 responders covering a 12 hour period with double coverage. Because commitments can vary based on the partner Centres we estimated that we would need about 50 responders per Centre in order to meet this base level of service.

Level of Distress

Currently, there is a pre-chat survey for visitors entering the system where they can indicate their level of distress on a 5 point scale:

  • 1 – I’m doing okay
  • 2 – A little upset
  • 3 – Moderately upset
  • 4 – Very upset
  • 5 – Extremely upset

At the end of the chat, they are redirected to a post-chat survey where they have the option to note if their level of distress has changed. Approximately 20% of the chat visitors complete the pre and post chat surveys.

The results of preliminary analysis show that their level of distress drops 1 full point from 3.8 to 2.8, on average after an interaction with a responder.

Chat and Text Issues

The most common issues that chatters report are anxiety, depression, relationship concerns and suicidal thoughts. This is very similar to the helpline, though the rate of suicidal ideation is 2-3x higher (10-15%) on the service than the provincial average on the helpline (approximately 5%.)

This range of issues is similar to the helpline.

Age Range

Right now the service sees 100% of it’s usage between 0-44, no visitors over 45 have visited. The most common age range is 15-24, though I’ve seen some as young as 12 accessing the service. Only 5% of the visitors on the telephone helpline are 15-24, suggesting the service is much more popular for youth.

Crisis Chat / Text Training

The training is approximately 4 hours in length and covers a review of active listening and emotional support, the DCIB Suicide Risk Assessment, how to use the iCarol messaging system and then some time for roleplays.

It’s important to recognize that there is a different skill set required for communication through a text environment versus communication over the telephone. For instance, the lack of voice tone makes it very difficult to recognize when you are de-escalating a visitor.

This required consistent checking in with the visitor to make sure they are actually improving.

Crisis Chat / Text Suicide Risk Assessment

The suicide risk assessment we use is the DCIB Suicide Risk Assessment. This assessment contains four elements: desire, capability, intent and buffers. This is different than our previous risk assessment, the CPR Risk Assessment.

Follow Up

An important element of working with suicidal individuals is follow up. Studies (e.g. Brown & Green, 2014) have demonstrated that follow up has the potential to reduce the likelihood of future suicide attempts and ideation.


Brown, G.K., Green, K.L. (2014) In Expert Recommendations for U.S. Research Priorities in Suicide Prevention, American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 47(3) Supplement 2:S209-S215 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.06.006,


Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Beginnings of an Online Crisis Chat Service," retrieved on July 23, 2019 from

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Best Practices in Suicide Postvention


Suicide postvention might look like an odd word. We often use the word “prevention” to refer to things that are designed to stop (prevent) other negative situation or states from occurring. Postvention, then, refers to the things we do after a suicide has occurred. In this context, it often refers to the actions that a school should take in the aftermath of a suicide death but can be used in any context (workplace, family, etc.) where individuals are left grieving a suicide death.

Development of a protocol to respond to suicides will ensure the process is handled consistently and reduce anxiety for all involved. (Carter & Brooks, 1990; King, 1999)

General Best Practices

  • Provide immediate debriefing and information to survivors to reduce the impact of the loss (Cox et. al., 2012; Parsons, 1996; Celotta, 1995; King, 1999)
  • Identify individuals at high risk and reach out to them (Celotta, 1995; Carter & Brooks, 1990)
  • Ensure the media provides a respectful response to the suicide that acknowledges its impact without glorifying it (Bohanna & Wang, 2012; MediaWise, 2003)

Types of Post Loss Support

Forde & Devaney (2006) identify three types of post-loss support. The first is an “expert”, a clinician or professional grief support worker. This does not require someone to be a counsellor but they must have education and training in grief work. The second expert is a “veteran”, someone with lived experience like a suicide survivor. The third kind of support is a “fellow participant”, someone else who is going through the same loss as you at the same time.

Suicide Contagion

Suicide contagion or “cluster suicides” are a phenomenon where a number of suicides occur close in time (days, weeks, or months) after each other, often because of people identifying with the deceased. (Cheng, Silenzio & Caine, 2014) This can occur both as the result of someone they know (like a classmate or colleague) dying, or someone famous.

