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Custody & Access Issues: Discussion with a Lawyer, Psychologist & Family Physician.

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Presentation on theme: "Custody & Access Issues: Discussion with a Lawyer, Psychologist & Family Physician."— Presentation transcript:

1 Custody & Access Issues: Discussion with a Lawyer, Psychologist & Family Physician

2 Presenters: – Lawyer: Steven Benmor, Toronto – Family Physician: Dr. Gina Agarwal, Hamilton – Psychologists: was to be Dr. Dan T. Ashbourne, at LFCC in London was to present but a sudden family issue led to regrets and forwarding this role on short notice the Psychology role is being graciously covered by Dr. Marlies Sudermann, formerly of LFCC, and now in Private Practice, offering various Psychological services.

3 Steven Benmor of Benmor Family Law Group is certified as a specialist in family law by the Law Society of Upper Canada. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science, then from the University of Windsor with a Bachelor of Laws and then from York University with a Master of Laws (Family Law). He is one of the 43 Canadian Fellows of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. He was a past adjunct professor of family law at Osgoode Hall Law School and at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology. He previously served as a panel lawyer with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer and the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. His many volunteer positions include Chair of the Board of Access for Parents and Children of Ontario, Chair of the Family Law Section of the Ontario Bar Association, Founding Director and Treasurer of the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, and Director of the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. He was a member of the Expert Advisory Group on Family Justice Improvements to the then Attorney General, the Honourable Chris Bentley. Steven is a frequent writer, presenter and contributor to family law education and press coverage. He was awarded the 2012 Distinguished Service Award by the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

4 Dr. Gina Agarwal, MBBS PHD(Epidemiology) MRCGP CCFP FCFP: – Trained as a GP in England, Gina is an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and she works as a family physician at the McMaster Family Practice (MFP) and trains residents. She has been a practising family physician for nearly 20 years. Some of her special interests are the Doctor-Patient Relationship, Continuity of Care, and the care for victims of domestic violence in Family Practice.

5 Dr. Dan Ashbourne is a Registered Clinical Psychologist in the province of Ontario, and currently Executive Director at the London Family Court Clinic (LFCC) in London, Ontario, Canada. This unique Clinic is specifically designed to work with children and their families involved with the legal/clinical systems. In addition to overseeing the leadership of the Clinic, Dr. Ashbourne provides assessments and consultations to the Courts for the Youth Justice, Child Welfare and/or Custody and Access Programs, He also provides consultation to the Alternative Dispute Resolution Coordination Service called ADR-LINK and the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Virtual Assessment Clinic at LFCC. Dr. Ashbourne brings more than 25 years of clinical experience that enables him to speak on the impact of children’s exposure to domestic violence and/or child abuse, best practices related to parenting assessments, as well as children and their parents in the midst of difficult divorce and/or separation challenges.

6 Dr. Marlies Sudermann, C. Psych. Previously a psychologist at the London Family Court Clinic (LFCC) for many years Now in private practice in London Ontario Provides psychological services for families involved in court matters related to custody & access or Child Welfare matters (PCA/C&A) etc. Supervises others gaining registration with the College of Psychologists of Ontario Provides training and consultation

7 Custody and Access Assessments (CLRA sec. 30) – Parenting plan evaluations to assist family and/or the Court in determining best interest of children related to parenting time and decision making Parenting Capacity Assessment (CFSA sec. 54) – Court-ordered evaluation for families involved with the CAS to examine parenting capacity and make recommendations in the best interests of the children Fee for Service Specialized Assessments – evaluations with a specific referral question related to diagnostics, intellectual disability, capacity to testify, FASD, Access, Attachment, Trauma, etc. Family Mediation and Parent Coordination – assisting families to get beyond the crisis situations that bring them to the justice system Some Specialized Psychological Services that can be provided

8 Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – linking families experiencing CAS involvement with consultants to facilitate best resolutions for all involved Parent Education and/or Counselling for parents/children/families related to separation/divorce issues and how to navigate the changes ahead. Training – professionals providing training in a wide variety of topics such as separation and divorce impacts on parents and children. Research/Education – LFCC has produced many publications through the years as found on the website at ( Coordination, Consultation, Training, & Research

