Gwyn and Farid* of North Vancouver have divorced, with a court awarding them joint custody of their 12-year-old daughter, Ashley. Problem is, the couple can’t agree on a custody schedule, and Ashley doesn’t like seeing her mother (and blames her for the divorce). Gwyn comes to you, her advisor, asking for best practices, a custody schedule and any advice in coaxing Ashley to see her.
*This is a hypothetical scenario. Any resemblance to real persons is coincidental.
Who do you call?
Family lawyers and child psychologists
What they say
Her lawyer’s going to say, “Rather than going to trial, let’s try and mediate this.” Ninety-nine per cent of my agreements are like this. You need a reasonable level of respect and communication between the parents to mediate, which costs anywhere from $350 to $500 an hour. It can be less expensive emotionally and financially than a trial, where sometimes you have examinations and discoveries. Typically, mediation happens earlier, when the conflict doesn’t have as much time to escalate. It gives them a private way to resolve their issues, rather than in a public process where they file all these court materials. It also gives them the opportunity to address issues they can’t address in court: someone is looking for an apology, acknowledgement or affirmation. Most frequently, mediation takes one or two days, depending on the complexity of the issues.
If Gwyn and Farid [still] fight about everything—they can’t agree on holiday sharing, for example—you can go to a parenting coordinator. That should be determined with the assistance of a lawyer right at the beginning of the process. When I negotiate an agreement or court order, I’ll include provisions: say, for anything that falls within the jurisdiction of a parent coordinator—as outlined in the Family Law Act—the parents will agree to a parent coordinator in advance. Then they’re obligated to use the coordinator. If one parent goes to court, and a judge sees in the agreement that there is a provision for a parent coordinator, the judge will say, “You have to go deal with the parent coordinator.” This assumes the retainer agreement with the parent coordinator is still valid, and the issue falls within the jurisdiction of the parent coordinator.
A certified parent coordinator meets with the parents to build consensus. If the coordinator can’t, they are empowered by law to make decisions, called determinations, on various parenting issues that are registered with the court, becoming the equivalent of a court order.
Parent coordination can be quite expensive, anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 for each parent as a retainer. The fees per hour can be $350 and up, but for some parents, that’s less expensive than hiring lawyers to prepare for court, and so on. [Instead of going to court], you deal with the parent coordinator and get determinations right away. It can be more expedient, [and sometimes less expensive], than the court process. And, similar to mediation, this is also a private process for the family.
I assume this mother is not a horrible human being—otherwise she wouldn’t have custody of any kind. What the mother has to do as the adult is release the child from any responsibility in fixing this. The mother’s going to have a big role [and] the place to start is [to allow] room for this child to hate her. [It’s] nothing against her as a person. Gwyn [could say] to Ashley: “This must be incredibly hard for you, sweet Ashley. Of course, you have all these feelings of anger and you’re uncomfortable with this, and I just want you to know it’s fine for you to feel all those things. I understand it. Whatever time that you need, I’m going to give you that time and space and I’ll always be right here. I will always be your mother. I will always love you unconditionally.”
This will be hard [for Gwyn] because it requires her to be profoundly mature at a time when things are challenging. It also requires both parents, without exception, to put the needs and rights of their child before themselves.
If Gwyn can [do that], I guarantee Ashley will come around, but we […] need to allow that timeline to be led by the child. In the interim […], Gwyn [can] continue […] telling Ashley she is thinking of her: sending a little note or picking up this little thing she bought in a shop when she was thinking about her—these little reminders show the child is being held in mind.
Farid’s role, [ideally], is to create a faithful representation of her mother. Not only must he not vilify the mother, but he must welcome the mother figuratively into [his new home]. He may tell stories about this hilarious thing Ashley and her mom did together once. He might find a loving picture of Gwyn and Ashley to display. This is where the dad [must be] his mature self on behalf of his child. He needs to recognize that, regardless of whether he’s married, this woman is the mother of his child. She needs to exist [and] be welcomed into that space. This is where things begin to turn around. Right now, with her rejecting Mom, she doesn’t see Mom. All she sees is Dad.
If Dad throws Mom under the bus, it has nothing to do with Mom’s behaviour and everything to do with Dad’s own sense of himself. It’s on each parent to grow in a hurry, because otherwise they are […] robbing their child of a relationship with the other parent. Even if he’s throwing Mom under the bus “justifiably,” the idea of doing that to anyone is not OK. There’s a way to talk through that with your child: “It wasn’t OK that Mom or Dad said or did that. Ashley, I imagine you feel awful and I feel awful for you. How terrible that this happened, but your mom or parent is not an awful person. Maybe they’ve done an awful thing, but we’re working to understand that.”
by Allan Tong, a Toronto-based financial journalist.