FOCUS GROUPS ON FAMILY LAW ISSUES RELATED TO CUSTODY AND ACCESS

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW

Ten focus groups were conducted across the country, five composed of women and five of men.  The research did not show major differences of opinion between men and women.  Both agreed on all three aspects covered under the research:

  • Parenting Arrangements
  • Terminology Associated with Parenting Arrangements
  • The "Best Interests of the Child" Concept and Criteria

The two main values and beliefs behind the views expressed by the groups were:

The Well-Being of Children

  • Children should have a stable and secure life generally, and particularly after parents separate or divorce.

  • Children should have regular involvement with both parents, unless a parent has been shown to be unstable or unreliable.

  • Children's well-being (short-term and long-term) should be the major consideration in the decisions made by parents after separation or divorce.

The Obligations/Responsibilities of Parents

  • Both parents should have responsibility for the welfare of their children, financially and emotionally, even after a separation or divorce.

  • Parents should be obliged to share the responsibility for the well-being of their children after separation or divorce.

PARENTING ARRANGEMENTS

Participants were asked to review three models for parenting arrangements following a separation or divorce, and were then asked to choose the arrangement they think should be used:

  • Approach 1 reflects the current Divorce Act provisions.

  • Approach 2 reflects the model recommended by the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access.

  • Approach 3 is another possible model that focuses on identifying and allocating parental responsibilities between parents in a flexible way.

The majority of participants were not comfortable with the status quo-only about one in ten favoured maintaining it, while the rest supported changes on how parenting arrangements are arrived at.

Of those who supported changes, the majority (two-thirds of participants) favoured the parenting arrangement described in Approach 3 (see page 6 for a detailed description).  The major perceived advantages were:

  • It explicitly states that both parents have a role to play in their children's lives.

  • It does not establish rigid rules for parental roles now or in the future, thus allowing parents to identify these on their own and to change or renegotiate arrangements over time, as either the need or circumstances warrant for the children or the parents.

  • It is the most child-centered approach that allows parents to determine the most suitable living arrangements in the best of interests of the child and to take into consideration the views and opinions of the child if they choose to do so.

  • Psychologically, this approach is perceived to be "fair" (neither parent seems to be favoured or left "powerless") and non-confrontational (does not automatically force a parent, usually the father, to seek legal help to defend his position or right to be involved with his children).

  • It is the approach most likely to get parents to talk and to try to come to some kind of agreement about a division of roles and responsibilities and less likely to have parents turn their backs on their responsibilities toward their children.

There is one major reservation some participants had about this approach.  It assumes that parents can talk to one another and be reasonable immediately or shortly after a separation or divorce.  And, as participants pointed out, this is often not the case.  Many spontaneously suggested that mediation would be necessary to give this approach the best chance of working.

TERMINOLOGY ASSOCIATED WITH PARENTING ARRANGEMENTS

The focus groups included a discussion of various terms in the context of the different parenting approaches.  These terms were:

  • sole custody;

  • access;

  • joint custody;

  • shared parenting;

  • parental responsibility; and

  • parental authority.

The majority of participants considered shared parenting to be the most positive phrase to associate with parenting arrangements because it implies the involvement of both parents in the lives of their children.  Most felt the term could describe the parenting arrangements in approaches 2 and 3.

The term parental responsibility is seen to be the most neutral phrase.  With only a few exceptions, the majority said this term would apply to all three approaches.

THE "BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD" CONCEPT AND CRITERIA

All participants agreed that "Best Interests of the Child" is a reasonable approach for the courts to use in determining parenting arrangements:

  • In situations of conflict, parents are not always objective or capable of deciding on the best course of action regarding parental responsibilities.

  • It puts the interests of children first.  The court is seen to be acting on behalf of the children who have no power or say in the fact that their parents are separating.

  • This approach to decision-making is seen as providing the best possibility for stability for children and as providing a safe and secure environment for their emotional and physical growth.
  • This is seen to be a neutral approach, one that is not seen to give preference to either parent.

