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Reflections on Family Day | Kurt Sandstrom

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 @ 12:36 PM | By Kurt Sandstrom

Kurt Sandstrom %>
Kurt Sandstrom
Family Day is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the changing context for families and the ongoing need for family justice systems to grow and develop. We are fortunate to live in a time of greater acceptance and diversity in what families look like and how they are formed. 

Of course, we hope that all families can enjoy loving and supportive relationships, though our work in the justice system often shows us difficult, challenging and sometimes very dark sides of life. The impacts of a family law dispute can run through the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

• Physiological — food, shelter, sleep;
• Safety — personal security, employment, resources, property, health;
• Love and belonging — friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection;
• Esteem — respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom; and
• Self-actualization — desire to become the most that one can be.

With potential impact on so many core areas of human need, it is easy to see how conflict can become intense, positions can become entrenched and rights can become symbolic. We can also understand how many of these issues are broader social and relational issues and not purely or solely legal problems.

Developments in brain science and especially brain imaging have helped deepen knowledge and understanding flowing from studies such as the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. We now know more than ever about how toxic stress actually changes the brains of children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies Adverse Childhood Experiences as having “a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration and lifelong health and opportunity.” 

On Oct. 30, 2019, the Access to Justice B.C. Leadership Group met to consider the scientific research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and child resilience, and the evidence of immediate and long-term adverse impact on children of parental conflict and anxiety during separation. The Ministry participated in this discussion and supports continuing to look for ways to build resilience in families and reduce the adversarial nature for resolving family disputes.

We want to use processes and services to help families transition through separation and divorce safely and — ideally — in ways that build communication skills that can help reduce future conflict. While there is much to be done, I’d like to highlight some important building blocks that I think will help as the sector looks for ways to redesign the family justice system. 

B.C. has had the good fortune to have a history of parenting after separation courses which have been required in 17 registries in our provincial court. The online course is designed to provide parents with information not only about how they can go about resolving their issues but also to help them understand what their children may be going through and how they can minimize impact to children during these difficult transitions.

There is also an online Parenting After Separation for Indigenous Families course that provides information for parents from an Indigenous cultural perspective. In addition, direct service is provided to families through 20 family justice centres and four justice access centres across the province, as well as distance services through technology (including video conference). Services provide families with information and referrals, assistance with identifying options, support with court forms and mediation services.

An important part of this work is to talk with parties about the cluster of issues they are dealing with to help them navigate their changing family circumstances in a way that minimizes conflict. An assessment tool is used which is designed to identify a family’s range of needs and any safety issues that may require further attention or referrals.

Another outcome of the assessment process is a determination about suitability for mediation services. Our mediators offer a children’s program for families mediating through our family justice services who are interested in having their children’s views gathered and included in the process. These services are provided by staff free of charge.

In addition to dispute resolution services, the Ministry has a report service of specialized staff completing reports for provincial and Supreme Court. This includes s. 211 full reports as well as Views of the Child reports, which can be an important tool for children and families to include children in the decisions that are made about them.

Views of the Child reports focus on the perspectives and opinions of the child and are non-evaluative in nature. If the court requires a more complex assessment, a full report is better suited to meet those needs. The full report includes the child’s views (unless the child is of an age that a formal interview is not appropriate) and assesses the parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs and includes information from other family members and people who play a significant role in the child’s life. If necessary, other personal or professional references may be contacted.

In addition, the Ministry is responsible for strategic policy, legislation, such as the Family Law Act and Family Maintenance Enforcement Act and works with the provincial court and Supreme Court and others on rules and forms for family law processes. We also actively engage in federal, provincial territorial activities and in matters related to Canada’s international Hague Convention commitments.

Many of you will have responded to a consultation paper that the provincial court and the Ministry issued last October. That paper proposes a new model for provincial court family matters which provides for information, assessment, referrals, parenting education and, where appropriate, consensual dispute resolution as a first step towards help families identify all their issues, build skills to navigate in the future, while also ensuring that families are safe as they navigate a stressful period of transition.

The Victoria Early Resolution and Case Management model, which was the topic of an earlier column, has been prototyping this approach since May 2019. Though there have been some adjustments and transition issues as can be expected with process shifts, I deeply appreciate the practical and collaborative energy from families in the process, local family bar members, the provincial court and staff from the Ministry’s Court Services and Justice Services branches, who have provided thoughtful contributions to solutions and improvements. A formal evaluation will be done on this model and this learning will be incorporated as further sites are considered. 

This is an exciting and challenging time for family justice in B.C. I thank those of you who participated in last fall’s public consultation on the Provincial Court Family Rules and to the members of the Provincial Court Family Rules Working Group who have been working so hard to develop these new ideas and approaches. Given the impacts of separation and divorce as an ACE, I look forward to the sectors continuing work to develop and improve family law processes and services.

Kurt Sandstrom has been the assistant deputy minister of Justice Services Branch, with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General, since June 2016. He also teaches law, public policy and dispute resolution at the University of Victoria. He lives and works on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

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