A divorced B.C. father who hasn't seen his young daughter for several months blames the family court system and is joining others in a call for change.
"Before all this happened, my daughter had a great relationship with me," said Dieter Geesing. "I feel really helpless. This is not right."
Geesing said his ex-wife has been allowed to bar him from his daughter because a court order requiring her to co-operate is unenforceable.
"I love my child. It's not fair to her. You are cheating her of her childhood," he said tearfully. "This child has a right to interact with her father."
Geesing is a forestry specialist and his daughter is his only child. He and his wife separated in 2008, when the girl was eight years old. Since then, he said, his wife has tried to shut him out of his daughter's life completely.
No contact for 15 months
"When I phone, I get the message 'She doesn't want to talk to you,'" said Geesing. "On her 10th birthday, I left flowers on her doorstep — that's it."
Geesing has had no contact with his child since March 2009.
A court order in June 2009 gave the parents joint guardianship, with the child's "primary residence" at her mother's home.
The court also instructed the mother to pay for and attend counselling to help establish a "healthier" relationship between father and daughter. A letter from the counsellor to the judge shows Geesing's ex-wife has since failed to co-operate.
"For me it's quite obvious here is somebody who doesn't want this child to have any contact," said Geesing.
Records show there have been no consequences for the child's mother. Geesing has been told he has no legal recourse but to go back to court to ask the judge for help, which could take several months.
No comment from mother
Because she is the custodial parent, CBC News is not identifying the mother by name, to help protect the child's identity. When contacted, Geesing's ex-wife refused comment. Her lawyer did not respond to messages.
Geesing is one of several parents and family advocates calling on Ottawa to change the Divorce Act to give non-abusive divorcing parents automatic, equal roles in their children's lives.
"Why am I supposed to be the lesser parent?" asked Geesing. "The default [in the courts] should be equal, shared parenting. That should be the default."
When Geesing's divorce case got to trial, the child's mother wrongly accused him of inappropriate behaviour toward his daughter.
"It completely went out of control," said Geesing. "Nothing shook me as much as this accusation."
Ice cream photos called 'inappropriate'
Evidence of what Geesing's ex-wife deemed inappropriate included pictures he took of his daughter showing off her first permanent teeth and pictures of her eating an ice cream cone.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Burnyeat concluded, "Having reviewed the photographs that the plaintiff believes were inappropriate, I cannot reach that conclusion."
The mother also said it was wrong for Geesing to playfully nibble on his daughter's ear while they were watching a DVD together.
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The judge didn't buy that either, concluding, "I am satisfied that the plaintiff overreacted to what might be viewed by many as an innocent sign of affection between a father and his daughter."
A detailed psychological analysis of the family found no evidence the child had been abused, but concluded instead that the mother had alienated her from her father. It also recommended that if the mother didn't change her behaviour, the child should live with her father.
"[The mother] has been using control as a coping mechanism of …perverse anxiety," wrote the psychologist. "There has clearly been a campaign of parental alienation."
"All of this court, this fighting, for nothing," said Geesing.
Access denial 'common'
"I know fathers who have been to court 50 times — in front of a judge — only to be told that they will get access but they do not," said Jerry Arthur-Wong, the executive director at Vancouver's only men's resource centre.
"It's like the court appearance had no impact on the other parent."
He said the extreme problems he sees are with the minority of protracted, acrimonious divorces, where the parents go all the way to trial to fight it out.
A 2009 study by Edward Kruk at the University of B.C.'s school of social work took a detailed look at the parental roles of 82 Vancouver-area fathers, from all walks of life, post-divorce.
Of the 82, 56 reported "lack of access" as their No. 1 problem. Thirty of the 82 fathers reported being completely disengaged from their children's lives.
Arthur-Wong also wants the Divorce Act amended to make equal, shared parenting the norm, except in cases where one parent is deemed unfit.
Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott is sponsoring a private member's bill that would make shared parenting the starting position in all cases that go to court. The bill passed first reading, but won't be debated in Ottawa for several months, if at all.
Government undecided on bill
A spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he wasn't available for comment and the government has not decided whether to support the initiative.
"Our government is committed to promoting positive outcomes for the entire family during separation or divorce," wrote Nicholson's press secretary, Pamela Stephens. "Since parents usually understand their children better than anyone else, our government strongly encourages parents co-operate to make parenting arrangements in their children's best interests."
Arthur-Wong said the government has delayed taking definitive action for far too long.
"Denial of access is pretty common," he said. "That is child abuse and that is not acceptable in this society."
He thinks provinces should set up registries of parents who ignore court-ordered access, similar to the maintenance enforcement agencies that penalize parents who default on child-support payments.
"Those who say that it would be impossible to keep a registry of access denial, I say let's try it with the more extreme cases," he said.
Geesing doesn't expect to get another court date until the fall.
"I don't even know what I will do the first time, if I ever see her," said Geesing. "Should I shake her hand? Give her my business card or something like this? What do I do? I feel afraid to do anything."
Even if he doesn't see his daughter until she grows up, Geesing said he hopes by seeing him tell his story publicly, she will know one day that he tried to be a good father.
"I think I owe it to her to let her know that this is wrong."