Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, April 25, 2002

An amazingly simple, but effective, alternative to family court

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Determining what is in the best interest of a child is a massive industry that feeds through a family court system with final say resting with a judge. It operates at a glacial pace that is in itself a form of child abuse.

There's a way around it, says Vernon Beck of Oakville. He's a mediator and a child and family advocate. We've corresponded for years and met recently at a conference on Parliament Hill.

He said he knew of a better way and would send details. His report tells of a family conference he sat in on in Toronto that did something amazingly simple but effective.

Instead of taking the problem out of the family's hands and turning it over to a series of experts, it called the family together and said let us guide while you solve this problem.

In a direct turnaround from accepted norms, it included the child, an 11-year-old boy in foster care because he had been deemed unmanageable. He was allowed to express his own views about his best interests.

It's called family group conferencing and this one was put together by the Toronto Catholic Children's Aid Society and the George Hull Centre for Children and Families. Invited to attend were relatives, teachers and parents of the boy's friends.

In other words, the issue was put in front of the family and its community support group.

"When I entered the room, the presence of so many people willing to give their time to help this boy and his family was a remarkable and heart-warming sight,'' said Mr. Beck.

At first the mother and father weren't allowed in the room. There's hard air between them. Professionals guided the early stages of the conference and once the boy was comfortable and communicating, the parents were allowed in. They were warned sternly: any nonsense and the offender would sit it out in the penalty box, which was anyplace they wanted to go outside the meeting room.

As expected, says Mr. Beck: "They sat across the room and stared daggers at each other.'' But gradually they too saw the problem, and he was theirs. He's a bright and determined boy caught between two people he loves. Mother has custody and he wasn't reacting well to being owned -- which is the meaning of the word custody.

He was allowed to move around the room and talk to anybody he chose. As the boy became more relaxed he became more open. He talked about suffering physical abuse from mom's new boyfriend, but busting somebody for assault wasn't what the meeting was about.

Eventually, the question was put to him: What did he think was the best solution?

No hesitation. He wanted to live with his paternal grandmother and he didn't want people telling him when and where to be if he wanted to see his parents.

He wanted to be able to have more control over his visiting times. Hey Dad, can I come over for supper? Hey mom, can you make it to my game Saturday? He expressed resentment at not being able to see his father more frequently.

Grandmother was pleased and so was father. Mother agreed the purpose of the conference was to find what would make her son happy. Neither parent was in a position to go sniping at the other. There were too many friends and relatives watching.

To an 11-year-old, a week is a lifetime. To a court, setting a hearing date three months down the line is blinding speed.

The family group conference Mr. Beck watched could be a model for answering questions about what's in a child's best interest.

As for the child: "He was made to feel a part of the exercise and his wishes and preferences clearly carried weight. It was obvious that he appreciated being listened to and had no problem speaking in front of everyone.

"Had this been a conventional courtroom setting, the issues would have been argued by lawyers and it would have been considered inappropriate for the boy to hear or know what the adults were talking about.''

The model Mr. Beck watched takes control from the state and gives it back to the family and its community support group. It also cuts many highly paid "experts'' out of the loop.

They won't go without a fight.

They have an interest in holding to the status quo.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns by Dave Brown at www.ottawacitizen.com

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen