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Surveillance can answer divorced parents' concerns: Downs

By Staff

Few people are at their best during a divorce and custody battle, and when one parent decides to mount surveillance on the other surprising things can happen, says Toronto private investigator Jim Downs.

“We don’t get many calls on suspected abuse — they generally go to police or children’s welfare services — but we do get calls when there are concerns about what the other parent is doing with the child or children,” says Downs, co-founder and managing director of MKD International Inc. "Are they spending time with them? What kind of care do they provide? When did they pick up the child for the weekend? Are they drinking and driving with the child or children in the vehicle with them?”

In one recent case, an MKD investigator observed a father drinking in a bar, then getting into his car and going to pick up his children.

When incidents like that happen, MKD investigators — all of whom are former police detectives — will call the authorities and request the driver be stopped and breathalyzed. But that doesn’t always work out, he tells

“It depends on logistics — staffing, timing, the place — to actually get an officer in a prescribed time frame.”

What MKD can provide is independent, tangible evidence of a parent’s problematic behaviour for use in court or child welfare proceedings, Downs says. “In terms of direct child abuse, it can indirectly relate.”

The company also conducts surveillance for clients who fear the other parent is planning an abduction.

“In some cultures, they don’t agree with the westernization, if you will, of the children, and on occasion will take the child out of the country,” Downs says. “We’re doing surveillance right now for a client who has concerns about the other spouse fleeing the country with the children. The spouse is from a Middle Eastern country, and so it’s a concern for the wife.”

While it’s difficult for a divorced parent to cross the U.S. border with children in the absence of a signed letter from the other parent, some countries do not require such authorization, he says.

The scope of surveillance is generally limited to the public realm because of privacy laws, so it’s usually impossible to determine what’s going on behind closed doors, Downs says. However, there are people who install covert cameras in their homes to check on caregivers for children or even pets.

“Cameras can be installed in toys, or in structures, to ensure the childcare provider is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, or that the dog walker is actually walking the dog,” he says. MKD has been involved with such cases, although it doesn’t install cameras.

“The covert camera stuff you have to be a bit careful about due to privacy issues,” Downs says. “If the individuals being watched are aware the cameras are there, that’s OK, but if they’re not advised they could be under surveillance in a private area like a house or condo, it’s a grey area. I don’t think it’s ever really been addressed in the courts yet, but I think that’s just a matter of time.”

Downs says technical advances with cellphones and cameras have helped with MKD’s surveillance activities since the company was formed 20 years ago, but the issues themselves have not changed.

“There are no trends per se. Surveillance concerning children is not a common request, though it does come up from time to time.

"In separation and divorce, some get really nasty, and some can be OK. It all depends on the individuals.”

MKD will do surveillance on ex-spouses so that clients can argue for full custody in court on the grounds that their ex is a bad parent. “We can support that,” Downs says. “If they can satisfy the court that there’s a risk to the child, it might rule that there has to be an escort or a third party for custody visits.”

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