Toronto Star

Dec. 7, 2002. 01:00 AM

Putting children first

Key reforms to Divorce Act expected soon Programs try to get parents to stop fighting over kids


Family Judge Harvey Brownstone has seen divorcing couples at their worst in his North York courtroom as they fight over their kids.

"For them, it's an all-or-nothing war that has nothing to do with the children," says Brownstone.

"I have had parents who say they'd rather the children were in foster care than go to the other parent.

"It's frightening."

Brownstone tries to shock warring partners with a harsh dose of reality: "I ask them to be child-focused. I tell them parents have no rights, they have obligations. The child has rights. I look at the world through the lens of a child."

He has even threatened to take the children away from both parents.

"In severe cases, there is so much mudslinging, they are both so horrible that I tell them they could both lose if they don't stop."

All of which has persuaded Brownstone, and many others specializing in divorce work, that we've got to find better ways for parents to settle matters.

Except for cases of abuse or extreme power imbalances (such as an immigration sponsorship), parents should not be turning to the courts to settle issues of child custody and access after separation, Brownstone says.

In recent years, there have been numerous programs — ranging from mandatory parent counselling to collaborative family law and mediation — promoted by agencies striving to reduce acrimony in Canadian divorces.

The impetus behind these initiatives is the growing evidence that children suffer when they witness marital wars, don't receive proper financial or emotional support, or fail to maintain relationships with both parents.

Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, planning an overhaul of the Divorce Act, supports removing the terms "custodial" and "non-custodial" parent in favour of the concept of parent responsibility, which is considered less inflammatory.

More mediation and counselling for parents in conflict is also expected to be part of the reforms, which put the "best interests of the child" first.

The reforms are to be announced imminently.

Previous reforms removing fault and setting out rules for division of property and child support have settled most areas of contention, leaving the kids the last thing to fight over in the divorce wars.

Brownstone has had brochures of parent counselling programs displayed in the courthouse lobby in the hopes some people will seek help before they do any more damage.

One agency providing this kind of help is the Catholic Family Services of Toronto, which has implemented a number of counselling programs for separating and divorced parents that help them see their divorce through the eyes of their children. It is for people of all religious backgrounds and is partly funded by the Trillium Foundation.

Psychologist Harvey Steinberg leads Fathers ForEver, a six-week group program.

He says people don't start off intending to hurt their children or fight with their exes, but emotions and life situations, such as reduced economic circumstances, rub wounds raw.

"The problem for most people is that separation and divorce are a huge trauma," says Steinberg, who also does individual and couple counselling.

"Their judgment is compromised. It is difficult to make intelligent, well-informed decisions. It's hard to be the dumpee."

By telling parents what their children are feeling at different stages of development, Steinberg helps them see that the way they handle the divorce can affect their kids.

Steinberg says it doesn't really matter how two people behave in a divorce until there are children involved, and then, he says, "we must put the best interests of the child first."

Children's need for love, stability, protection and healthy relationships can be met by divorcing couples who prepare good parenting plans together, behave cordially to each other and pay attention to their children, says Steinberg.

A parenting plan is the plan for how the parents will handle the day-to-day child-care responsibilities, from dental appointments to hockey practice.

Steinberg stresses there is no "recipe" for a plan. Many fathers see the children every Wednesday night and every other weekend, he says, adding he encourages people to be more creative and come up with proposals that work for their individual families.

"I tell them, your family is about to change, but nobody has to be destroyed."

Children often know the marriage is in trouble before being told and Steinberg says it is important for parents to assure the children it is not their fault and they will continue to be loved and involved with both parents.

"Kids, regardless of the circumstances, usually blame themselves,'' he says. ``They need to know they are not responsible and they cannot stop it (the divorce)."

The task is harder for counsellors when the divorcing couples are really at odds, although Steinberg says it isn't hopeless. "Even with couples who detest each other, there was a time when they chose each other and entertained hopes and dreams for a family. I help them remember those feelings. To deal with the loss of the dream. To clean up the toxins."

He stresses they are not to use their children as pawns or messengers, and they must deal with each other respectfully. They don't have to love or even like each other, just get along peacefully.

Even when things are bad, some good can be done, says Steinberg.