Two examples of celebrity suicides that increased suicide behaviour were Marilyn Monroe (Goleman, 1987) and Robin Williams (Schonfield, 2015). In Monroe’s case, a spike of actual suicides were documented while in Williams’ case, suicide hotlines saw their usage increase dramatically in the days and weeks of his death.

A number of strategies identified by Cox et. al. (2012), some of which are detailed below, have shown support for limiting contagion:

  • Development of a community response plan
  • Educational/psychological debriefings
  • Counseling for high-risk individuals
  • Screening of high-risk individuals
  • Promotion of health recovery and prevention
  • Responsible media reporting

Media Guidelines

There are a number of media guidelines around how to report that someone has died by suicide. One example include the UK standards created by the MediaWise Trust involving consultation with journalists, suicidologists and survivors. Examples of items in the MediaWise standards (2003):

  • Avoid sensational headlines, images and language
  • Publicising details of suicide methods can encourage imitation
  • Avoid speculation, especially about ‘celebrity’ suicides
  • Consider context – suicides in institutions deserve investigation
  • Challenge ‘myths’ about suicide

A review by Bohanna & Wang (2012) documented a number of countries where successful implementation of media reporting standards had reduced cases of imitative suicide standards, suggesting they had been effective.

School and Higher Education

Elementary and secondary are the sources of most of the existing research on postvention, and for good reason. Adolescent suicides are the second cause of death for Canadian teens behind car crashes (Statistics Canada, 2011).

It’s important to explain to students there is no right or wrong way to feel, and to emphasize that suicide is most commonly the result of treatable mental illnesses. (Parsons, 1996) This reduces the likelihood of contagion and may improve the number of students who reach out for help.

Examples of interventions after a suicide after provided by Carter & Brooks (1990) and similar to those recommended by King (1999):

  • Evaluation and therapy for survivors
  • In-service training for school staff members
  • Support Groups
  • Community Resources
  • Media management

Short (8-12 session) group counselling is the format recommended by Carter & Brooks for evaluation and therapy of survivors. Often these groups focus first on the survivors closest to the deceased and then “fan out” to wider parts of the school community that are affected.

Celotta (1995) makes a number of recommendations for the few days after a school suicide:

  • Provide debriefing to students in the immediate aftermath of the suicide, for an extended period on the first day and then shorter but regular periods in the later days
  • Provide teachers with information about the plans for the next couple days and information on how to identify risk factors in youth
  • Provide information to students in small groups and ensure they are able to ventilate their feelings
  • Do not provide students information on why the student died or the exact method, to protect the privacy of the family
  • Confirm that while many people think about suicide and death, that suicide is not a normal reaction to stress suicidal behaviour is not the most effective way of handling stressful situations (Oct 11, 2016 – See the comments section for a discussion of this point.)

Secondary Gain

It’s also important for staff to identify and eliminate opportunities for “secondary gain”, these are opportunities for students to receive attention and extra motivation for them to enact suicidal behaviours. (Callahan, 1996)

Examples of secondary gains can include students being allowed time off during class, being given special privileges by staff or counsellors and being given a “cachet” or status by anyone involved in the school.


One of the most misunderstood (and possibly researched elements) of suicide postvention is the idea of memorials for the deceased. Memorials must balance two competing factors: the need to prevent contagion and the need to allow survivors the opportunity to appropriately grieve and remember the deceased.

Physical memorials such as plaques or special trees should be avoided. (Fineran, 2012; Callahan, 1996) As well, do not hold additional events (assemblies, etc.) for students that would not be held for a student dying of an accident or other sudden death. Fineran notes that there is no empirical support for or against different types of memorials, but that they may contribute to contagion if not closely monitored.

Veterans / Police

While military veterans have, for many years, had suicide rates lower than the general population (Jones, 1994), this trend has begun to reverse. Veterans, both police and military often face unique challenges that may make them more likely to attempt and die by suicide.

Veterans often present with higher rates of mental health issues than the general population because of deployment (Pare & Radford, 2013), and use firearms in suicide attempts more frequently (Kaplan, McFarland & Huguet, 2009).

Although research on postvention specifically related to veterans is limited, there have been some reviews.

Carr (2011) reviewed a suicide in Iraq and what actions were taken. In that case, standard traumatic incident guidelines in use by the US Army were followed, with the needs of the Company affected prioritized.