9 Case #1: Jessica is the mother of a 7 year old boy, and well educated, working in the health care sector. She is now divorced, separated for 3.5 years. Custody and access has been settled as joint, though the trial was very difficult and the father’s lawyers raised the issue of parental alienation on her side. The boy’s father has now moved a 1 hour drive away from the school. He was violent and abusive to Jessica (as per her testimony, over a period of 7+ years), and though the case went to criminal court he was not found guilty. Over the space of 3-4 years, she has disclosed after each incident to her family doctor, scenarios where the father has shown up in her neighbourhood and driven repeatedly past her house on a non access day, refused to pay his share of the boy’s expenses, refused to return the clothes she sent her son to him in, refused to take the child to soccer practice, refused to allow enrollment in summer camp, refused to let her have the week vacation she wants with the child etc. etc.. She tries to appease him at every dispute but this is getting very difficult. Her court agreement states that they must get a parental coordinator if they are unable to decide on parenting decisions. They are now at loggerheads over which summer weeks she can have and he wants a parental coordinator. She is terrified and does not want to have a parental coordinator since her experience with all the custody and access assessments was that she was labelled as a ‘parental alienator’ and the abuse she suffered and is suffering on an ongoing basis is brushed aside/minimised as high conflict. How can the parental coordinator be chosen/ not chosen and how can her fears be dismissed? Scenarios for Discussion

10 Case #2: Sharon is a 32 year old mother of a 4 year old girl and 20 month old girl. She became separated when her husband left her during the early stages of her recent pregnancy. She is now divorced. She has joint custody with her children’s father, a University Professor. As stipulated in their separation agreement, the children remained with her primarily until the youngest child was 1 year of age. Their father was not involved in their care at all in the early stages of their life, and was not concerned about not being involved (he had taken up with one of his female students). Sharon is a PHD level researcher, and prides herself in having been able to cope with her girls, and her work both, without letting either suffer. Since the younger child turned 1, as stipulated in the separation agreement, the children have been going to their father’s house for the whole weekend, from Friday night to Sunday evening. Sharon found it very hard to hand over the 2 girls, and was worried about them. She would send a book to be filled in, in which she would put information about routines, illness, feedings etc, but this book was lost after she sent it and when she made another, it is never filled out by the father. He doesn’t think there is a problem because ‘they come back fine don’t they?’ The baby screams every time at handover, and the 4 year old says she doesn’t want to leave Mommy, and cries. The father is not concerned by the screaming. Sharon was very distraught initially, and came to her Family Doctor, with acute signs of grief, anxiety and panic when her girls leave her. She had an episode when she was grief-stricken, missing her girls, in the middle of a yoga class and had to leave sobbing uncontrollably. She was embarrassed and heart-broken. Her family doctor, and other friends around her, told her that she would get used to it and so would the children. Eight months have passed, nothing much has changed emotionally or with the girls’ behaviour. Now her 4 year old tells her that their father is not really looking after them much and works at the weekends. They are being looked after by his 20 year old girlfriend, who was a student of his at University, whom he had an affair with and left Sharon for. She is currently pregnant. Sharon is very upset that she is not able to spend the weekends with her children, but another woman looks after them. Sharon is fine when the girls are back with her and life returns to normal, and she has no emotional issues, but she dreads the weekends when the girls will go. She has taken the advice of others, her family and her doctor, and keeps herself busy when they are gone, and treats herself and does chores as well. But she feels ‘empty, desolate and hopeless inside,’ during those weekends. This feeling has not diminished over the 8 months that they have been going. She comes to the family doctor again when the youngest child is 20 months, asking why her emotions are not settling. She thinks she may have ‘empty-nest’ syndrome or depression, and that she may need counselling or medication. She is asking for a referral to a really good counsellor who understands what being a mother is about and who can help her. She is also asking if there is a support group for other mothers like her. What type of counselling /psychology intervention would she benefit/not benefit from? Will medication help her and why/why not? Scenarios for Discussion

11 Case #3: Jenn is a 38 year old nurse, and mother of twin boys aged 5years. She attends the doctors’ office in an ‘open access/same day’ booking slot to see the ‘duty’ doctor (she was unable to get a spot with her regular doctor who knows her well). It is a Thursday and tomorrow the boys will go for a 10 day stay with their father. Jenn wants the children to spend time with, and develop a meaningful relationship with their father, but she is worried by the things they say to her and how she will be portrayed if she discloses them. Her marital relationship with their father was one in which he was more powerful than her, and he would threaten her with various embarrassing scenarios if she did not behave as he wanted. When they divorced he litigated her for full custody of the children. The trial was lengthy and costly. It was emotionally harrowing for her, since she could not afford a ‘Bay Street’ lawyer, and she was accused of being an unfit mother, a drug abuser, a child abuser and a parental alienator (all were unfounded). During that time when they boys were 3, she called CAS due to one of them having had his shoulder dislocated after being yanked by his father. Jenn was concerned about the boys’ safety and how her sons’ shoulder could be dislocated after being pulled. CAS investigated and nothing was found. She was labelled further as a parental alienator by the fathers’ lawyer. Now she comes to the duty doctor asking that someone help her. The children openly state that they do not want to go to Daddy’s since he is mean, and always angry. They are worried that they will get smacked or their ‘arms broken again’. She has tried to tell herself that it is nothing, but she is genuinely afraid for them. She fears that if she raises concerns then she will be labelled as an alienator again and may lose full custody of her children, but if she does not and something happens she will not have listened to her children. What is the best course of action for the children? Scenarios for Discussion

