Each year in Quebec, there are thousands of families that are implicated in separation and divorce proceedings involving children and adolescents. These numbers are even more alarming when we consider the increasing number of de facto unions that end up in dissolution. Furthermore, the rate of failed second marriages and unions is well over the fifty percent mark. As a consequence, a considerable number of families experience a great deal of distress and frustration in trying to adapt to the demands of re-organizing family life and the continued exercise of their parental responsibilities. The deleterious effects of marital and partnership break-up are well documented and can include financial hardships, loss of social and family support, social isolation, legal entanglements and a myriad of psychological problems that hinder normal functioning.

An increase in psychiatric disorders, drug and alcohol dependence and violent and abusive actions are not uncommon among adults as are acting out behaviours, suicidal ideation and school failure among the children and youth involved. In these difficult times, parental capacities and competence are usually diminished resulting in higher numbers of notifications to Youth Protection services. In some instances, conflict between co-parents is so acute that it seriously impedes and undermines any effort by them to effectively communicate with each other and implement parenting plans or legal judgements without constantly resorting to expensive litigations before the courts.

Resources for Families in Transition
There is little doubt that during this very turbulent period of transition, outside support and professional intervention is often necessary. This can include counseling, family mediation, psychosocial assessments, parenting coordination, assisted access between parents and children and participation in various therapeutic and self-help groups for children and parents.

Pre-Separation Couple Counseling
In the pre separation phase, many couples are in crisis and experience severe difficulties that impact the well-being of every family member. Whether the decision to separate on the part of one or both parties is imminent or not, the assistance of a competent counselor is, often, very helpful in guiding the couple through this hazardous period. Counseling can bring to light dysfunctional aspects of the relationship and support the couple in their effort to stay together or separate in a manner that will ensure the best interest of the children and family.

Couples in crisis need to have access to trained professionals who have a good understanding of relationship issues when couples are unable to make a decision. Presently, these services are mostly provided by psychologists, couple and family therapists and social workers in the private sector and by organizations such as the Argyle Institute and Concensus Mediation Center. Some CLSCs also provide counseling to couples but it can be limited and with long wait times.

It is important that there is follow-up to any referral made so as to ensure that couples need support as their situation evolves.

Counseling and Consultation for Divorcing Parents
Most parents and children experience separation and divorce as a traumatic event creating stress and adjustment problems not unlike mourning the death of a loved one. Adults usually tend to go through an emotional and psychological roller coaster ride in which feelings of guilt, anger, resentment and depression run havoc in their personal and social lives. Children tend to go through even greater insecurity and difficulties that, frequently, put them in conflicts of loyalty with their parents. Furthermore, dealing with the demands of living in a re-organized family involving new partners, step-parents and siblings can be overwhelming and present challenges that can be formidable. Competent professionals from the fields of social work and psychology need to be available to assist family members experiencing adjustment problems on an individual basis and in their relationship with each other. Particular attention will be given to parent-child relations as well as helping parents (through a counseling process) find more appropriate ways of normalizing their personal and family life.

Such specialized services are not readily available, especially in the public sector. A few private practitioners and organizations do offer this service but fees can be high.

Family Mediation
Family mediation is defined simply as a process whereby an impartial trained professional assists couples to negotiate the various issues related to their separation or divorce. These issues can involve parental responsibilities, support for children and spouses and the division of the family patrimony. The principal aim of family mediation is to help couples find mutually agreeable solutions to conflicts and, in the process, avoid costly and painful court litigations.

These professionals can have a psychosocial or legal background and are members in good standing of an accrediting professional order. Participation in the mediation process on the part of the separating couple is strictly voluntary and must have the consent of both parties before services can be provided.

Mediation services are provided by trained and accredited family mediators in private practice, at organizations such as Consensus Mediation Center and in various Superior Courts (e.g. Montreal and Laval) throughout the province.

Supervised Parent-Child Access
In instances of separation and divorce, relations between children and one of their parents are often problematic and require the services of a qualified professional to[LC1] supervise and monitor visits in a neutral and secure setting. These services are utilized when;

  • Strong and serious objections (well founded) on the part of one parent(s) to have a child visit with the other parent.
  • Children are potentially at risk in the presence of a parent(s).
  • Children have experienced physical or sexual abuse by a parent or have been kidnapped or abandoned.
  • Children have been systematically and deliberately alienated from a parent (parental alienation).
Facilitators monitor visits between children and their parent(s) as well as play a more direct role in helping to nurture more positive and mutually beneficial relations. Arrangements can also be made to facilitate the exchange of children between households. Written reports can be made available to referral agents.

While the CSSS network is responsible for making these services available, there are few centers available in Montreal and Laval.

Co-parenting Groups and Seminars
Research findings over the past few years have indicated quite clearly that it is in the best interest of children to have both parents actively involved in their lives. When parents minimize their differences and consult each other with regards to ensuring their children’s well being, children benefit greatly and they tend to adjust better and experience less problems at home and in school. These co-parenting seminars are intended as an interactive information session where parents can have an opportunity to learn about the importance of remaining actively involved in the lives of their children.

Some CLSCs offer these group seminars as well as organizations in the private sector for a fee. Usually, they are offered only when a sufficient number of parents request it.

