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[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]

Monday, April 20, 1998

• 1540


The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson (Ontario, Lib.): We now have a quorum. Welcome to the seventeenth meeting of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access.

People will be coming in as you make your presentation. Please don't worry. As you know, it all goes on the record anyway. There are always competing committee meetings, unfortunately, and justice is one of them today.

Senator Anne C. Cools (Toronto Centre, Lib.): Before we continue, I would like to raise a question of privilege. To prepare for that, I'd just like to remind colleagues, especially Senate colleagues, of Senate rule 43.(1), which imposes upon every single senator an obligation to preserve the privileges of the Senate. I believe the rule reads:

    The preservation of the privileges of the Senate is the duty of every Senator. A violation of the privileges of any one Senator affects those of all Senators and the ability of the Senate to carry out its functions outlined in the Constitution Act, 1867.

I was reading rule 43.(1) in part. I do not know the exact text of the equivalent House of Commons rule, but I know that there would be a Standing Order to that effect.

I would also cite Beauchesne's sixth edition, citation 106, to the effect that many of the privileges of the houses extend also to committees.

The question of privilege I want to raise stems directly from a Senate committee hearing in Toronto, which was extensively reported in an article in the Toronto Star dated April 18, 1998, page L-1. The article was written by a journalist called Michele Landsberg and it is entitled “How far have we come on domestic assault issues?”

I would like to state at the outset that it is my concern that the text of this article transcends any fair comment. It transcends what I would consider to be proper journalistic licence and moves from there into what I would view as a very treacherous and difficult area of contempt of Parliament. If I may, I would like to put on the record some of what I would consider to be very pointed statements. I'm reading from Michele Landsberg's article:

    These cases point to the danger that lurks in the committee's careless assumptions about making custody “fairer” to men.

From the same article:

    So far, the members of the committee seem unconcerned about the danger of violence and murder in custody disputes. They talk light-heartedly of doing away with the idea of custody altogether, with bringing in “parenting plans”—in reality a sort of mandatory joint custody—as though all divorcing couples were rational, calm and non-violent.

Another quotation from this article:

    In fact, the men's aggressive and abusive behaviour at the committee hearings bears out just how threatening they are. Only one committee member—Senator Erminie Cohen—tried to stand up to the way Senator Cools and the men were railroading the committee, and she was reduced to tears of frustration.

The next quotation:

    Until the committee on custody and access demonstrates that it fully grasps the scope and seriousness of domestic violence, it should not be trusted to recommend laws that affect the safety of women and children during and after divorce.

Honourable colleagues, as I said before, in politics one endures and accepts a high degree of personal attack—some critical, some positive. I was raised in the British tradition of criticism, but this is not a personal attack on me; this is an attack on the institution of Parliament and one of its committees.

• 1545

I would also state before us all that this sort of thinking was hinted at in a previous article by Ms. Landsberg, dated January 17, 1998, and headlined “The Divorce Act and kids: kids face a rough ride”. I'll give you a few quotations from this particular article as well, such as “The Divorce Act could be in for a rough and tumble ride.” She quotes a family court judge and lawyer, but that's another issue.

The ending suggests that members of the committee do not genuinely care:

    It's up to groups who genuinely care about children's well-being to get on the roster now and make sure that the committee hearings, sure to be tumultuous, aren't hijacked once again. Write the clerk's office at Joint Committee on Custody and Access, c/o the Senate, Ottawa, K1A OA4.

Colleagues, if we wish to go into more depth about the issues and certain privileges of Parliament, I am prepared to do so. But I would say that the primary issue is what would be described as an interference with Parliament and an attempt to intimidate, cajole, or misrepresent actual committee hearings. The fact of the matter is that the committee hearing in question did not unfold, did not happen as Ms. Landsberg suggests. It would be my opinion that there is a breach of privilege or a contempt of privilege, and I would invite the chairmen to let us deal with this issue.

The Joint Chair (Mr. Roger Gallaway (Sarnia—Lambton, Lib.)): Thank you, Senator Cools. I think you raise a very important and very critical point. As members will be aware, a matter of privilege must be raised at the first available instance. You certainly have done so by doing it today, at our first meeting since that article was published on Saturday.

I don't profess to be an expert, but I will seek the advice of the table officers. My understanding is that a committee can in fact deal, in the first instance, with the matter of privilege. From that, it can then seek the concurrence of the House—in this case, the speakers of the respective houses.

At this point, what I would ask you to do is to file with both clerks the copy of the article of Saturday, April 18, and it will be distributed to members. Not only that, but I understand that the committee can in fact set aside a time—one when we don't have witnesses here—when it will be a public meeting and when we would consider the points raised as to whether this a matter—

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): We can't rule.

The Joint Chair (Mr. Roger Gallaway): We can't rule, no, but we can in fact proceed to the House with it.

Senator Anne Cools: Well, no, you can rule, because it's a different thing.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): The committee cannot rule on the question of privilege. It has to be—

Senator Anne Cools: Senator, I was speaking. I have the floor.

I'd be quite happy to cooperate and comply with what Mr. Gallaway has said. I'd be happy to table with the clerks the documents from which I was just reading. I would also be happy to concur, because the proper thing to do if one were to proceed here would be to call for debate before any ruling is anticipated. I'd also be quite happy to comply with your suggestion, however, because I think it's an excellent suggestion, that we basically set aside an allotment of time to deal with the issue adequately. We can then allow the witnesses to proceed, because I know that they have spent a lot of time preparing their submissions.

So I'd be quite happy to proceed in that fashion. Thank you.

The Joint Chair (Mr. Roger Gallaway): Thank you.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): I'm not sure which of the three of you wishes to start.

Ms. Freeman.

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Ms. Rhonda Freeman (Director, Families in Transition): Thank you, Madam Chairman. We're very pleased to be able to have this opportunity to share with this committee our research and clinical expertise and to contribute to the discussion about divorce law reform.

By way of introduction, I am the founding director of Families in Transition. We're located in Toronto. We are part of Family Service Association of Metropolitan Toronto and a member of the United Way. As such, we are a voluntary agency, which means that families come to us because they choose to. We are not court-mandated.

Since 1980 we have provided specialized services to changing families in the metropolitan Toronto area. Our particular focus is on helping children adjust to separation, divorce, and remarriage.

I've brought some materials about our services. They are filed with the clerk. I also learned in the last few days that you're interested in some of the research we've completed. We've brought that material with us today. It's being distributed.

With me today is one of my colleagues from Families in Transition, Ester Birenzweig. I'll make some introductory comments, and Ester will follow with some comments from her clinical practice.

Our submission consists of two written briefs, which I believe you already have. This material reflects not only our research and clinical practice but also a consultation process that our agency mounted in response to the Department of Justice's consultation paper on custody and access in 1983. The consultation involved professionals, mothers, fathers, and children all working together to examine the issues raised in the paper. We've summarized them in one of the written submissions you have.

Most of our presentation today consists of a video. I want to explain a little bit about why we chose to do it this way, and the background to the video. We wanted an opportunity to introduce the voice of children to this discussion. Short of bringing a group of children with us, we thought this was probably the easiest way to do it. We are concerned that their voice has not been adequately heard and that it is often not heard in decisions about parenting plans when parents separate and divorce.

With the financial support of the Laidlaw Foundation, we were able to make this video. We invited a range of participants. We had to choose children who were more articulate, of course, because we were going to be filming. The children in the film range in age from six to fourteen. They represent a variety of parenting plans, such as sole parenting or shared. They reflect children from different socio-economic classes, different conflict levels between the parents, different lengths of separation, and also—this is very important—different stages in the separation process.

