Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Legal experts and a mother whose ex-partner was convicted of murdering their two daughters hope changes to Canada’s Divorce Act will better protect children.

Changes to the law took effect at the beginning of March. They place more emphasis on the needs of children during divorce and, as a result, aim to minimize legal battles between parents over custody orders, said Prof. Sara Ramshaw, a family law expert at the University of Victoria.

She said the Christmas day, 2017 deaths of six-year-old Chloe and her four-year-old sister Aubrey were part of a recent discussion about the Divorce Act with her family law students.

A British Columbia Supreme Court judge sentenced Andrew Berry to life in prison without chance of parole for 22 years in December 2019 after a jury convicted him of second-degree murder in the deaths of his two daughters. Berry is appealing his conviction and sentence.

Berry was estranged from his partner, Sarah Cotton-Elliott, at the time he killed the girls.

Ramshaw said the amendments to the Divorce Act change the way the presence and prospect of violence, including a child’s direct or indirect exposure to family violence, is considered.

“It signals to parents that it’s not about them,” Ramshaw said in an interview. “It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about children and who the children should be spending time with.

“I’m really hoping that nothing like Cotton and Berry happens again.”

She said she will be watching future family court decisions to monitor where the issue of family violence factors in court parenting rulings.

Cotton-Elliott supports the changes to the law. When she was in family court, she said she believed her children’s safety and well-being took a back seat to arranging equal parenting for herself and Berry.

“There’s now a definition of all types of family violence written into national legislation, which has never been included before,” she said in an interview. “I think the judges will be paying closer attention to these kinds of things when looking at making decisions.”

Cotton-Elliott said she believes the amended Divorce Act has the potential to protect more children from family violence.

“I think for judges to make an informed decision in these family law cases they need a thorough understanding of family violence and the issues at play,” she said. “The awareness is key. I really hope that these judges will take into account and recognize all signs of abuse.”

Berry was living in an apartment in the suburban Victoria community of Oak Bay where he was behind on his rent and the power had been cut off, his trial heard. He had quit his job and spent his savings to support a gambling habit.

In sentencing Berry, Justice Miriam Gropper said he knew he was close to losing access to his children, prompting him to write a suicide note blaming Cotton-Elliott and his parents for his death. Instead, Berry killed his daughters and stabbed himself in a failed attempt to take his own life, Gropper said.

VIDEO: Oak Bay father who killed daughters eligible for parole after 22 years

In Canada, family law is a shared jurisdiction between the federal and provincial and territorial governments. The Divorce Act applies to married couples who are divorcing, while provincial or territorial legislation applies to unmarried or common-law couples, as well as married couples who are separated but not divorcing

The federal government says the changes to the Divorce Act are the first substantive amendments in 20 years.

In an online explanation of the changes, the federal government says the act did not previously include measures for dealing with family violence, but now the law defines it.

The definition includes any conduct that is violent, threatening, shows a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, causes a family member to fear for their safety directly or indirectly, and exposes a child to such conduct.

“Courts will have to take family violence into account,” the department said. “A list of factors have been added to the Divorce Act to help courts assess the seriousness of the violence and how it could affect future parenting when deciding what arrangements would be in the child’s best interests.”

Lawyer Shelley Hounsell-Gray, the Canadian Bar Association’s family law secretary, said the Divorce Act changes will hopefully bring more peace to families, including children and their parents.

“It’s not about punishment,” she said in an interview from Bedford, N.S. “It’s about working collaboratively and more holistically with families so that children and their parents will end up with better parenting plans.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

RelationshipsVictoria

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prince Rupert Fire Rescue attend an apartment fire on the morning of April 11 in a building at 521 Fulton Str. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Sunday morning fire rouses tenants

Prince Rupert Fire Rescue attended an apartment fire at 521 Fulton St.

Bears are waking up hungry and starting to forage, Conservation Officer Service said on April 9. Prince Residents are advised to keep garbage in sealed containers to lessen bear attraction. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Keep bears wild – they are not teddy bears

Conservation Officer Service warns bears are waking up hungry

Prince Rupert couple Alvin Tait and Loni Martin have postponed their wedding two times due to COVID-19 affecting the marriage rates in Prince Rupert. (Photo: supplied/L.Martin)
No marriages in Prince Rupert in 2021 so far

Weddings down 23.9% in P.R. since COVID-19 with B.C. wedding industry loss at $158 million

Three North Coast organizations are granted funding to promote multiculturalism and support anti-racism, Jennifer Rice MLA announced on April 8. Conrad Elementary School students recognized the first Black Shirt Day on January 15, 2021, to advocate for anti-racism. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
North Coast organizations to benefit from anti-racism funding

$944,000 granted in provincial funding to aid multiculturalism

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Most Read