Toronto Star

Friday, December 11, 1998
(Correction from Saturday, December 12, 1998)

Pilot project puts the needs of children first

By Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star, Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - Something darkly formal and imposing about the divorce courtroom she passed on the way into a course on parenting at the Edmonton Law Courts building rattled Bonnie Cowan.

That was the moment she gulped and thought about what her separation from her boys' father really meant.

``To me it was like, `whoa' . . . This is where it's going to be if it happens. It struck me as pretty mind-boggling.''

That's partly the point of Alberta's program called Parenting After Separation - to force parents to think long and hard about what their actions will mean for their children if the arguments and hurt feelings that are the backdrop of divorce get out of hand and spill into the courts.

`It doesn't say you're a bad parent or a good parent.'
- Landon Pearson
Committee co-chair

It's a pilot project that has expanded beyond Edmonton to seven other Alberta communities and impressed the parliamentary committee that Wednesday recommended overhauling Canada's child custody and access laws.

In Alberta, attendance at a six-hour workshop is now mandatory for parents before they can proceed with an application for divorce.

``It really puts the focus on the kids,'' Cowan said. ``And that's a good thing, because you're dealing with a lot of heavy-duty emotions.''

The Senate-Commons committee liked the idea so much it recommended that the law require all parents who seek divorce first to attend the kind of program Alberta runs.

``The best thing I can see is that it's very non-judgmental,'' said Senator Landon Pearson, the all-party committee co-chair.

``It doesn't say you're a bad parent or a good parent. It just says here are your choices. These are the legal implications. These are the psychological implications for your children. These are the kinds of problems that you're going to deal with . . . Make sure you've got these helps on board.''

Bonnie Cowan says that is exactly what she got out of it. Her spouse Don also attended a workshop but not on the same day.

After nearly 13 years of a marriage that had broken down, both learned about mediators, the adversarial court system and how important it was to avoid dragging their two boys, now 10 and 8, into their conflicts.

The workshops were the brainchild of Madame Justice Marguerite Trussler, Court of Queen's Bench, and Kent Taylor, co-ordinator of the Edmonton and Northern Alberta custody mediation program.

The sessions, free to those who attend, have been offered since February of 1996. Those who go rate the sessions afterward and they get high marks from participants. The real measure of success is more remarkable.

The number of contested custody trials heard by Edmonton courts dropped the following year from 1,200 to 800, according to Trussler. A more sophisticated analysis is under way but Trussler's instinct tells her it is working.

``What the lawyers tell me . . . is that their clients are more reasonable when they come back from the course and it makes it easier to settle.''

`Lawyers tell me (workshop) clients are more reasonable.'
- Madam Justice Marguerite Trussler
Alberta Court of Queen's Bench

Where husbands and wives are entrenched in their positions ``and they've filed those affidavits that say terrible things about each other, it's hard to back down,'' Trussler said.

``We wanted to get to them as soon as we possibly could to tell them what damage they could do to their children if they got into this sort of a hassle.'' It's a sobering lesson for parents, says Fred Sudfeld, a therapist with The Family Centre in Edmonton who along with a lawyer conducts the workshops, attended by anywhere from 35 to 50 adults.

For families struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, or domestic violence, there is a separate, different workshop that explores ``parallel parenting,'' says Sudfeld. That means drawing lines between each parent's style of dealing with children and trying to allow room for both.

With videos and talk, he shows how younger kids internalize parents' tensions and blame themselves, how older children may try to become ``pleasers'' so they won't be rejected like mommy or daddy, or how some become demoralized hearing arguments about money and think parents care more about that than them.


Child custody cases targeted in Alberta

(printed on December 12, 1998)

The parliamentary committee on Canada's child custody laws has recommended that all divorcing couples who plan to take custody and access disputes to court first be required to attend a workshop similar to Alberta's Parenting After Separation program.

As a result of an editing mistake, a story yesterday incorrectly said the committee wants all divorcing parents to attend the classes before they may proceed with a divorce application.

The Star regrets the error.