I interviewed all the children for the film. It was really interesting to me, in preparing to do the filming, that every single parent asked me the same question: How can I prepare my children for the filming day? The answer to each parent was the same: There's no way to prepare. We also told the children there were no right or wrong answers, and it was an opportunity to say whatever they thought and whatever they felt. We explained it in terms of rules for parents who were divorcing or changing, and it was their opportunity to give advice to the Prime Minister and to tell other people, other parents and children, what it was like.

Initially I thought I would ask the children a lot of questions, but I quickly dispensed with that idea and just helped them talk about the things they were concerned about. So the children were able to say anything they wanted with no preconceived notions on either my part or theirs.

There were a few things I did ask each of them to respond to. Initially I started with, “Tell me what you remember about the separation. What was it like for you when your mom and dad stopped living together?” At Families in Transition, we really don't talk a whole lot about separation or divorce per se, because for children, the critical issue is when their mom and dad don't live together.

• 1555

I also asked them what advice they had for other children, other parents, or the Prime Minister, and what they thought the rules for parents should be.

The other thing that's important to know is that the parents were not present during the filming. There was only the film crew, which was kept to a minimum, and me. So there was no one around who might make it more difficult for the children to be honest.

We felt in looking at the rushes from the filming that they were very honest. We felt that the questions they were asked also helped them to focus what they wanted to say, because as I mentioned, one of them is just six years old.

I'd really like to move to the film. I'll make a couple of comments about it after. I feel that from more than 20 years of working with children in changing families, the children are very articulate about what it's like. They are really the best ones to tell you about the experience.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Thank you.

Senator Duncan J. Jessiman (Manitoba, PC): Could I ask where it was done, when it was done, and whether it has been edited?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: It was done in Toronto. We filmed during school break in March, so it's very recent.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: This year.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Yes, it was just a few weeks ago.

The filming was in excess of seven hours. That was because we had said to the children they shouldn't worry about making a mistake as there was no right or wrong and they could say it again, and so on.

Yes, there was editing because we were told that it shouldn't be more than 15 minutes. I will confess to you that it's 18 minutes.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Thank you very much. We'll go ahead. I'll remind people to keep their earpieces in, because the sound will not be loud. So anyone who wants to hear what's going on will have to do it through the earpiece.

[Editor's Note: Video presentation]

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Ms. Rhonda Freeman: I want to make two comments about the video at this point. Even though I was present during all the filming and knew the case histories of these children, I feel that if we listened only to the audio portion we would be hard-pressed to know that these children are as young as they are. Psychologically I really see them as what I call “hurried up” children—very old beyond their years. It demonstrates to me the profound effect divorce has on children.

• 1615

I'm particularly struck—and I've seen this several times now—by Patricia's comment about how life is unfair. I get a lump in my throat every time I think about it. I think that is really what prompts us to support the initiative for law reform and to say to you that in our experience, both clinically and from research, intervention can really make a difference to children and their parents.

If I could sum up our brief in three points, they would be: the importance of early intervention with children and their parents and protecting children from conflict between parents; ensuring that there's education—parent education—that especially promotes skill training for parents; and the importance of reshaping the context in which divorce happens so that the focus is on children and meeting their needs and the responsibilities parents have in that regard.

I'll stop there and ask Ester to expand briefly on some of what I've said.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Dr. Birenzweig.

Ms. Ester Birenzweig (Families in Transition): I'll make a few comments about the clinical perspective of working with these children. I think the video was self-explanatory in many of the points I'm going to try to make. There isn't anything better than hearing directly from the children about how they feel.

I think we can all agree that the children in general feel very disempowered during the process of separation. We believe children need to have an opportunity for input about their feelings, as several of the kids mentioned, but not decision-making.

Several of the kids we work with have very strong opinions about their preferences and how they feel in terms of decision-making, and they should be given the opportunity to express their wishes. At the same time, we feel it's important that a professional assess the reasons for a particular decision, a particular choice. Younger kids especially are very concerned about pleasing both parents and trying to accommodate both parents. Some of their decisions or their expressed wishes might have to do with trying to accommodate and trying to please everyone.

So it's very important that we have an assessment of the reasons behind a certain choice, but give the children the opportunity to express their wishes or to tell the assessor or tell us that they're not really interested in choosing or being involved in the decision-making. Of course, the danger is that if parents know the children's input will have a big weight in court decisions, the parents might try to influence the children one way or the other and put the children in a bind by having to side with one parent or the other.

The second point I'd like to make is the need to help parents shift from parental rights to children's rights. I haven't met any parent who has come to my office who is not interested in doing what's best for the children. At the same time, when they are enthralled in having to make some lifelong decisions and are so anxious about the possibility of losing custody or having the children removed from them, it's very difficult to focus on what is in the best interest of the children, especially when they are concerned about making decisions they can no longer change later on because it will constitute a precedent or the status quo. They are not at liberty to think about trying different things and figuring out the best arrangement for the family.

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I had a case a while ago where a couple came in for mediation. They wanted to work out a parenting plan arrangement. They had a four-year-old child. After the second meeting, the woman asked me if they could postpone further meetings until six months into the process, when they would have a better idea of how they felt and what the child needed. I thought this was a very wise decision, but that's because both of them were in agreement that they would try out something that would be without prejudice and it wouldn't be held against them. So that's another important point.

The third point I wanted to make is about the importance of education in therapeutic programs whose aim is to allow for healing. Often, parents who come out of a separation have many psychological wounds that need to be healed before they can move on to focus on what the best interests of the children are. These educational programs out there in the community help strengthen the parents as parents and strengthen their confidence and sense of self-worth, at which point it helps decrease confrontation. We know from research that the well-being of the parent is directly related to a better outcome for the children.

The fourth point is that the children we see in our practice that seem to be more secure are the ones where the parental conflict has decreased, and where the child feels sure of the parental commitment of love for them and being there for them, regardless of where this parent is and how often this parent is seeing the child.

One of the case examples that comes to my mind is one child who felt very reassured of her father's commitment in her life, even though he lived in Europe. She only got to see him four times a year, when he flew in or when he got her to fly to see him in Europe, but she knew that he was there for her no matter what, and that she could always count on him.

The last point I wanted to make is that we as clinicians must come to terms with the fact that there are people who are not amenable or ready for change, no matter how hard we try, and despite our best efforts. I think it's the same for policy-makers. We have to realize that we cannot reach each and every single person. What we have to do is to concentrate on doing the best we can to reach as many people as we can, always knowing that there will be a small percentage who are not reachable at a particular time, and also that there is no one formula that can apply to every single case. When dealing with human beings in social sciences, we have to be flexible and creative to try to find the best solution for each individual family, without having generalized that one formula fits all.

Thank you.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Thank you.

Dr. Pickering, would you like to make your statement now, before we go to questions?

Dr. Ruth Pickering (Individual Presentation): That will be fine.

Good afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to present to this committee, and will briefly read through my notes. I have provided the clerk with a copy of my prepared comments, plus a variety of supporting documents I'll refer to, so they will be available to members of the committee. I'm sorry that I didn't have a chance to send these ahead of time.

As a child psychiatrist, I've worked with children and their families for over 20 years. I've worked with nuclear families, divorced and separated families, single-parent families, both mother- and father-headed, and step-families. I've worked with children living in their own families, living in foster care, and with children living in residential treatment centres because of serious behavioural and emotional problems.

