Edmonton Journal

Thursday, September 13, 2001

Child sex-abuse claims come under new scrutiny

Allegations made during custody cases must now go through social worker

By Gordon Kent, Legal Affairs Writer
Edmonton Journal

Under a new court policy, people in Edmonton who make child sexual abuse allegations during custody or access proceedings must first report their concerns to a specialized social worker.

The social worker will quickly decide if they deserve further investigation, says family lawyer Debbie Yungwirth.

"One of the problems in family-law cases is that when allegations are lodged against the parent, usually the male, there's an automatic shut down of his access," she said Wednesday.

Yungwirth said that in some cases a parent hasn't seen his or her children for months or even years.

"(Judges) are aware it's a problem," she said.

This is believed to be the first time such an approach has been used in Canada, said Richard Ouellet, an executive manager with the Ma'Mowe Capital children's services region.

The new process was supposed to be in place by the beginning of September, but the specialized social worker had to take medical leave, he said. Other social workers are handling the complaints for now, he said.

"It's a program we believe will benefit children and families, but it is still in its infancy."

The idea was outlined in a summer "practice note" from the Court of Queen's Bench to family law lawyers. It only applies in the Edmonton region.

The person making the complaint, or his or her lawyer, must fill out a brief form describing the allegation, then send copies to the court clerk and the Capital children's services region. Judges can also order people to fill out complaint forms.

The social worker reviews the complaint and tells the court clerk the file is closed or requires further investigation, possibly by police.

Yungwirth, chairwoman of the family law section for the Canadian Bar Association's Northern Alberta branch, said the investigator should give an opinion on the validity of complaints within a few weeks of receiving them.

"The whole point of all this is to fast-track the investigation into these allegations so that if they're fabricated, then it doesn't have such a detrimental effect."

Until now, sex abuse complaints went to a local children's services office, then to police. They could take months to resolve, she said.

"That's the worst thing you can do to the other parent, is make that kind of allegation," she said.

"The stigma associated with it, for some people it never goes away."

Family advocate Louise Malenfant, founder of the non-profit group Parents Helping Parents, is pleased to see a social worker specialize in these cases.

"These types of investigations are unique," Malenfant said. "The more you do them, the more effective you become."

BACKGROUND

- Earlier this summer the Canadian Bar Association called for a shift in focus to the needs of children rather than the rights of battling parents in post-divorce child-care arrangements.

- One proposal, already operating in Alberta, would require divorcing people to take a parenting education course about the impact of divorce on children and how to parent after separation.

- The association also suggested mandatory post-divorce "parenting plans."

- Family law lawyer Debbie Yungwirth said only a small percentage of child custody cases involve sexual abuse allegations. Family advocate Louise Malenfant contends 70 to 80 per cent of them are false.

2001 CanWest Interactive