Post-Separation Visitation Disputes: Differential Interventions

BACKGROUND PAPER

(2001-FCY-6)

RESEARCH SETTING: THE OFFICE OF THE CHILDREN'S LAWYER FOR ONTARIO

The Office of the Children's Lawyer is an independent law office within Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General. The Children's Lawyer represents the interests of children before the court in custody and access matters, child welfare proceedings, and civil litigation and estate matters. The Office is comprised of both lawyers and social workers.

The Children's Lawyer only becomes involved in children's cases when authorized to do so by a court order. Involvement in child protection cases is mandatory when ordered. Involvement in custody and access cases is discretionary. When the Children's Lawyer consents to becoming involved in custody and access cases, the form of intervention may be legal representation by a lawyer, or a report prepared and filed in court by a social worker, or an issue-focussed legal representation or social work report, or the deployment of both a lawyer and a social worker who work together as a team.

In custody and access matters, the goal of the lawyers is to independently represent children's legal interests before the court and to assist the adult parties in resolving their dispute in the interests of the children. The Office of the Children's Lawyer has defined the role of child's counsel as the child's legal representative, which includes acting as advocate for the child client so that the child's interests are understood and communicated to the parties and to the court. Child's counsel does not represent the best interests of the child, because that is the issue to be decided by the court.

Social workers employed by the Children's Lawyer either provide a Report of the Children's Lawyer (a social worker's evaluation of each parent's ability to provide for custody and care of the child), or they team up with a lawyer retained by the Children's Lawyer to act as legal representative. The collaboration of lawyers and social workers in the custody and access arena has evolved from a recognition of the limitations of practicing independently, to the active teaming of both groups by training together and seeking out one another for professional consultation and advice. The benefit to lawyers is that they can be more innovative and creative in problem solving. The benefit to social workers is that there is an understanding of how the clinical evaluation "fits" together with the process of the court and of the legal remedies available to the court. The collaborative approach for children and families allows the professionals to address multiple objectives in the process of advocacy for the child, and provides an independent source of information about a child's needs and circumstances.

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