In April of this year, Debra Rodrigues, Dr. Dan Ashbourne, and Dr. Kim Harris presented a comprehensive three-day training entitled “Meeting and Interviewing Children for ADR”. The three trainers have extensive experience working with children and families involved with the family and child protection legal systems.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a signatory, underscores that hearing from children is not just something that is respectful of children or that enhances decision-making; children have a right to be given an opportunity to express their views in all matters affecting them, and to have those views given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity. Ontario’s new Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017, which came into force on April 30, 2018, entrenches this right in child protection matters, requiring that all decisions that are made “in a child’s best interest” include consideration of “the child’s views and wishes, given due weight in accordance with the child’s age and maturity, unless they cannot be ascertained”. Finally, there is a growing awareness among family law professionals that children’s participation in family law decision-making needs to be better enabled and supported.
From our perspective, a key barrier to children’s involvement in family law and child protection processes has been a lack of training for professionals on how best to include children. To this end, Debra Rodrigues initiated and prepared training that not only teaches interview skills but provides a thorough framework from which to complete the process of obtaining the Voice of the Child for ADR processes. She developed a 12-step Voice of the Child Report (VCR) process to teach professionals how to bring children’s voices into ADR processes, including mediation, collaborative law, parenting coordination, Family Group Conferences, etc. Indeed, the participants in our training reflected this broad range of professional experience and, as a result, we had enriched discussions regarding the many challenging topics associated with this work.
Dr. Rachel Birnbaum was our guest speaker on the first day and she provided an academic perspective on the issue by sharing her Ontario-based research on the Voice of the Child. On the third day, Carolyn Leach joined the training team, offering insights and practical interviewing techniques from the perspective of child’s counsel.
Our belief is that family law professionals working directly with children must have a solid understanding of children’s development, how children are impacted by separation and divorce, and the steps we can teach to parents to support their children through this difficult transition. We discussed other ways that children can be supported when their parents’ capacity to attend to the needs of their children is diminished by the issues of separation and divorce. As such, the first segments of our workshop focused on these topics, and Dr. Dan Ashbourne and Dr. Kim Harris provided information about children’s development across the social, emotional, cognitive, and language areas. They discussed how these developmental changes must be evaluated in order to develop good interview techniques for children (including young children) as well as how to adjust them for children with special needs.
We then moved to the actual process of meeting and interviewing children, beginning with a discussion of both the benefits and the risks of including children in the process. This discussion informed two critical aspects of the process, which we then explored in detail: assessing parental readiness to hear from children, and techniques for meeting with and interviewing children. Parental readiness is an essential, often overlooked aspect of the process and requires careful consideration.
In our view, meetings and interviews with children must be approached from the perspective that children should fully understand the purpose of the meeting or interview, what will happen to the information they share, and how it may or may not form part of the decision-making process. They should retain control over their participation and the information to be shared by being offered a fully confidential process (subject to the professional’s duty to report child abuse). We also focused on interview techniques that yield information from children that is rich in detail and most accurately reflective of a child’s true views.
The workshop included a practical framework for professionals to use involving the 12-Step VCR file management system, suggested templates for contracts, intake forms, consent forms, and the report. We developed best practice guidelines for the VCR and for interviewing children. As well, a completed sample of the VCR and a recorded demonstration are being prepared and will be distributed to all participants.
After three long days of active discussion and learning, the participants reported that they learned valuable information, very much appreciated the 12-step system, and their feedback about the training was quite positive. One participant emailed back the next business day to say she had already applied the skills she learned in an interview with a child that morning.
Dr. Dan Ashbourne, C. Psych., Director of the London Family Court Clinic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Kimberly Harris, C. Psych, London Family Court Clinic Director of Assessment Services. She can be reached at email@example.com
Debra Rodrigues, Director, Peel Counseling and Consulting Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was written for and published in the AFCC-O Spring 2019 newsletter. Click here to download a copy.