Throughout my career I have also supervised other child mental health professionals, and have been a teacher at several universities in the area of child psychiatry in medical school.

I have been the clinical director of a county children's mental health agency while I was living in the U.S.A., and of a number of programs at Chedoke Child and Family Centre, which is associated with McMaster University, as well as serving as acting clinical director of that institution for some years. I have, throughout my career, played an active role in collaborative activities and cooperative ventures in the community, and have provided consultation and training to many community agencies in the Hamilton-Wentworth region and other communities in which I have lived.

• 1625

I'm here today to share the experience of a collaborative community initiative in the Hamilton-Wentworth region as well as to share with you my experience as a child psychiatrist. I've always seen patients through my more than 20 years of practice.

This collaborative effort was conceived in the early 1990s, when I first began to realize the profound negative impact on children of exposure to family violence and the invisibility of this problem in society at large and also among my peers.

I'll share with you the context of the community collaboration and then, in more detail, what we have learned from the children, from their mothers, and from some adult men who were incarcerated for abuse of their partners—from phase one of the project. Then I will share what we have learned during the Safety First pilot project, as we have developed and evaluated a community group program for children exposed to family violence.

First I will set the context for my remarks within the parameters of these joint committee hearings.

Certainly many children experience emotional losses and disruptions secondary to the separation and divorce of their parents, and there has been much research on the short- and long-term effects of family break-ups on children. I think we've seen some compelling testimony in the words of the children on the previous videotape.

During the early years of research on divorce and the effects on children, there was very little professional literature, and for the purposes of the early research, divorce was treated as a singular event that either happened in families or didn't. Later and current research has demonstrated that, like other human events, separation and divorce are a very complex human process that occurs over time, prior, during and sometimes for many years after the actual legal event. As a complex human process, there will be, of course, a whole range of human experiences, consequences and feelings, both for the children and each of the adults, as well as for any others who are within the social circle.

Increasingly, the research in this area reveals that it is the nature, context, meaning and quality of the relationships and post-divorce family life that contribute to the consequences, both positive and negative, and whether short-term or long-term, to the lives of the children. Recent research, which I've cited in my references, by Fustenberg, Healey, Johnston and Wallerstein has studied the effects on children of high-conflict divorce and post-divorce periods for as long as five years after the legal separation/divorce, and conclusions from most of this research suggest that in order to benefit the children, much different approaches than the earlier research had recommended are needed.

Not all high-conflict divorce is abusive in nature, but it seems important for this joint committee to address not only those family break-up situations in which there was and may continue to be abuse of a partner but also those in which there is continuing high conflict, as both appear to affect children negatively in the short term and for many years.

It is those children who have been exposed to family violence that I wish to discuss today. I hope today to share with you mostly the voices of the children I know from the two phases of the Safety First project, and so I will begin by telling you a little bit about the background of phase one.

In September 1992 the executive director of the Association of Agencies for Treatment and Development, which is our local children's services coordinating body in the Hamilton region, convened a working group of professionals from a broad range of agencies and sectors to examine the issue of children exposed to family violence. After an extensive literature review, the working group convened a series of focus groups of children and adolescents who had witnessed family violence, women survivors, and male perpetrators who were at the time incarcerated and attending a group of males who had abused their partners. These men were voluntarily in this group.

One of the important conclusions of the working group in our final report of June 1993 was that “the invisibility of wife assault and the deleterious effects on children exposed to it is maintained by compartmentalization of knowledge and separation of agencies from each other”. I will return to this theme a number of times in my presentation.

Another conclusion of the report was based on the mothers' comments that there were very few services for their children, which led to the eventual development of the model for a community group program for children exposed to family violence, which I'll mention in a few moments.

• 1630

First, I will give you some excerpts from the report published in 1993. The full report is included in my documentation, if people wish to get more background. I just selected some, particularly the voices of the children and the other participants.

    I used to be more scared when the screaming stopped and everything got real quiet.... I didn't know if my mom was dead this time. That is from Ryan, 11 years old at the time.

    For centuries children have witnessed wife assault and society has been blind and deaf to their experience. Many societal structures, practices, attitudes and assumptions have contributed to the invisibility of this problem. Together as a community, we are pulling aside the veils of invisibility and silence. We now need to identify, examine and change those practices...that support and keep this phenomenon invisible.

    The women to whom we listened say that we must not only assist them, but help their children avoid becoming victims and the batterers of tomorrow. The women identified that abusive men not only need to take responsibility for the violence [they perpetrate] but also need assistance in overcoming their violent ways. The focus group of men who have been incarcerated for their violence against their women partners all were witness to their mother's abuse by a partner. ... Through recognition of the pain they have caused and by taking responsibility for their abusive actions, these men are taking steps in their own lives to rid themselves of violence. The child witnesses have helped us understand the pain that these men experienced in their childhood. ... The children in our community for whom we are working together will continue to suffer, loudly or quietly, keeping the silence until we learn how to ask, how to keep them safe, and how to serve them together.

Children are affected by exposure to family violence in a variety of ways. What they see.... And now I'll read some quotes:

    My mom would go to the phone. He'd rip the phone out, or he'd block the door.

    My mom went through a window.

    I was so scared [cause] my Dad hit me. ... He smashed a brick on my head.

    My mom had bruises.

    My mom mostly got pushed against the wall.

Children are also affected in what they feel like doing:

    I felt like jumping out a window. [I feel like] killing him...kill my dad.

    I felt like running out the door to call police but [I was] scared to leave them alone.

    I fought back. I threw a knife at his head.

They all felt that they should have been able to do something to stop the violence. One of them said:

    It's too hard for little kids to do it alone.

Children exposed to family violence show externalizing behaviour such as aggression, lying, stealing, and so on. One little boy said:

    I lit some matches...set it on my best blanket. I was mad, really mad. I wanted to show how mad I was so I took it out on my step-father.

They also show internalizing effects and a pervasive sense of helplessness:

    I felt like jumping out a window.

    I tried to kill myself, but it didn't work.

    ...sad. I felt like trying to stop it every time, but I couldn't.

Children have fears, vigilance and a preoccupation with danger and safety. Fear of retaliation was a common theme if the children told anyone.

One little boy said:

    I didn't say a word. After the police left he said he'd kill me. He poured gas on me. ... He was going to set me on fire!

That was a little boy, in a residential treatment centre for many years.

Children come to accept attitudes of tolerance of violence and expectations that violence will be used and should be used to settle conflict:

    I fought back. I threw a knife at his head.

    If I knew karate, I'd kill my dad. Who cares if you get put in jail, I'd only care cause I couldn't see my mom.

That little boy was about nine years of age at the time.

They worried about their mothers when they were away from home, often in school:

    I always had this feeling in my stomach that my mom was getting hurt and I was right.

    I'd think about it [in school]. ... I'd take off [at recess] to check on my mom.

The children recognized that the abuser did not accept responsibility for the abuse:

    My Dad always lies and gets out of things.

    No one believed me.

The children experienced relief when the police came. One of the boys wanted them to:

    arrest my dad. ... I was too scared. ... I didn't say a word.

• 1635

They also expressed relief to go to the shelter where they felt safe, but one boy said “My dad always finds us, but he comes back anyway”. They identified relief at being able to talk about their experiences, and that's certainly echoed by the children in the previous videotape. They were happy to get it out. It's helping them. They tried to keep it in, but they've let it out.

