2013 AFCC-O Conference

On Thursday, October 17th and Friday, October 18th, 2013, The AFCC Ontario Chapter held its 5th Annual General Meeting & Conference, Our Families’ Faces.  Thursday’s social event gave everyone a wonderful opportunity to connect with friends and colleagues and make new connections. Our annual social event continues to be well-attended and an enjoyable way to mingle with fellow family law professionals in an informal setting.

Friday’s conference commenced with the Annual General Meeting. Our new President Justice Debra Paulseth is joined by Dr. Rachel Birnbaum as President Elect, Andrea Himel as Vice President, Steven Benmor as Treasurer and Maggie Hall as the Secretary.  Dena Moyal will stay on for another year as Past President along with Dr. Dan Ashbourne and Anthony Macri. Welcome to our new board members Justice Allan Rowsell, Linda Feldman, Karla McGrath, Shely Polak and Gerry Wong. Thank you for volunteering for our Board!

Nora Spinks, Executive Director of the Vanier institute was our keynote speaker. Her presentation, A Demographic Overview of the Changing Canadian Family was superb and riveting. She maintained our attention with her thoughtful and entertaining overview of how, using “Word Cloud”, different groups, including high school and university students, wellness professionals, literacy groups and military families perceive ‘family’ — what it is and what is means to them. We learned about the significant and complex changes in demographics over time and the potential implications these may have on the lives of families and family law in the future. Ms. Spinks raised issues and asked thought-provoking questions that stimulated us all – there was a definite buzz after her talk! She closed with an apt quote from Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest species that will survive…but that which has the greatest capacity to adapt.” Visit www.vanierinstitute.ca for more information about the important work Ms. Spinks and her colleagues are doing at the Vanier Institute.

Our next speaker, Dr. Lori Haskell’s presented Facing Our Families with Empathy and Compassion. She summarized the internal workings of stress, empathy and compassion. She noted the importance of applying empathy and compassion in our daily interactions with our clients. We were reminded that we are not immune to stress and of the importance of our own self-care not only to take care of ourselves but also so we can provide the best possible services to our clients, who in many cases present us with significant challenges.

Next, Dr. Rachel Birnbaum and Professor Nick Bala presented Pathways Through Ontario’s Family Justice Process. They began with an overview of the current family law justice pathways, highlighting the evident challenges in our system, noting a one-size model does not fit all. The differences between a tiered (linear) and triaged approach were summarized noting the benefits of a triaged approach, which permits a more differential response (more efficient and better use of scarce resources) to the various types and intensities of family disputes and conflict. We were reminded how difficult it can be for both professionals and non-professionals to deal the complex separation and divorce system.  Next, they summarized the results of their multidisciplinary survey of AFCC-O members that queried the different pathways in the current system. Questions were aimed at the professionals’ perceptions about self-represented litigants, the role of custody assessments, factors contributing to the resolution of cases, gender bias in family courts and the services available to assist children and parents. The survey will be replicated in other jurisdictions and we look forward to hearing about the results!

To address an increasing challenge in the justice system, a multi-disciplinary panel on self-represented individuals kicked off our afternoon program.  A spectrum of perspectives was provided by Justice Tobin (of the Ontario Provincial Court) and Justice Czutrin (of the Ontario Superior Court (Family), an assessor (Gary Direnfeld), a mediator (Elizabeth Hyde, director of Mediate393), a lawyer in private practice (Maxine Kerr), a lawyer whose practice includes duty counsel panel work (Andrea Himel), a lawyer with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer  (Linda Feldman), and a lawyer from the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (Nicole Horwitz).  This panel reminded us that while self-represented litigants present challenges to family law professionals, they have an increasing presence in the family law system. For that reason, the utilization of “best practices” when working with self-represented litigants is crucial to having positive working relationships. Tip sheets and short papers that elaborate on the panels’ ideas are available on our website (see link below).

Another challenge facing our family law justice system is the array of cultural issues that arise in the families that we serve.  In their stimulating discussion, titled Cultural Competence in Family Law, The Honourable Marion Boyd, Christine Kim and Lucy McSweeney reminded us that Ontario is a mosaic of cultures and cultures within cultures. Stereotypes are not useful when working with clients and we must stay mindful of our own inevitable biases. Taking the time to ask our clients key questions about what matters (and does not matter) to their individual family members is critical if we are to facilitate meaningful conflict resolution.  In this way, family law professionals will be able to work towards preventing we do not become entrenched in our preconceived biases of what the family members ought to want or need.

To conclude the day we had the ever popular Philip Epstein and Lucy McSweeney provide a recap of several important cases that were decided by the courts in the past year.  This session is always informative and entertaining.

The day concluded with a reminder to attend next year’s conference in London, Ontario where the theme will be Special Issues Before the Courts. Please mark your calendars for October 16 and 17, 2014.  We look forward to seeing you all there!

For participants that have not paid their HST portion of their registration fee yet, please contact Natalie Savage our conference planner for assistance at: natalie@the-planner.ca or by calling (416)255-2525.