More funding urged for child custody assessments
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.