These children who attended the focus groups, the little guys who were between nine and eleven years of age, offered to come to a committee of grown-ups so the grown-ups would understand what their experiences were. So in a way I guess they have come to a committee of grown-ups, and I thank you for them. I'm still in touch with a couple of the boys, and will let them know, if I can have contact, that their words have been heard here.

The men who were attending the group while incarcerated for abuse of their partners offered many insights about their childhood experiences and tolerance of violence. “I punched my girlfriend when we were 16. She fooled around on me. I figured she deserved something. I thought it was acceptable”.

Others recognized they had known it was wrong, but continued anyway. “At the time of the first incident, I realized it was wrong”. Another man realized it when he first did it.

While in the group, the men began to realize the effects their violence had on their own children. “She didn't want to be around men. She married an abusive husband. She's frightened of men. She doesn't want to associate with me”.

One of the men, I believe, recognized at the time the effect of his own violence on his then young adults because it was a very emotional moment for him. As he said, “What they've seen in the home may have caused them to get into their abusive relationships”.

All of the men had witnessed violence against their mothers in their homes as children. They all also identified that they never looked at women as equals with men or as people before they had treatment.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Dr. Pickering, I was just wondering how much longer you will be.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I'm probably about half or two-thirds of the way through.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): How do the rest of the colleagues feel?

Senator Anne Cools: How many more words are there? We could take it as read, because obviously she's put a fair amount of time into its preparation. I would be quite happy to move we take the rest of her submission as read. That way, it would be as though you read it into the record.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: Right.

Senator Anne Cools: Would that be acceptable?

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Perhaps she can just summarize points from the last part.

Senator Anne Cools: You can just summarize them.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I'll just make a few comments then about phase two, which is the development of support groups for children who've been exposed to family violence. I'll just review a couple of anecdotes about the children who attended and then give some final comments.

Katie was an eight-year-old when she attended the first session. She was the saddest, most downcast child any of us had seen in years. She had not wanted to attend the group, and I watched her very carefully that first session. She seemed very vulnerable and I wondered if the session might be too intense for her. By the end of the first group, she had brightened up and bounced out of the group saying “I can hardly wait until next week. It was so much fun.”

Within minutes of asking children for their comments about the story in the second session—this was a story about a family of bears who were experiencing family violence—I asked what the effects of the daddy bear's temper were on the kids. Little Katie offered, “Really sad if somebody dies. You could die.”

In the third session, Katie vividly described her father's attack on her mother. “My dad was there. He took my mom and he got a knife and tried to cut her neck. He tried to kill her.” Later in the group, she offered, “You're sleeping in your bed and you hear your mom screaming. My dad was strangling her all the time. I always worry about her, that she'll die.”

Some months after the completion of the group, Katie's mother was brutally beaten by the ex-partner and was hospitalized in intensive care.

Now I have some final comments about the group, because our research indicates the group process seemed to be very helpful for the children. In every group we had children say “I feel responsible for my family's problems. Everything that happens at my house is my fault.” After group, they expressed, with great relief, “It's not my fault that mom and dad are fighting”.

• 1640

However, the reality of many of these children's lives is that they are still not safe. Some of them are living in homes where the abusive partner still comes and goes. Some are required to attend access visits in spite of continuing threats. And there is continuing physical and emotional abuse occurring.

In one situation this occurred despite the children's reports to their mother, validation by a child welfare investigation and an interview with the police. Due to lack of collaboration, the complexity of the systems involved, and the inability of one system to influence the decisions of another, these children and their mothers were left without appropriate protection.

This mother described the situation and the conversation her children had in the car after they left the police station. Her daughter said, “If they can't tell the judge we're scared, what's the point?” She was talking about the Children's Aid and the police. The mother described feeling frustrated that her children could get no support from any of the systems that are there to protect children from harm.

Yet in a letter she received from the Children's Aid, it was stressed that it was her responsibility to keep her children safe from harm, and that if they were harmed on an access visit she could be held accountable for negligence under the authority of the failure-to-protect clause. This same mother has been threatened with contempt charges when she tries to modify access visits because of the fears of her children.

I'd like to share three very tiny letters from two of this woman's children to the judge and one letter to the father:

    Dear Judge,

    I just want to go for the day. My dad promised he wouldn't hit us anymore but he hits us. I don't like when it's our weekend with our dad and he goes to work and leaves us with his girlfriend. But I'd like to thank my dad for the stuff he got me and how he loves me.

This is the second letter:

    Dear Judge,

    I don't want to sleep at my dad's because I don't fall asleep until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning because I feel alone. He promises he will stay up and he falls asleep and leaves me alone. I don't like to be alone at night. My dad is saying that it's the law that I have to go. I want to know if it's true. Can you tell my mom to tell me please? I love my dad, it's just I can't sleep there so I was wondering if I could just go for day visits on his weekend. I hope you read my letter. If you do, can you answer my questions please?

The final letter I'll read is actually a speech that Amy, who participated in our Safety First group almost two years ago, wrote for a school project. She's now twelve and in grade seven. I'll read selected parts of this.

    One of the biggest problems some people have to deal with is physical abuse. What is abuse in general? It's when a person treats others poorly.

    Some women think that being hit is okay, but it's not! They believe that hitting is normal and so it doesn't stop them from marrying their abusive partners. This is how abuse carries on. A form of physical abuse is called wife assault. Don't get me wrong, women can be just as abusive as men, but most cases are wife assault.

    Often times wife assault leads to child abuse. This is when women head for shelters. Many women accept being hurt, but, not their children. The abuse to children can be severe and deadly.

    The Police are trying to enforce a law that says no spanking your children but it is not going too well. If they can't make this law work then how will they enforce no hitting at all?

    I know that physical and verbal abuse hurts. I've experienced that myself from my father. I took a course called Safety First. It taught me how to take care of myself and my siblings while under violent situations.

    The most important thing I learned is that the abuse in my family was not my fault.

    Learning how to use words instead of fists is another way to manage your anger.

    Often when children grow up in violent homes they become violent and abusive parents. Again this is how abuse continues.

    We can stop the abuse or we could just sit around and let it get worse. Personally, I would prefer to live in a non-violent world. It's up to us to make the difference.

My conclusion, based on my experience with the children and the research, is to emphasize that the effects on children who are exposed to family violence are profoundly serious and have both intense short-term and serious long-term effects and that recent research suggests that with post-traumatic stress disorder in particular, even at this early stage, these effects have very serious longstanding disabling effects.

These children not only require safety from exposure to family violence, but they require continuing protection from re-traumatization. Otherwise, they will repeatedly re-experience the anxieties, fears, behavioural arousal, including aggression, nightmares, depression, and hopelessness, thus profoundly affecting their ability to recover from the original traumas.

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The post-divorce literature I have referred to suggests that there are some very serious long-term effects when children continue to be exposed to chronic interparental conflict. Consequently, to assure the well-being of children exposed to family violence, who are then subject to custody access litigation, careful attention must be paid to the nature of the conflict in the relationship prior to the separation and divorce, as well as the relationship during the divorce and subsequent to the immediate separation and divorce period. These children must not be subjected to continuing conflict and hostility, or they will continue to be at risk for serious longstanding emotional and behavioural effects.

The post-divorce literature suggests that some of the most important factors for children that contribute to their well-being are the consistency of economic support, emotional stability of the custodial parent, and a positive parent-child bond, especially between the custodial parent and the child. If there is continuing interparental conflict and hostility, most of the research suggests that forced visitation with the access parent is undesirable, and some of the research suggests that the lack of contact with the access parent is actually desirable.