Quite a few participants said they had difficulty attributing different levels of importance to the 15 criteria because they felt that all on the list were important issues in the consideration of parenting arrangements.

The five criteria that participants considered to be most important in defining the best interests of the child are, in ranked order:

  • Arrangements that foster the child's emotional growth, health, stability and physical care at every stage of the child's development.

  • A proven history of family violence.

  • The opportunity for the child to maintain a strong and stable relationship with both parents.

  • The ability of the parent(s) to provide guidance, education, the necessities of life and other special needs of the child.

  • The ability of the parents to co-operate and communicate on important issues concerning the child.

INTRODUCTION

PURPOSE

To develop policy options for improving the family law system as it relates to custody and access and to develop communication strategies and messages that support the Department of Justice Canada's eventual policy positions, the Department undertook focus groups to:

  • Determine the public's opinion on which "best interests of the child" criteria should be used in the reform of the family law system and the underlying values and rationales that lead the public to those choices and preferences.

  • Better understand public attitudes towards current "custody and access" terminology and the possible alternatives that could be used.

METHOD

Number and Location of Groups

A total of ten three-hour focus groups were conducted between March 8 and March 16, 2000 with parents of children under 18 as follows:

Sessions with:

Total

Halifax

Montreal (French)

Toronto

Edmonton

Vancouver

Women

5

1

1

1

1

1

Men

5

1

1

1

1

1

Total

10

2

2

2

2

2

Participant Qualifications

For all of the focus groups, the following participant qualifications and quotas were applied to ensure a good cross-section of parents in each session.

Marital status #

Married

2

Common-law

1

Divorced/separated

5

Single

1

Age of Participant #

19-34

3

35-44

4

45-54

2

Education Level of Participant #

Completed high school

3

Some college/university

3

Graduated college/university

3

Household Income of Participant #

< $30 K

3

$30 K - $49K

2

$50 K - $69K

2

$70 K and over

2

We also targeted for a good cross-section on working status and occupation.

Candidates were excluded from participation on the following bases:

  • Standard occupation exclusions (media, advertising and public relations, marketing research) as well as those who are employed in the legal profession.

  • Belong to or are actively involved in a lobbying group on these issues.

  • Have attended a focus group in the past six months on any topic, or have ever attended one on this subject.

Number of Participants

In total, there were 82 participants in the research, 42 men and 40 women.

Participant Incentives

The following incentives were paid:

  • Participants for 5:30 PM  $90
  • Participants for 7:30 PM  $75

Group Procedures and Discussion Agenda

Copies of the study materials can be found in the Appendices.

At each group session, the moderator gave participants some background information and then provided them with two hand-outs.

Participants were given one hour to read the two handouts titled, Parental Arrangements Following Separation and Divorce and Issues:  How Can the Law Determine What is "In the Best Interests of the Child?"

The handout Parental Arrangements Following Separation and Divorce contained:

  • A description of three different approaches to parenting arrangements.

  • A response section that asked the participants to choose which parenting arrangement they preferred and give the reasons why.

The handout Issues:  How Can the Law Determine What is "In the Best Interests of the Child?" contained:

  • A description of the current situation under the Divorce Act.

  • A list of 15 different criteria that could be used to determine "best interests of the child".

  • A response section that asked participants to rank the 15 criteria based on their perceived importance.

  • A response section that asked participants to give their reasons for choosing each of 5 out of the 15 criteria as "most important."

For the following two hours, participants discussed their views on parenting arrangements including the terminology currently in use or that could be used to describe parenting arrangements and the "best interests of the child" criteria.

LIMITATIONS OF FOCUS GROUP QUALITATIVE RESEARCH

By its very nature, qualitative research is exploratory and directional only.  It does not seek to quantify the results of the research, nor do the research results represent the attitudes and opinions of the population as a whole.

However, qualitative research does produce a richness and depth of response not readily available through other methods of research.  The insight and direction provided by qualitative research makes it an appropriate research tool for exploring the public's reactions to the issues under consideration by the Department of Justice Canada.

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