For instance, dads who can't see their kids often because they live far away or there is limited access for other reasons are encouraged to write letters, e-mail and call. He recommends copies of letters be kept so the child will know his or her absent parent did try to reach out.

Scrapbooks and diaries are also good methods of keeping in touch from afar.

Social worker Janice Langer, who runs the mothers program called Mothers ForEver, says women learn what divorce means to their kids so they are better able to meet their children's needs.

The sessions deal with the practice of co-operative parenting, where both parents play a role in decisions about the children, which is becoming more and more common.

Mothers are warned to look for signs of anxiety, anger and depression that show the child is reacting to the unsettling events of the divorce, says Langer.

"We offer support and education about what are the best interests of the child. One of the reasons we are doing this program is that we recognize the need in our society. We need to advocate this be done on a broader level."

Though the cost of these two programs is $120 each, there are subsidies available.

While Ontario provides information sessions for separating parents, they are not mandatory and there is no counselling component.

Half a dozen states in the U.S. have brought in mandatory parent counselling for divorcing couples and Alberta pioneered Parenting After Separation seminars in 1996.

More than 10,000 Alberta parents have taken the program, geared specifically to pointing out the impact of divorce on kids, how to develop parenting plans and the important stages of child development.

Bart Johnson, spokesperson for the Alberta Justice Ministry, says the program, which is jointly run with the Children's Services Department, was devised because of concern that "kids were getting caught in the middle of disputes."

It is estimated 60 per cent of all divorces involve children, he says, and the government contracts out the seminar training, which is provided free to participants by local agencies.

One of the driving forces behind the mandatory program is the Hon. Madame Justice Marguerite Trussler of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench. She says lawyers tell her that clients are more realistic after attending the course and mediators say the mediation takes less time and people are more co-operative.

Trussler had not practised family law before being appointed to the bench and she was shocked by the terrible antics of parents fighting divorce cases before her.

"It's not pleasant when people are fighting over the children," she says.

"One knows the effect on the children. One knows the damage."

Within short order, she had to make some tough decisions.

In one case, she changed custody from one parent to the other, and in another case, she sent a parent to jail for continually blocking access to the child.

"I was appalled," Trussler says. "Some parents will do anything to block access and make it difficult. That really upset me."

Trussler has sat through the parent seminars many times to ensure that they continue to be effective and that she continues to have first-hand knowledge of their content.

One of the most effective teaching tools is a video of four children talking about their parents' divorces.

"We often have people in tears when they are watching it,'' she says.

``The children tell what they went through. One tried to commit suicide. A little girl had to look after her mother. Another girl just cries all the time."

The most common comment from parents, she says, is: "I wish I'd known about the course earlier."

In fact, the terms custody and access are not used in Alberta. As well, the Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled that all divorces have a presumption of joint custody, she says. This doesn't necessarily mean children hop back and forth between parents, giving each 50 per cent of their time, but that the parents are equally involved in the child's life.

"That's calmed the waters down," Trussler says.

Steve, 43, recently attended Steinberg's Fathers ForEver course and says it helped him get over the anger about his marriage ending because he could focus on the good relationship he can still maintain with his toddler son.

"I now had a goal — my child — and to be a better father. It was no longer about me," says Steve (who wants to remain anonymous). "Without the course, that process could have taken me years."

He's working on a parenting plan and organizing regular family visits with his son.

"I no longer have the raging anger and sense of destruction," he says. "It's all about him. I'm no longer the wounded husband."

The course also warned him about being a "weekend hero," a dad who doesn't enforce discipline or rules, as well as emphasizing his son's need to be reassured that he will always be there for him.

Feeling better about his new role and armed with solid information, Steve now says, "I felt like there was a great weight off me."

Other agencies also provide counselling in this area, but they are not widespread.

Rhonda Freeman, director of the Family In Transition program for families undergoing separation and divorce at the Family Service Association of Toronto, says programs like theirs "get people on the right track."

She adds: "The parents have the power and they are the ones who need to understand. But it is always about the children."

The four goals of the Family in Transition program are to reduce parental conflict, develop parenting partnerships, support the children and help children develop good relationships with both parents.

To reach the Catholic Family Services of Toronto, phone 416-921-1163. Call the Family Service Association of Toronto at 416-585-9151.

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