Other factors that continue to contribute to dilemmas for custodial parents relate to the inherent contradictions in laws that require custodial parents to be held accountable for failure to protect their children while on access visits yet be held legally in contempt if they attempt to protect their children from physical or emotional harm by not sending them on an access visit that a child is fearful of attending. This of course is complicated by there being no apparent mechanism for redress in these situations, as both of the systems—child welfare and legal systems—seem to assume that the other will address the welfare of the child. This would be a recommendation, that some attempt be made to address this lack of a mechanism.

I would say, in summary, that when decisions are made that take into account the needs and wishes of children, and when systems realize that many children can speak for themselves, then the well-being of children will be more assured than it is at present, especially in those situations in which continual litigation actively contributes to the detriment of the children.

Thank you.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Thank you very much, Dr. Pickering.

Mr. Forseth.

Mr. Paul Forseth (New Westminster—Coquitlam—Burnaby, Ref.): Thank you very much for coming to the committee today.

As you are aware, we have this phraseology and concept in law, “the best interests of the children”. Of course we've had testimony suggest that we need to look at that particular phrase. We have no clear definition about what it actually means or how it can be measured or determined. I would like to hear from both groups specifically on that point in relation to that term, “the best interests of the children”. Do you have any recommendations about specific criteria that could be used in legislation to help define this “best interests of the children”? Do you feel legislated criteria are helpful at all?

I've dealt with families in crisis, and it appeared that so many were doing what they felt was right, in the so-called best interests of the children, which actually were very horrendous things. So I would like some advice from both groups about the specific term “the best interests of the children”, which is just hanging out there, and whether we either get rid of that term or try to specify it in the legislation to avoid it being abused and perhaps getting to the point where it would be used in its best light.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: There's a lot of debate in the literature about best interests, and I think you hit on the issue about the vagueness versus more specificity. I think it's a very complicated question, which probably can't be answered in this context. What I would suggest in lieu of that is a number of principles on which such criteria could be based. So let me back up and say that I think that we should retain it, but we should work harder to define it.

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I think the legislation has an opportunity to be very educative for parents. We get a lot of calls at our office from people who say “Don't you have a book of parenting plans I can look through and just pick the one I like the best?” It's an interesting question. If it were possible, we would have done it years ago.

I think parents are looking for guidelines, shall we say, about the sorts of things that can make a difference. So some of the principles that I would suggest.... And I'm not a lawyer, so I don't quite know how you write it into legislation, but I'll offer six of them.

One is to provide security, stability, and nurturance, as exemplified by warm, affectionate, and responsive parent-child relationships.

The second would be effective parenting that's free from psychological disturbance and substance abuse.

The third would be to reduce or eliminate parent conflict and exposure to violence.

Fourth is that parents make timely decisions about children.

Fifth is that there be particular support and specialized services for children in high-conflict families. We see them as a much needier group than the general population of children in divorcing families.

Sixth is that there be special provisions for parenting plans if violence continues, and that we have protections for children.

In one of our written submissions was an article from the new issue of the Canadian Journal of Family Law. I don't know if the article by Brenda Cossman and Roxanne Mykitiuk on child custody and access, which was a discussion of the legal issues pertaining to custody and access, was submitted, but I would recommend this as reading. They quote a case from West Virginia—

Mr. Paul Forseth: Can you give us the citations for the record?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Sure. It's the Canadian Journal of Family Law, volume 15, number 1, 1998. The article I'm referring to commences on page 13. On pages 26 and 27, based on some work that I had done, some work that Barbara Landau had done, and this case from West Virgina, from the Supreme Court there, they suggest a number of other criteria for defining best interests. I'll just give a few examples, since the citation is in the record: preparing and planning meals; bathroom grooming and dressing; arranging for care; putting the child to bed; discipline; and so on and so forth. So I think there are some good ideas, but I also think it's an area that would require more work.

Mr. Paul Forseth: Ms. Pickering.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: Yes, I would echo what Rhonda said and add a couple of other features.

It seems to me that all of us are frustrated by what we're describing as high-conflict couples or ex-couples and recognizing the negative impact on the children. I think one of the things that really would assist in the legislation, or certainly in terms of the social policy underlying that, would be to make the distinction between the parents and to what extent each parent is speaking and advocating on behalf of the child and to what extent the parent is providing those tangible and intangible actions on behalf of the child—for instance, economic stability and the basics of food and shelter and clothing, the economic support.

So the extent to which a non-custodial parent is paying support or not paying support could be a factor. The extent to which the parents contributed to the emotional stability and contributed to the relationship of the child with the other parent could be a factor. The extent to which there were efforts to secure the residential family the child was in, as opposed to undermining the authority of the custodial parent, could be a factor. The extent to which the child was cleared of responsibility for the problem, some of the emotional aspects, and also the extent to which the child was free from violence, threats, intimidation, and emotional abuse could be factors.

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With all of the aspects of parenting that we recommend as important for children, it seems to me that parents have responsibilities to be addressing those to whatever extent is possible. Doing so needs to be a measure of their right to have access to their children.

I appreciate the recognition on this committee that what we're looking at is really the children's right to have adequate parenting by both of their parents—and maybe all of their parents, because many of these children will have step-parents and so on. We need to focus on the extent to which each adult in a child's life is acting tangibly on behalf of the child. To me, that seems to be at least one way by which we might measure some of these things.

Mr. Paul Forseth: Thank you.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Would you like to add something?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Yes. I'd like to mention one of the things that we've come to understand in our practice, something that seems to advance people towards making better parenting plans.

From our experience with other families and from the research, we can certainly tell them about the sorts of things, some of the factors that have just been outlined. We then ask them to talk about how they will do that. In my experience, many parents say yes, they do that already, or yes, they know.

When they're asked to elaborate on how they would reduce conflict when we mediate parenting plans, we actually have right in the agreement what they'll do if conflict arises, and so on and so forth. That seems to make it more active for people. It gives them something to work with, as opposed to just lofty ideas that they then have trouble carrying out once they're in their homes.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Senator Pépin.

Senator Lucie Pépin (Shawinegan, Lib.): I think the video was really quite nice. We saw two children who said adults don't ask children what they would like and that adults should listen to children. Also, we read in the literature that maybe we should not ask children of a younger age what they want. What is your opinion? In your paper, if I read it well, you say we should not ask very young children which parent they want to live with, or something like that. In the video, we were listening to children ages six to twelve. What about the younger ones?

Ms. Ester Birenzweig: I think I referred to this point earlier. I think children should have the opportunity for input, which doesn't mean the same thing as decision-making. I think all children have talked about wanting their views heard and respected.

Senator Lucie Pépin:


Ms. Ester Birenzweig: Yes.

The danger of it is that younger children tend to make choices based on their need to satisfy and please both parents. That's why the age that is considered by the courts as the appropriate age in Ontario, for example, the age at which the judges will start taking into consideration children's wishes, the age at which children's opinions will have a lot of weight, is the age of twelve. At a younger age, children are not mature enough to put their needs ahead of their natural desire to please both parents.

This is why I mentioned earlier that it will be important to hear what children have to say. Some children, from our experience, have very strong opinions at a very early age. Have an assessor investigate the reasons why children have these opinions in order to make sure that they're not just an attempt to please the parents but are genuinely based on something that happened or on their level of comfort with one parent versus another.

And some children will say that they don't want to be involved, they don't want to be asked.

