More fund­ing urged for child cus­tody as­sess­ments

Winnipeg Free Press - - CITY BUSINESS - KATIE MAY katie.may@freep­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @thatkatiemay

IN the face of a year­long wait­ing list, and a back­log that threat­ens to slow down the fam­ily court process, ad­vo­cates are call­ing on the Man­i­toba gov­ern­ment to de­vote more fund­ing to court-or­dered child cus­tody as­sess­ments to re­solve dis­putes be­tween sep­a­rated par­ents.

There is a list of about 70 fam­i­lies wait­ing for the court-or­dered as­sess­ments, which are com­pleted by so­cial work­ers through the provin­cially funded Fam­ily Con­cil­i­a­tion Ser­vices pro­gram. The as­sess­ments look into child cus­tody ar­range­ments and help judges de­cide where chil­dren should live if their sep­a­rated par­ents can’t agree.

“They have very qual­i­fied so­cial work­ers, but they aren’t able to com­plete the as­sess­ments as fast as peo­ple need them, and peo­ple are wait­ing in limbo to de­ter­mine cus­tody mat­ters un­til these as­sess­ment re­ports are com­plete,” said lawyer Robynne Kaz­ina, fam­ily law chair of the Man­i­toba Bar As­so­ci­a­tion.

The bar as­so­ci­a­tion met with Man­i­toba’s jus­tice min­is­ter ear­lier this month to lobby the prov­ince to fun­nel more re­sources into Fam­ily Con­cil­i­a­tion Ser­vices, which runs sev­eral pro­grams and fam­ily me­di­a­tion in ad­di­tion to com­plet­ing as­sess­ments for the courts.

Those calls were am­pli­fied at Man­i­toba’s leg­is­la­ture this week, when NDP Leader Wab Kinew raised con­cerns about the de­lays dur­ing ques­tion pe­riod. Kinew pointed to a re­cent case in which a Man­i­toba fam­ily court judge be­moaned a lack of re­sources for timely as­sess­ments, and asked lawyers to help “in­flu­ence the pow­ers that be for the pro­vi­sion of as­sess­ment ser­vices.”

Jus­tice Robert Doyle made the com­ments dur­ing a July 24 court ap­pear­ance, at which the sep­a­rated par­ents wanted to put in an early re­quest for an as­sess­ment, know­ing it would take sev­eral months to be com­pleted. Doyle de­clined to or­der the as­sess­ment early, cit­ing “many de­mands on this very, very now-scarce re­source.”

“This is not in the best in­ter­ests of this par­tic­u­lar file, but hav­ing said that, there is too many de­mands and not enough ser­vices, and it’s a very sad state­ment I’ve just shared with you,” Doyle said.

Fam­ily Con­cil­i­a­tion Ser­vices fund­ing has in­creased slightly dur­ing the past three years, and the prov­ince says staffing lev­els have been con­sis­tent — though some ad­vo­cates say they were un­der the im­pres­sion po­si­tions were lost through at­tri­tion.

Un­der pres­sure to speed up the fam­ily court sys­tem, Man­i­toba’s Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Jus­tice Glenn Joyal an­nounced new rules in late Au­gust that set tighter time­lines for tri­als and en­cour­age fam­i­lies to re­solve their cases out of court.

The goal is to of­fer ear­lier court dates for fam­ily cases, but with­out the in­de­pen­dent as­sess­ments, cases won’t nec­es­sar­ily be re­solved quicker, Kaz­ina said.

“The prob­lem is, even if you get a court date ear­lier, and a judge is will­ing to hear your mat­ter, you may not have your as­sess­ment in time,” she said.

The court doesn’t need to or­der as­sess­ments in all cases, but judges usu­ally do, Kaz­ina added.

“Of­ten, a judge needs an as­sess­ment be­cause, if you put your­self into the shoes of the judge, you’re get­ting con­tra­dic­tory in­for­ma­tion from both par­ties.

“The only neu­tral, in­de­pen­dent ex­pert who could eval­u­ate ev­ery­thing and make rec­om­men­da­tions is through an as­sess­ment.”

In re­sponse to the NDP’s ques­tions in the leg­is­la­ture, Premier Brian Pal­lis­ter said the prov­ince has made progress in fam­ily law and child pro­tec­tion.

Kinew said in an in­ter­view the provin­cial gov­ern­ment should take these con­cerns se­ri­ously and do ev­ery­thing it can to put chil­dren’s best in­ter­ests first.

“It’s just re­ally im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that there’s real peo­ple whose lives are be­ing im­pacted by this.

“When a fam­ily goes into a di­vorce court pro­ceed­ing, it’s go­ing to be painful for ev­ery­one in­volved, and the gov­ern­ment should be do­ing ev­ery­thing it can to help those fam­i­lies through the process, but we see here clearly that the choices that they’re mak­ing are mak­ing things more dif­fi­cult for these fam­i­lies,” Kinew said.

A spokes­woman for Man­i­toba’s Fam­i­lies De­part­ment, which over­sees the pro­gram, said in a state­ment there were more re­quests for court-or­dered as­sess­ments last year.

“Be­gin­ning in June, there has been a mod­er­ate in­crease in wait times for court-or­dered as­sess­ments, re­sult­ing from an in­crease in re­fer­rals from last year. The wait time is cur­rently 11 to 12 months, and it had been nine to 10 months pre­vi­ously,” the state­ment said.

The de­part­ment spokes­woman said there are 11 full-time po­si­tions, and one per­son is on leave.

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