12 Case #4: One of the parents in a custody dispute is seeing a psychologist for therapy to help with marital conflict that is affecting everyone in the family and to ensure their anger does not spill over on the children or ex- partner. The Psychologist has also directed his/her client to see their GP for medication for depression and anxiety stemming from the ongoing conflict. The Lawyer for the other parent has become aware of this and is planning go after the records of the psychologist and the GP to build a case of mental health issues, anger problems, and poor parenting, and to try to sway the court in the favor of the other parent with regards to custody? What should/could each of the professionals (Lawyer, GP and Psychologist) do to navigate this so as to ensure valuable information is before the court but not to make matters worse? Scenarios for Discussion

13 Case 5: The GP receives an Authorization & Direction from both spouses’ lawyers asking for a “complete, unredacted copy” of the patients’ medical charts and children’s medical charts, which the GP knows contains notes of unverified complaints against the other spouse by each of the parents and problems noted by the oldest child (aged 14) about each of the parents’ behaviours during the custody dispute. How should the GP proceed? Scenarios for Discussion

14 Case 6: The GP receives a letter and consent form from a psychologist who is conducting an custody assessment, seeking information about the patient’s mental and physical health and any observations made of his/her interactions with the children. What should/could the GP do to navigate this request? What could arise depending on what is provided? Scenarios for Discussion

15 Case 7: The patient discloses that she is divorcing and needs a letter from her GP to confirm the past and recent abusive behaviours by the ex-partner. The GP also treats the husband and children. What problems do you foresee for the GP if she/he writes the letter? Or does not write a letter? How else could this matter unfold? Scenarios for Discussion

16 Bill Simpson has two children (Tim - 5 years old, and Wendy - 8 years old) who live with their mother, Nicole Morris (26) and maternal grandmother, Winnie Rankin (56). His two children, Tim and Wendy, see their father at the local supervised access program once a week for 2 hours on Tuesday afternoons from 4-6 pm. Bill has attended a local residential substance abuse program, as well as various anger awareness groups during the past year while on probation. Recently, he began individual therapy with his pastor about his past domestic violence towards Nicole in their on-again- off-again relationship over the past 9 years. With regards to the children of Bill and Nicole, Wendy is hesitant to attend visits with her father. She has also been experiencing considerable difficulties at school and home with regards to her aggressive behaviors and troubles focusing in class that seem to be hampering her learning. There has been a referral to the school social worker for counseling to provide support for her while at school as well as the school psychologist for an assessment. Tim is very quiet, shy, and rarely talks. He will not attend visits with his father without his sister. Scenario #8

17 Nicole has recently met a new same sex partner, Jane, aged 24 who is a dental assistant with no children. Nicole is becoming serious with Jane but reports that violent disputes between the two of them have sometimes required police involvement. Nicole and Jane are looking for a change in order to make things better between the two of them and the two children, and have indicated they are contemplating moving out west. Nicole would like to break all ties with Bill and her own mother, for a fresh start. Nicole currently works as a file clerk in a doctor’s office and has held the job for the past 4 years and hopes to find something similar out west. Currently her mother provides child care for the children when they are not in school. Bill, however, has learned of the potential of the family moving west and wants to prevent this from happening. He has filed a motion with the Courts to prevent the move out west of his children, and requested an Office of the Children’s Lawyer assessment be ordered by the Court. Scenario #8 continued:

18 As the GP at the office where Nicole works, you are asked to write a letter of reference for her for future employment consideration. Later Nicole asks you to also write a letter outlining her good parenting skills in order to support her move out west with the children. What issues arise with regards to these two letters requested? Questions for Scenario #8

19 As a psychologist, you are completing the school assessment of Wendy and have been asked to provide a copy of the assessment (which outlines some fears/worries of the child) to the mother’s lawyer. What do you do? As a psychologist for the school board you are considering opening up a small private practice and thus offer to complete a custody assessment for the mother, her new partner Jane, and the two children. Do you see any concerns about proceeding? More Questions on Scenario #8

20 As the Lawyer working for the OCL you have been assigned this case and how do you proceed? Who would you want to talk with? How would the voice of the oldest children be brought forward? The mom wants you to support her move west and how do you handle this request? Questions for Scenario #8

21 Remain Neutral / Impartial / Unbiased /clarify questions/role(s) Use Multiple sessions (over several months) Multi-disciplinary input can be very helpful Multi-methods to include (test/Observe/interview/collaterals gathered) Multiple sources of information (GP, School, kids, extended family/friends, therapists, etc.) Multiple contexts (office, home, school, etc.) Comprehensive Best Practice Assessment: Final points

22 Dr. Dan T. Ashbourne, C. Psych. Executive Director & Psychologist: London Family Court Clinic cell 519-494-0557 Office 519-679-7250 x107 Further Training needs & Contact Information

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