Senator Lucie Pépin: I really appreciate your brief, because you say it's the children who should be the first ones we should look after. The legislation should look at—I'll read it in French—


the best interests of the children.


I believe that's one of the best approaches.

You were speaking about Cathy—

Dr. Ruth Pickering: About Katie, yes.

Senator Lucie Pépin: I don't know what happened to her. Do you have any follow-up material?

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Dr. Ruth Pickering: I don't have any follow-up on her. She was part of the group. The shelter her mother had been seeing did some follow-up with her.

Senator Lucie Pépin: How long do you follow children?

Dr. Ruth Pickering: We have just done the pilot groups and we haven't had an opportunity to follow up. We have had very little funding for it. Basically we have done the groups and the initial evaluation in terms of whether the children found it helpful, whether their mothers found it helpful, and some objective criteria.

We've had some mothers as part of our advisory committee, and they felt the effects of the group.... In the first place it gave the children the opportunity to realize they were not alone. It gave them an opportunity to gain the language to describe their experience so they could now describe what was violence and what wasn't, what was emotional abuse, what was verbal abuse, and what was just parenting, what was appropriate discipline. It gave the children language then to discuss their experience both in the group and then with their parents afterwards.

For me the most telling was this report from Amy. It was written on her own, because she had to do a school project in which she actually went back and got her materials from the group and wrote the report. What her mother believes she gained from the group was the confidence to know that this wasn't her fault.

She unfortunately is a child who is required to visit her father, whom she says in the letter she still loves, but she gets very upset with the verbal abuse and sometimes the physical abuse of her younger brothers. That was where those children who wrote the letters to the judge felt really unheard. They felt fearful. They knew what abuse was and they knew they were being abused. Children are told to speak to someone, and yet it didn't have any effect in that they were still required to go on those visits.

Senator Lucie Pépin: Are you saying we could be more precise in the legislation? What kind of approach should we have in the legislation to be sure?

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I think we ought to set some conditions for those families that are not going to be able to reduce the conflict. In some individual circumstances it may be better for the children to have no access at all with the non-custodial parent. I would imagine those would be in small numbers, but they may be necessary. The research is very clear that these children do very badly if they are continually exposed on a frequent basis.

The other condition would be that there be visitation centres set up in communities so that children can have access with the non-custodial parent in a situation where they are safe, where they can feel safe. Perhaps you might even have trained observers who could actually intervene or be helpful in terms of some of the parenting strategies that maybe a parent who doesn't parent much could be helped with. The setting would be saved, but there also may be some opportunities to enhance the relationship between the child and the access parent and improve the quality of ongoing parenting in that situation.

Senator Lucie Pépin: In previous hearings we had a group of fathers who really wanted to be involved in the education of their children. One group from Quebec stressed to us that there are many women's shelters and there are very few for men. I was wondering if, coming from Ontario, you know of any places where fathers can go and be treated if they are violent, and if there is any follow-up.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: There are some programs in Hamilton for male abusers. It's actually quite an interesting form of therapy. The research in that area, which I am not very familiar with, seems to demonstrate that a group process is much more powerful and effective than individual therapy for men. One of the ways of holding that therapy accountable to the subtleties of violence is to have the sessions videotaped. The sessions are then reviewed by women survivors of abuse, and then that kind of accountability process will be in place.

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It seems to be very helpful for the men. I actually interviewed some men who were in a group like that. They felt that it allowed them to escape from all the kinds of denial, rationalization, and minimization that they had habitually been into since they were children. They felt that accountability process was very helpful. All those concerned believe that men do need some assistance in overcoming habits of violence. I think it has to be a part of societal solutions.

Senator Lucie Pépin: Thank you very much.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Senator Jessiman.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: Ms. Freeman, you've listed a number of what you call serious problems encountered by children and parents. I want to deal with just two of them. One is the inappropriateness of the adversarial procedures. Will you tell us how you deal with a couple that comes into your Families in Transition office and asks for some advice? Do they sit down with a counsellor? How is it done?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: As I mentioned in my opening comments, we're a voluntary service, so people come because they want to. We have an international reputation, and we're in the media a fair bit, but also we get a lot of court referrals.

We start in terms of seeing each parent separately and privately to ascertain their perspectives on the situation. We do that before we see the children so we have some background. We would meet, as I say, with each parent and then with the children. Then we would provide the parents with recommendations about interventions for their family based on what children told us they wanted to work on and what the goals were. We would give them our professional opinion in terms of what we know from our research and our practice helps children after divorce. Then both parents have an opportunity to say whether that's an intervention plan they want to participate in.

The plan is varied. The materials I filed with the clerk will indicate that we offer between 20 and 30 different kinds of programs. I mentioned earlier that we do mediation, so that's one possibility, but we also have a lot of therapy education and groups for children. Apropos of the last question, we developed a program specifically geared to fathers around building successful relationships with children in the post-divorce family.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: Do you find that there's more success with those who come in before the actual separation takes place, or do you find that they separate first and then come in? Or have they gone to court? What are your numbers?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: I think the best work we do in terms of effectiveness is with the people who come for a pre-separation consultation. They have made the decision to separate. They come to ask us about the way to do this that will be easiest for the children.

Ester can speak about it. She actually offers the seminar called “Questions Divorcing Parents Ask”. She attempts in a group situation to share that information with them.

I'll also say that the majority of the families who call us do so later. In my research, in fact, parents who separated called us on average about two and a half years after the separation. So they are well into the legal process at that point. I think we can still be effective, but it's easier to resolve things when we get people earlier on.

Ms. Ester Birenzweig: I also wanted to add, if I may, that usually one parent contacts us first and we make an effort then to reach out to the other parent and invite them in. It's very unusual that we have both parents calling us. We do have in some families, but it's not usually the case. Usually one parent makes the initial contact, and we reach out to the other parent to invite them in.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: You've been in business for 14 years.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Longer.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: It has been since 1984.

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Ms. Rhonda Freeman: We've been offering specialized services since 1977. We've existed in this form since 1984, subsequent to our first major research project.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: I see. So you're having some success.

One other question. You say one of the other problems is accountability of decision-makers, and that goes right to the judge. But I've read your material, and I can't find out what you're suggesting they do. How do we make them more accountable? You can go to the Supreme Court and that's the end, but in terms of the social worker who makes the decision, it's his or her decision. How do we make them more accountable? I think it's a good idea, but how do we do it?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Can I back up a second and tell you why we put that in the brief? It really stems from the public consultation process I mentioned. There was not a participant...and we had moms, dads, all kinds of people. Everybody said that was the thing that bothered them the most, that this important decision-making power rested with one person.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: Right, as a rule.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: So the suggestion that's in one of our recommendations came directly out of that consultation process. That was the question we put to the parents: If this doesn't work, what would be better for you? They talked about a team of people—and I don't mean a cast of thousands, but two or three people—so that it wasn't one person's biases that influenced the decision.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: So it's not really the accountability of those who make the decision. As I think a lot have suggested—and I think they should—not only the lawyers or the mediators who do this kind of work should really know what they're doing before they start doing it but also the judges should likewise do a little schooling or take some courses in whatever is necessary for them to do it properly. But I don't know how they can be, in effect, accountable. They make a decision and that's the decision. If they make the wrong decision, you go to the Court of Appeal, but as I say, when you end up at the Supreme Court, that's the end.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Very often parents tell us that the decision is rendered and they don't understand why. They don't understand what the thinking was that led up to that decision. They find that very frustrating.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: If you're talking about a judge, should he maybe put it in writing with reasons, or something like that?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: I think it would be helpful for parents to understand how the reasons will foster child adjustment, because that's really what should dictate the decision, whatever it is.

