GOVERNMENT OF CANADA STRATEGY FOR REFORM
The fifth element of the Strategy signals the Government of Canada's commitment to promoting collaborative efforts to support families involved in separation and divorce while respecting jurisdictional responsibilities.
As noted earlier, the shared constitutional jurisdiction of family law leaves the Government of Canada with a mandate mainly related to legislative authority over the Divorce Act. There is, however, a need for a much broader range of measures to support families going through separation and divorce, and these will require the collaborative efforts of a wide variety of disciplines and sectors.
Divorce is often a difficult process, and there are serious limitations to the role that legislative reform can play. Parental cooperation and reasonable behaviour, for example, cannot be forced or enforced by the law. However, healthier relationships and less-adversarial conflict resolution can be fostered through the use of educational and social service activities.
The Government of Canada has already made a committment to collaboration and partnerships in this area. Federal funding was provided in the 1997 Budget to support Unified Family Courts. This money is being used to provide 24 new Unified Family Court positions in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Ontario, and to assist and promote the development of associated support services, such as assessments, mediation and parent-education courses.
The Department of Justice also funds an array of provincial pilot projects throughout the country under its Federal Child Support initiative. These projects cover such areas as case management, supervised access, mediation and parenting education. Last year, the Department invested more than $650,000 to support provincial and territorial parent education programming across the country.
A Health Canada publication, Because Life Goes on - Helping Children and Youth Live with Separation and Divorce, provides information and resources to help parents help their children as they face separation and divorce. The booklet, which is being updated and expanded, is also designed to assist professionals in such fields as education, health, justice and social services in their work with children and their families.
Health Canada also sponsored an intersectoral workshop in October 1998 in Ottawa with the goal of identifying the stresses and impacts of separation and divorce on children and families and determining potential areas for support and collaboration. Participants included representatives of various levels and departments within government and non-governmental organizations as well as individuals whose work relates to supporting families involved in separation and divorce. Highlights of the workshop included suggestions about knowledge development, research, communication, education and community-level services. A post-workshop planning group has been established to follow up on the conceptual framework and guiding principles discussed at the workshop and move toward an intersectoral strategy to support families going though separation and divorce.
The results of important data collected through the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth are being disseminated by Human Resources Development Canada. Research papers analyze the data on changes in families, the impact of family structure on children's outcomes, and the relationship of custody arrangements to the development of emotional or behavioural problems in children. This information, in addition to giving us a better understanding of how children are faring in Canada, can assist in shaping policies and services for children affected by separation and divorce.
The Government of Canada will also explore the following ways to further promote collaborative efforts to assist divorcing families:
- Federal collaboration with provinces and territories to undertake joint planning to share information and to work together to identify priorities for collaborative action:
The federal role, subject to the availability of resources, could include providing assistance in researching, developing and evaluating new service models to enhance court-based services, including information, education, counselling, mediation, and clinical interventions and supervision, where required.
- Government collaboration with NGOs to develop community responses:
Communities play an important role in supporting and strengthening families. While extended families are often the primary source of support during a time of crisis or uncertainty, other resources within the community can also play a role to support divorcing families. Religious institutions, non-profit organizations, associations and charitable groups, schools and government agencies are some examples of community resources that might be able to provide advice and assistance. The key is to link families with the most appropriate community resources.
- Promoting collaboration among professionals from different sectors to develop models for preventive and clinical interventions:
There are a wide variety of professionals who provide services to divorcing families, including lawyers, mediators, court assessors, counsellors, therapists, court-service workers and parent-education program facilitators. The Government of Canada can encourage and help these professional groups to work together to develop common standards and integrated services.
The task of reviewing laws and making proposals for law reform in the area of family law is complicated by a lack of good empirical research and Canada-wide family law statistics. It is not sufficient to rely on anecdotal and personal experience stories, which often serve only to highlight the very different, conflicting views that exist about these difficult and emotional issues.
For the Sake of the Children specifically identified (p. 78) the need to undertake further study about high-conflict issues, particularly false allegations of abuse and neglect, parental alienation, the behaviours, patterns and dynamics of domestic violence, and parental child abduction. It is also important to collect better data about the problems of access denial and failure to exercise access.
The issues raised by the Committee are important but cannot be researched effectively in the absence of reliable baseline information on current practice in Canada. How are parenting arrangements currently developed? Although there are very few actual contested custody trials, there is not a good understanding of how agreements are reached when they are not court imposed. How common are different parenting arrangements and what patterns do they take? What types of contact do children have with their non-custodial parents? Does it differ significantly depending on the court order? What obstacles impede contact? How do arrangements change over time?
There are challenges associated with conducting good-quality research in this area, including the need for resources to carry out original research and to undertake in-depth analyses of existing data sources such as Statistics Canada's National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth and the "Family and Friends" component of the General Social Survey.
The Committee recommends that the federal government engage in further consultation with Aboriginal organizations and communities across Canada about issues related to shared parenting that are particular to those communities, with a view to developing a clear plan of action to be implemented in a timely way.
Research to address the issues identified above will be integrated into the research framework being undertaken by the Department of Justice as part of the comprehensive review of the provisions and operation of the Federal Child Support Guidelines.
For the Sake of the Children also identified the need to build a better understanding of concerns related to Aboriginal people, noting that the issues require study beyond that undertaken by the Committee. The Government of Canada will, as part of this Strategy for Reform, engage in further consultation with Aboriginal organizations and communities across Canada. One objective will be to identify possible improvements to current policy and services to provide the necessary culturally sensitive responses to custody and access issues in the Aboriginal context.
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