Putting Children's Interest First - Federal-Provincial-Territorial Consultations on Custody and Access and Child Support

Part 1: Parenting after Separation or Divorce (continued)

HIGH-CONFLICT RELATIONSHIPS

Further Reading

  • Assessing, Serving and Maintaining Parenting Arrangements for High-Conflict Families, Charlene LaFleur-Graham, Policy Planning and Evaluation, Saskatchewan Justice
  • Allegations of Child Abuse in the Context of Parental Separation: A Discussion Paper, Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family
  • The Early Identification and Streaming of Cases of High-Conflict Separation and Divorce: Review, Ron Stewart, Family Therapy Associates
  • Forthcoming

Almost all couples experience some level of conflict during separation and divorce. The degree of interpersonal and legal conflict varies widely and conflict levels can change depending on the issues the parents are dealing with. Conflict can range from one parent belittling the other parent's values to vicious verbal attacks and threats of violence, and can be as extreme as direct threats to the emotional well-being and physical safety of the children, or either parent.

Exact numbers are not known, but research suggests that about 10-to-15 percent of all couples exhibit a high level of legal and interpersonal conflict around the time of separation or divorce. The longer it takes to sort out the issues raised by the separation or divorce, the greater the chance that the conflict will continue and get worse. For some, high levels of conflict continue for years. High-conflict parents may have serious underlying problems, such as emotional, mental-health or substance-abuse problems. High-conflict cases consume a large amount of court time and services.

Research also shows that the level and intensity of parental conflict is a very important factor in children's adjustment after separation or divorce. Parents who co-operate after they separate increase the chances that their children will have close relationships with both of them and will cope successfully with the separation or divorce. Parental conflict and lack of co-operation have a negative effect on children's adjustment after separation or divorce. When the parents' interpersonal struggles take centre stage, children's needs are not given adequate attention.

The more intense, pervasive and open the conflict between the parents, the greater the damage to children. Equally damaging is a situation in which the children are encouraged to take sides or report on a parent, because they become the focus of, and the unwilling participants in the conflict. When there is a very high level of conflict, disputes may involve false allegations of abuse, parental alienation (when one parent actively attempts to exclude the other parent from the children's lives), or even abduction of the children by a parent.

High-conflict parents may also have difficulty seeing their children's needs as separate from their own and have long-term difficulty co-parenting and communicating with one another about their children after separation or divorce. These parents may also rely too much on their children to meet their emotional needs.

It has been suggested that improvements to the family law system are required to protect children from the negative effects of high levels of conflict between their parents. Specific approaches that have been tried include parent education programs for high-conflict parents, supervised access and exchange centres, and intensive court management of high-conflict cases.

Looking at the Law

While federal and provincial laws may differ in wording and style, they all use the "best interests of the child" principle to determine parenting arrangements. There are currently no specific provisions to deal with high-conflict situations.

There are a number of approaches governments could take to promote child-centred decision-making in high-conflict cases. Which of the following approaches would best do this?

  • The law should include no specific provision. Changes to address high-conflict cases could have negative effects on the majority of parents who co-operate. The focus should instead be on making changes to support parents who can reach co-operative solutions.
  • The law should say that, when judges are concerned about ongoing high-conflict parenting disputes, they should be able to set out in the court order very specific and detailed parenting arrangements to provide a regular routine and autonomy for each parent’s time with the children.
  • The law should say that, when judges are concerned about ongoing high-conflict parenting disputes, they should be able to specify in the court order a disputeresolution mechanism that the parents are to use.
  • The law should discourage arrangements requiring cooperation and joint decision-making when there are concerns about ongoing high-conflict parenting disputes. The law could say that these arrangements would not be in children’s best interests.
  • The law should include a combination of the above approaches. (Please specify in your feedback booklet which of the approaches you would combine.)

Please describe in your feedback booklet any other legislative approaches that you think would be helpful to address highconflict situations.

Looking at Services

Please check the six services from the list below that you think would be most effective in helping parents avoid high levels of conflict and minimizing the harmful effects of conflict on children.

Information and Education Services

Parent education:
specialized programs for high-conflict parents that provide information about the negative effects of ongoing conflict on children, and include parenting and conflict-resolution skills training.
Education and support groups for children:
these help children understand and cope with the high-conflict situation.

Services to Promote Prompt Handling of High- Conflict Cases

Intake co-ordinators:
properly trained front-line court workers who facilitate early identification of high-conflict cases and referral to services. Specialized case management and controlled court procedures for high-conflict cases, along with access to clinical expertise to facilitate faster final decisions.

Support Services for Parents and Children

Legal aid:
this service provides legal advice or representation to financially eligible parents.
Supervised access and exchange centres:
these offer a safe, supervised environment for children’s access and for parents to drop off and pick up their children.
Therapeutic access centres:
these offer intervention by a mental-health professional as part of the visit.
Specialized therapeutic mediation: parents who have rigid and very different ideas about their children’s needs and those who have a general distrust of each other do not succeed in reaching an agreement through mediation. These parents require a more therapeutic or impasse-directed mediation process, that brings counselling and mediation together. This approach allows parents to focus on resolving deeper issues, so they can reach sound agreements based on proper negotiation strategies and make psychologically sound arrangements. Interventions include counselling and specialized assessment and evaluation procedures
Initial and ongoing psychological intervention and assessments:
professionals determine the level and cause of conflict and the level of risk associated with the conflict, and suggest responses to help the parents reduce the level of conflict.
Programs to promote a self-managed parenting plan:
parents can directly or indirectly agree on parenting details to avoid misunderstandings or to establish communication rules.

If you have had any personal experience with any of these services, please comment in your feedback booklet on how useful the services were in reducing conflict and helping parents focus on the needs of the children.

Please describe in your feedback booklet any other family law services that you think would be useful to reduce conflict and help parents focus on the needs of the children.

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