Senator Duncan Jessiman: Thanks very much.

I have lots of other questions, but that's enough for now, Madam Chair.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): We'll go to Senator DeWare.

Senator Mabel M. DeWare (Moncton, PC): A couple of things. It's interesting that we've been hearing from fathers that they aren't allowed access and from mothers that, in some cases, non-custodial parents should not have access. I suppose in the courts, then, it's the spouses' lawyers who are defending each one and trying to get the best of this divorce for each one of them. Therefore, the lawyers are presenting the case.

If violence or abuse is involved in a divorce case, the judge should say there therefore shall be no access until they can prove they've gone through a pre-arranged counselling program or something. The judge should not at that time give access.

How can we ever get that point across? Because lawyers are very clever. They can find all kinds of reasons why one parent or the other, the non-custodial parent, should have access.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I think one of the ways that process could be improved is not only by using an official guardian, for instance, or a children's lawyer, on behalf of the children, but also more broadly utilizing child mental health professionals to provide consultation in those situations where it's very complicated and where it's “he says, she says”. It's very hard to tell when a judge is receiving material only from attorneys who may well be representing just the interests of the adults.

Certainly children's lawyers can be helpful, but sometimes they don't know anything about children, and they need to.

Senator Mabel DeWare: They need to be educated in that field.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: Right.

Senator Mabel DeWare: They always say there are three sides to every story, and unfortunately, we apparently are not hearing the third side.

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You talk about early intervention. How early? If a divorce begins because of abuse and violence in a family, you don't hear about it until divorce time. So how early is the intervention? Is it at that point? How can we get in there sooner? You can't unless somebody makes a complaint.

Ms. Ester Birenzweig: There are some couples and some families that are able to work out their own arrangements and don't need the intervention of other resources. There are others that can't make decisions on their own and need intervention as early as possible, because otherwise everybody is in limbo. They also have more of a chance to get into entrenched positions and positions where later it's very difficult to back off.

So at a very early stage, even as Rhonda was suggesting, when they are thinking of separating, if they could get in touch with services available it would give them an idea of what to watch out for, what to prepare for and what the children's reactions would possibly be.

Senator Mabel DeWare: Somebody suggested to us in our proceedings that because it's often a volatile situation and the parents are upset with each other and the children aren't being thought about, a parenting plan should be presented to the court before they even consider looking at separation or divorce. It would make the two parents sit down and think about the child instead of themselves. They would have to look at it and ask, in the best interests of the child, who's going to do this and that and whatever?

You say there are many parenting plans and one doesn't fit every situation, so you can't produce a form to be filled out. They would have to seriously sit down, and it might not be accepted by the people in the courts. They might say this isn't acceptable; go back and work at it again. Is there any way we could insist on something along that line, or at least make them think about the children first?

Dr. Ruth Pickering: As you indicated yourself, where there is violence against either the mother or the children, you can't expect those people to enter into any kind of a negotiation.

Senator Mabel DeWare: No.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I think we need to recognize in the legislation the different kinds of situations and then give guidelines for those situations in which there is no conflict. There are many possibilities there, and often many of those people, with assistance, will come to perfectly appropriate.... You're absolutely right in identifying those situations in which there is very high conflict, violence or abuse. Then different aspects need to be entered.

Senator Mabel DeWare: At what age can a child make the decision that they don't want to have that visit with the non-custodial parent? We had a witness come before this committee, a young girl....

Dr. Ruth Pickering: Children can tell you if they are frightened—

Senator Mabel DeWare: But legally?

Dr. Ruth Pickering: Legally, I don't know.

Senator Mabel DeWare: I believe this girl was 12, and everyone agreed. She said she didn't want to go any more, and it was accepted. She was here on behalf of herself and everybody else who had the same problem.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: That's where I think we need, as a society and within the legislation, to count on child mental health professionals to assist, in terms of what the children's voice is and what it's about.

Certainly we don't want children put under more pressure to make decisions, but when children voice concerns about a parent to somebody other than the parent, or when the parent isn't in the room, there are ways through levels of assessment that one can attempt to determine what the meaning of the child's words are. I think that's as close as we can get.

Senator Mabel DeWare: The other thing that came before the committee was the need for legal aid. It isn't available to people who really need it, who don't have the resources. How serious is that in this country or in the province of Ontario?

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I think it's considerable. The cutbacks more recently are affecting people in very major ways. They're having one court appearance when many times it takes a series of appearances to get to some resolution. So I think it's impacting in a very profound way.

Senator Mabel DeWare: Thank you.

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The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Senator Cools, do you have a question?

Senator Anne Cools: Yes.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: I would also direct you to our brief. We actually categorize all the cuts to the legal aid plan in Ontario and how those cuts have affected family law. In our experience, it's very difficult for people to get a certificate now. It's a real problem. Sometimes you have nobody represented in court, so people are not clear about what their rights and obligations are. Or you might have one of the parties represented and the other not, and resolution is very hard to come by.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Senator Cools.

Senator Anne Cools: I'd like to thank the witnesses for what I thought were very sensitive presentations. I'd also like to share with committee members the fact that the Family Service Association of Metropolitan Toronto was the original flagship counselling agency for family problems in Toronto. For a long time it was the only one, for many, many years. In addition, I've done much work with the Family Service Association, and have worked on several projects with the former executive director, Bob Couchman.

I just wanted to ask a couple of little questions—four, to be exact. First, how was your project funded? Second, is there a cost to the individuals? Third, how many programs like yours exist in the country, and is it something that should be imitated, multiplied? And for four, I'll wait for you to answer; I'll come back to the last question.

I'm very interested, so I'll just run through them again: How are you funded? Is there a cost to what I guess you would call the clients? They're not patients, they're clients. And how many programs like yours exist in say Ontario?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: I'm unclear as to whether you mean our services in general or the research that's been done.

Senator Anne Cools: No, your particular Families in Transition.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: The clinical work, yes.

Senator Anne Cools: The particular one. I know how the Family Service Association is funded, but what about yours in particular, your particular program?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: As I mentioned, we're a member in the United Way. We have discretionary dollars from the United Way—

Senator Anne Cools: It's discretionary.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: —and the rest is made up of client fees on a sliding fee scale.

Until the recent regrettable cutbacks we also had a cost-sharing arrangement between the province and the city. People on family benefits, welfare, or with low incomes—for example, a mom with two kids and earning up to about $23,000 a year—could actually be funded under that program. Through the cost sharing, all the counselling fees were paid for by the family, but that was one of the cuts the agency experienced.

Senator Anne Cools: That was one of the casualties, yes.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Yes, it was.

At this point, it's a sliding scale. We never deny service because of an inability to pay, so our fee scale at the moment ranges from $5 to $95 per hour. We have several clients at the moment for whom even $5 is beyond their means, so we can waive the fee if necessary. We also provide for some of the families who are on public assistance and in real financial hardship. We'll provide bus tickets, babysitting money, those sorts of things, to enable them to attend counselling.

Senator Anne Cools: As my final question, how many clients do you serve in a year?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: We serve approximately 1,500 people annually.

We didn't talk about this before, but as Dr. Pickering indicated, we very much see divorce as a process that unfolds over time. Consequently, our clinical model is an intermittent one. As I mentioned before, we do our best work if we get people very early on, because then we can give boosters.