Psychological and Psychosocial Assessments (custody evaluations)
When families break up, conflicts regarding the care and support of children are the most sensitive and complex issues that, often, end up being litigated in court. Judges, needing to take all relevant information into consideration, will request that an expert undertake an assessment of the situation, ensuring that the best interest of the child is given due importance. Judges, lawyers, youth centers and parents can request the services of an ‘expert’ (psychologist or social worker) who will interview all parties concerned. Each assessment can take upwards of twenty hours. Experts usually meet with the parents and their children as well as other family members and professionals involved. They are also subject to testifying in court.

These services are generally provided by psychologists and social workers in private practice (for a fee) as well as by Les Centres Jeunesse located in various Superior Courts throughout the province (in Montreal and Laval it is free if referred by a judge).

Parenting Coordination (PC)
Parenting coordination consists of a follow-up service to parents who are separated or divorced and experiencing high conflict. The service is provided by experienced and trained professionals who are mental health or legal professionals with special training in child development, mediation and high conflict family situation. They assist parents in creating a parenting plan that is most effective in optimizing parent-child relations while minimizing the children’s exposure to parental conflict. The parent coordinator can also serve as a ‘liaison’ between parents in assisting them in the exchange of information and compliance with any existing ‘parenting plan’. Helping parents and children build and maintain viable co-parenting relationships are equally important roles.

A parent coordinator is a neutral and non-aligned professional who can be appointed by the courts or a social service agency as well as by the parents themselves, directly or through their respective lawyers. The coordinator does not work on behalf of one of the parents but, rather, acts in the best interest of the children to ensure that their needs are met.

Presently, PC is available primarily at the Consensus Mediation Center and at the Services d’expertise psychosocial at the Montreal Superior Court where 10 families will take part in a special pilot project (Ministère de la Justice) to determine the viability of the service.

What Needs to be Done
While the above cited services and programs can be found in both the private and public domain, unfortunately, lack of access, affordability and availability as the need arises deter most families from getting the help they desperately need. Furthermore, there is little information about where and how such services can be obtained.

In the public sector, there is no integrated social service delivery system that can provide these ‘families in transition’ with access to specialized and continuous services even when judges strongly recommend such intervention and follow-up. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of available resources and competent professionals able to manage what are, often, complex needs requiring knowledgeable and well planned interventions. As a result, many of these families never receive the help they need and become even more dysfunctional and at risk. Tragically, it is the children who stand to lose the most and who are most likely to emerge with chronic problems that will, invariably, burden our social system in the future.

The Notion of Continuity in Family life
It is not uncommon to hear from both professionals and those affected by a separation or divorce that the family is no longer a viable unit following marital or partner break-up and that family life has, somehow, ended. Most people conclude that any change at the couple level necessarily spells the death knell of family relations and that something completely new emerges. In other words, much like a house of cards, if one set of relations is removed or changed from the base, then everything else comes tumbling down. Such drastic conclusions, while prevalent, distort a more optimistic and realistic view of what actually takes place, that is, that family life continues. Ask any child of divorce and they will tell you that what they most wish for is that their family life, as they have known it, will continue and that their parents will get back together. Although the latter wish is seldom realized, their desire and need to have little else change is heartening and encouraging.

Separation and divorce might spell the end of a couple or marital relationship between two adults but does not entail the end of all ties and obligations among the members. The bonds between parents and their children that existed before will continue to be there afterwards, as will the obligations and privileges that being a member of a family affords. If we acknowledge the continuity of family relations (including at the co-parenting level) then we can also entertain the possibility that the capacity for parents to meet their children’s material, social, and psychological needs will be greatly enhanced in the long term. There is great merit and truth in the saying…“A Couple One Day, but Parents for Life”

An Integrated Service Delivery System
Families in transition are often caught in problematical situations that warrant immediate support and professional intervention. The needs that present themselves are multi dimensional and can vary with regards to intensity and urgency. Ready access to these services and delivery in a timely manner by a competent professional can make a big difference in how well family members adjust. As it is, parents are hard pressed to find the help they need when they need it and have the means to pay for it, especially when long term follow up services are required. In many cases, legal costs alone can seriously deplete the financial means available and saddle parents with major debt.

The CSSS network of health and social service centers that include CLSCs, was designed to respond to the total needs of the citizens in whose territory they reside. Its core mission was, essentially, to provide comprehensive services and to ensure that no one falls through the proverbial cracks in the system. An example of this approach is the package of multidisciplinary and multifaceted services provided to parents who have young children (up to the age of five). This service delivery has proven to be successful and has, in fact, saved the government millions of dollars in future health and social service costs. Children and parents going through the various transitional crisis engendered by the break-up of the family can also greatly benefit by a comprehensive and integrated package of services that can be made available in each CSSS territory.

Teams of highly trained counselors, family mediators, experts and parenting coordinators could ensure that families could access and obtain appropriate services when they need them and without incurring financial hardship and debt. Furthermore, as these families go through the process of adjustment, any difficult situation encountered (parent-child relations, reconstituting a family, co-parenting issues) could be dealt with more effectively and without the risk of escalating the problem or conflict. In the long term, such an approach can only be a winning formula for families in transition and society as a whole.