Soldiers were told about the suicide in small groups, while leaders were told to keep watch on high-risk soldiers. Referrals were given to soldiers experiencing acute stress responses (including the soldier who found the suicided soldier), while other soldiers with existing mental health problems found them exacerbated by the suicide.

These responses are all consistent with the existing postvention protocols, with the added concern that counselling on lethal means may become more important because of possession of firearms.

Ghahramanlou-Holloway (2011), responding to Carr’s paper noted that, especially in military circles the number of survivors may be underestimated, while Pearson (2011) expanded on the idea of suicide bereavement being a mix of grief and trauma, and the utility of employing normal military combat stress control techniques to manage it.

There is no research that I am aware of that explores police postvention as of yet, and only limited research regarding police suicide prevention programs, such as the kind explored by Mishara & Martin (2012).


Suicide postvention is a developing field but there is significant evidence that activities to prevent contagion and further trauma work. Additional research should be undertaken to explore specifc populations, such as police, and to evaluate the effectiveness of postvention activities like memorials and debriefing sessions.


Bohanna, I., & Wang, X. (2012). Media guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide: A review of effectiveness. Crisis: The Journal Of Crisis Intervention And Suicide Prevention, 33(4), 190-198. doi:10.1027/0227-5910/a000137

Callahan, J. (1996) Negative Effects of a School Suicide Postvention Program — A Case Example. Crisis. (3)108-115

Carter, B.F., Brooks, A. (1990) Suicide postvention: Crisis or opportunity?. School Counselor. 37(5)

Carr, R.B. (2011) When a Soldier Commits Suicide in Iraq: Impact on Unit and Caregivers. Psychiatry. 74(2)

Celotta, B. (1995) The aftermath of suicide: Postvention in a school setting. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 17(4)

Cheng, Q., Li, H., Silenzio, V., & Caine, E. D. (2014). Suicide Contagion: A Systematic Review of Definitions and Research Utility. Plos ONE, 9(9), 1-9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108724

Cox, G.R., Robinson, J., Williamson, M., Lockley, A., Cheung, Y.T.D., Pirkis, J.  (2012) Suicide Clusters in Young People Evidence for the Effectiveness of Postvention. Crisis. 33(4) 208-214 doi: : 10.1027/0227-5910/a000144

Forde, S., Devaney, C. (2006) Postvention: A Community-based Family Support Initiative and Model of Responding to Tragic Events, Including Suicide. Child Care in Practice. (12)1. 53-61. doi: 10.1080/13575270500526303

Fineran, K. (2012) Suicide Postvention in Schools: The Role of the School Counselor. Journal of Professional Counseling. 39(2)

Ghahramanlou-Holloway, M. (2011) Lessons Learned From a Soldier’s Suicide in Iraq. Psychiatry. 74(2)

Goleman, D. (1987). Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths. New York Times, Mar. 18.

Jones, F.D. (1994) Military Psychiatry: Preparing in Peace for War. pp. 103. Office of the Surgeon General: Washington, DC

Kaplan, M.S., McFarland, B.H., Huguet, N. (2009) Firearm suicide among veterans in the general population: findings from the national violent death reporting system.. Journal of Trauma. 67(3):503-7. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e3181b36521.

King, K. (1999) High School Suicide Suicide Postvention: Recommendations For an Effective Program. American Journal of Health Studies. 15(4).

MediaWise. (2003) The Media and Suicide. Accessed electronically from on October 24, 2015.

Mishara, B.L., Martin, N. (2012) Effects of a Comprehensive Police Suicide Prevention Program. Crisis. 33(3) 162-168. DOI: 10.1027/0227-5910/a000125

Pare, J., Radford, M. (2013) Mental Health in the Canadian Forces and Among Veterans. Current Issues in Mental Health in Canada. Library of Parliament. Accessed electronically from on Nov 1, 2015.

Parsons, R.D. (1996) Student suicide: The counselor’s postvention role. Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 31(1)

Pearson, J. (2011) Implications for Civilian Postvention Research and Practice. Psychiatry. 74(2)

Schonfield, Z. Robin Williams Left ‘Unprecedented’ Mark on Suicide Hotlines. Newsweek. Aug. 11.

Statistics Canada. (2011)  The 10 leading causes of death, 2011 CANSIM Table 102-0561. Accessed electronically from on October 24 2015.


Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Best Practices in Suicide Postvention," retrieved on July 23, 2019 from
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