At the most recent meeting of the A2JBC Leadership Group on October 30, 2019, I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the perspective of experts, advocates and justice system participants on the topic of adverse childhood experience. The challenge posed to the group was how we—as leaders inside and outside of the justice system—can address the issue of the adverse impact on children of parental conflict and anxiety during the transition of parental separation.
An Adverse Childhood Experience (or “ACE”) refers to abuse, neglect or other traumas children may go through. A landmark study conducted in the 1990s established a link between ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes in adult life. In sum, ACEs disrupt brain development, which can result in social, emotional and cognitive impairment; high-risk behaviour; disease, disability and social problems; and, ultimately, early death.
The encouraging news is that negative outcomes can be reduced or eliminated with appropriate responses, such as nurturing strong relationships and providing supports like therapeutic sessions, trauma-informed practices, and many other things. If stressors are minimized and suitable supports provided, children and adults can build resilience to prevent life-long effects.
How is this research on ACEs relevant to us in the justice system? Unfortunately, it is all too relevant. Parental separation has been identified in the research as one of those experiences that can have an immediate and long-term adverse impact on children. Heightened parental conflict negatively affects children, and increased anxiety reduces parents’ ability to support children through an inevitably stressful situation. Interaction with the court system too often exacerbates the conflict and anxiety. Instead of supporting the natural resilience of children by giving them voice, the family justice system frequently leaves children feeling unheard and thus more vulnerable.
This reality was brought home at our Leadership Group meeting when a guest—a very courageous 16-year-old—described some of the painful consequences for her and her siblings of family justice system experiences that thwarted finality, ramped up stress and exacerbated pre-existing risks and problems.
What we heard on October 30th so moved the Leadership Group that we came up with a joint Statement of Commitment to take cross-sector leadership in addressing this issue. Access to Justice BC has adopted an Action Framework that sets out three broad objectives:
- Increasing parental capacity;
- Enhancing children’s resilience; and
- Designing the justice system to reduce parental conflict and anxiety, and enhance children’s resilience.
While this framework does not bind individual organizations and while we still need to work through what practical steps can be taken to bring flesh to that commitment, it is an important first step. A2JBC works through the organizations that have endorsed the Access to Justice Triple Aim. Whatever next steps are taken, our organizations will encourage the A2JBC approach—to be collaborative, user-centred, experimental and evidence-based. We also recognize that the solutions are not just within the justice system. We need to work with other sectors—for example, education, health, municipalities—and in the case of Indigenous families, with Indigenous leaders and communities.