One of the best compliments a family can pay to us is to call us a year or two or three down the road. We had a situation like that in which one of the staff members had a case fairly early on in the separation, and that staff member helped work out the parenting plan and child adjustment issues.

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Our involvement is usually not for more than ten sessions. We're a short-term service. We aim to help families get back into the mainstream and move on with their lives. But about four years later, the mother called us and said that actually the child, who was six when we first met her and who was then about nine and a half, asked why we didn't call. There were some new issues, because mom was remarrying, there was going to be a step-parent and there were some adjustment issues.

We took that as the ultimate compliment: the child had a good recollection, thought therapy was helpful, and thought a kind of booster could be helpful again.

Senator Anne Cools: I think what you're describing is very exciting and very necessary, because there's so much counselling, but what eludes us so often is the understanding that counselling is an extremely personal and intimate affair. And quite often it's a function of the chemistry of the counsellor, the blend or interactions between the counsellor and—I'm not saying “patients”—the clients. That sort of returning as new issues arise in the future, to my mind, is almost an evaluation in itself.

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: One of my staff has a case she worked very intensively with for in excess of two years, which is quite unusual for us. She's now down to one telephone call every six months. It's been several years. This child is going to graduate from high school and go on to university and the family has invited our staff member to the child's graduation.

Senator Anne Cools: Wonderful. I thank you for that.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Thank you very much.

Mr. Lowther, you had a question.

Mr. Eric Lowther (Calgary Centre, Ref.): Are there others waiting to ask questions?

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): No. You're the last one.

Mr. Eric Lowther: It's a bit of a sensitive question, but along the lines of some of the things you were saying about violence in the homes, and then discipline, and there is sort of a continuum there.... We clearly know what violence is, and I guess we know what discipline is, but is there a place that you feel...? When does discipline become violence? I guess I'm touching on this whole issue right now about spanking that we have out there. I'm just wondering what you folks think of that, since you have pretty close access to a lot of these cases. I know of some myself in my own sphere that I would say are violent, but I know of others that I would say are pretty good discipline. I am curious to know your position.

Dr. Ruth Pickering: Certainly there is quite a big literature on what are called “coercive parenting practices”, which would be the use of spanking as a regular measure and would also include punitive, vengeful kinds of conversations with the children, as opposed to lessons to be learned. I think discipline is clearly a consequence for misbehaviour and ideally would be used as a part of learning in life.

If there is a slippery slope there.... Certainly in my work as a family therapist I work very hard, as do my colleagues, to try to identify when that discipline becomes violence, so we talk about disrespect as sort of the first step towards violence. When people are speaking to each other in ways that are critical of the person, in ways that are insulting, degrading, and humiliating, we call that a “violent verbal exchange”, as a way of helping families understand that there are more appropriate and more respectful ways to speak to your children when they've misbehaved, ways which are actually more effective. The slippery slope needs to be carefully looked at in order to identify this.

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Personally, my view is that not only is spanking violent, but it also teaches children very bad habits about what you do when somebody misbehaves or you don't approve of their actions. There's a fair bit of literature also about corporal punishment, that it actually is an ineffective way of parenting. So if the goal is to be a good parent and have children learn from their life experiences, spanking is one of the least effective ways. Certainly it becomes and can become quite violent and also sensitizes children to a high tolerance for violent interactions.

Mr. Eric Lowther: I have a follow-up question on a different topic. We seem to have this quandary of sometimes violence being threatened but it might not actually happen; it's used as a tool. Someone is claiming they're in a violent relationship when maybe it isn't. It might be heated, but maybe it isn't violent. Then we have the other extreme where it is violent and people are saying basically the same thing. We're trying to sift out which ones are real and which ones are not. In my experience—and I don't have a lot of this—it seems we almost treat them the same.

My own feeling is if it is truly violent I wish we would act a little sooner and step in a little more firmly to stop it. On the other hand, if it's being used as a false claim to get some other personal gain in the relationship, it shouldn't be respected. In fact it might almost want to have some negative consequences coming out of that. The difficulty seems to be how to sift out when it's real and when it's not.

Have you developed any tools or techniques to discern when it's legitimate or when maybe it's being used as a ploy?

Dr. Ruth Pickering: I do a fair bit of teaching in this area with medical students and residents and so on, and one of the examples I give that would reflect, in my view, a situation of violence as an abusive power where there is no actual hitting.... Just to make the example clear, let's say you have a woman who's about 5' 6” and a man who's about 6' 1” and the man is loud and angry and forces the woman up against the wall, through the size of his body and the bigness of his hands and arms, and puts his face down to hers and says, “If you don't get my supper on the table I'm going to smash you”, and smashes his fist into the wall beside her and leaves a fist mark. The net effect is that the threat of violence to the woman—he hasn't actually hit her head—is clearly demonstrated in that scenario.

Again, it is very difficult to make some of those distinctions. In fact I think the more we know about individual situations, what has happened and who saw what and what the patterns are, can maybe at least make us better at distinguishing between violence that we want to take action on and other situations that may not be actionable. Mental abuse is another part of it, too.

Senator Mabel DeWare: Could I just ask the one question we've been asking?

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Yes.

Senator Mabel DeWare: We haven't mentioned it today, but do you think the words “custody” and “access” in divorce should be changed?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: We don't use them in our office.

Senator Mabel DeWare: Do you use “parenting”?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Yes.

Senator Mabel DeWare: What else do you use?

Ms. Rhonda Freeman: Just parenting. We have what we call a dictionary of divorce. We tell people it's an open book and we invite parents and children to contribute to it, because we think the changes in families have gone faster than the changes in language. We don't know that we have the right answers, so we have shifted, learning from our clients over the years. We used to talk about access parents. We felt this term disenfranchised those people who are access parents, typically men, so we rewrote all our literature to talk about parenting full-time and part-time.

About four or five years ago a group of dads came to me and said, “We don't parent part-time. We're just parents. We may see our children less.” And I said to them, “You're absolutely right; I agree.” So we rewrote all our materials again, at some expense, and we just say you're a parent.

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Senator Mabel DeWare: Great.

The Joint Chair (Senator Landon Pearson): Thank you very much indeed. I found this a fascinating afternoon. I appreciated the video a great deal—hearing the voices of children, Dr. Pickering. I think it has added a great deal to our study of this issue.

I wish there had been actually more of us here today, but we will share everything you've said with them, and they'll be sure to have it for our final deliberations. Thank you so much for coming.

Did you want to ask...?

The Joint Chair (Mr. Roger Gallaway): Just before we leave, Senator Cools has—

Senator Anne Cools: Could you just excuse the witnesses?

The Joint Chair (Mr. Roger Gallaway): Yes. The committee is finished. We're just going to discuss some committee business.

Senator Cools has raised as a question of privilege an article that has been tabled with the clerk. I have spoken with one of the table officers of the House, and I think what we should do is, first, distribute to all members of the committee a copy of the article—articles, actually.

Second, I think that in all fairness to our witnesses and to our schedule, perhaps we could slot half an hour at some point tomorrow or Wednesday to deal with this matter—I shouldn't say half an hour, as it may take longer than that—and then we can collectively arrive at some sort of consensus as to which way we want to go on this.

I have been told there are basically a couple of routes. One is that we can invite the individual to appear before the committee, and if they fail to come, we can subpoena them. The other alternative is that the committee can in fact compile a report that will then go to the speakers of the respective houses for consideration.

We'll ensure that you receive that in the morning, and then we'll try to set a time to meet briefly.

Thank you. We are now adjourned.