Family Law System Still Fails Women Everyday.

The Family Law system in Ontario is flawed. I mean, it is an absolute waste land of legal jargon, suppositions and red tape that makes it nearly impossible for people to navigate.  We have lawyers who are jaded, judges who are untrained and ignorant about the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse, and they are unsympathetic to victims of sexual assault, victim services workers who are underfunded and over worked, social workers who are indifferent. How are women supposed to navigate this system and protect themselves and their children?

I work with women who are victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault daily. I collaborate with shelters, outreach services and advocates to support victims and survivors  and what I hear is a lot of anger that women and children are not being protected by the systems that are supposed to be the guard at the gate, keeping them safe from their abusers. Police are not believing victims, lawyers are not supporting their clients, judges have little or no understanding of the complexities of domestic violence and abuse and the prison and parole systems are just not effective. The system needs an overhaul and it needs it yesterday! Too many women and children are dying at the hands of their abusers and it has to stop. If the deaths of women and children is not enough to spur the government to make meaningful changes to policy and pass more comprehensive and effective laws, what will it take?

Domestic violence is a unique area and it requires specialization to effectively support victims and give them real justice. Judges, lawyers, police and social workers all should be required to have training that is specific to the complexities of domestic violence and the training should be mandatory and updated on a yearly schedule.

One of the biggest areas of concern is the court ordered Family Assessments. These assessments are invasive, lengthy and ineffective. They cost a lot of money and require a large time investment and the results are typically generic and unrealistic. There are limited psychologists in the province who provide this “service” and often times the assessments take much longer than expected. In my experience, the assessors are also misogynist hiding behind their Masters Degrees and they definitely don’t have training or knowledge of the dynamics of a DV situation.

When these assessments are ordered, there is little or no consideration given to how this will affect a child. The mental and emotional well-being of children is not considered; it is all about the rights and entitlements of the abuser (father). The mother is scrutinized and interrogated and made to feel as though she is the one who is in the wrong. Home visits and sessions in the office of the psychologist that are long and exhausting are mandatory. Children are not permitted to have their mother or another trusted adult  in the room and they are interviewed alone, with a stranger. It is frightening for these children and they often shut down and cannot provide clear or accurate answers to the questions being asked. Those children that are a bit older, teens perhaps, are often confrontational or defiant. These behaviours are all held against the mother, and indicator that she has somehow coached the children or spoken ill of her abuser (their father) and so they show an allegiance to their mother that can only indicate parental alienation. What is misunderstood here is that women and children become almost co-dependant when they have been victims of DV and they are fiercely protective of one another as a means of survival.

Recommendations made by the psychologists are often unrealistic, insensitive and even callous. The emotional and mental well-being of the children, and that of their mother, is ignored, not even accounted for. Supervised access and reintegration is most often recommended as a result of these assessments, sometimes with joint custody. This is appalling! Expecting a victim to share custody, decision-making and child rearing responsibilities with her abuser is just unacceptable.

Supervised access agencies are notorious for being biased in favour of the abuser (typically men). Their so-called impartial facilitators are anything but, writing comments in reports that reflect their biases and can cause judicial hardship to the woman and her children.

Mediation is often expected of the woman, sometimes her participation in a co-parenting training class is mandatory. This is a cruel and irresponsible expectation as it puts the woman in a position of being legally bullied by her abuser and keeps her feeling vulnerable and isolated. Women cannot be expected to sit across a table from her abuser and discuss parenting or anything else with her abuser. The imbalance of power is too great and the insensitivity of this being recommended and expected by assessors and judges is proof that these people do not have an understanding of DV, nor do they have any regard for a woman’s emotional and psychological safety.

Throughout these processes, women are often left waiting for a child support order. Abusers often do not submit their financial statements or tax returns in a timely manner, or they lie about their income, and they are given excessive amounts of time to withhold this information and delay the child support order. The courts enable the abuser to financially abuse their victim. The Family Responsibility Office is slow to process court orders and have support payments deducted from and abusers income, leaving women and children living in dire financial hardship while they wait for FRO to get their paper work done. FRO is not aggressive with penalties for men who do not pay. The case workers are not allowed to use their discretion or common sense when interpreting support orders as they actually “are” rather than what they “say” and this leads to further delays in processing. Wording of orders is often ambiguous and while clarification is awaited, women and children live in poverty and uncertainty.

All of this is why domestic violence training must be developed along-side survivors, advocates and front line workers to develop a comprehensive and meaningful training program. The training should be made mandatory for every service provider, agency, police officer, lawyer and judge who will be in contact with a victim/survivor of domestic violence and their children. This is the only way to ensure that women and children are not revictimized and are actually protected by the very systems they are relying on to do so. It’s time for people to demand this change and pressure their government representatives to pass meaningful legislation and make funding programs that support victims a priority. Talk is cheap, women and children are dying and now is the time for action. Let’s push our government to put its money where its mouth is!

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