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Intractable, high conflict disputes between parents experiencing separation and divorce have devastating psychological, emotional, social, physical effects – short-term, long-term and inter-generational – particularly on children.
The justice system, as it is presently designed, tends to exacerbate this destructive conflict rather than support separating couples to reduce the negative impact of separation on their children by managing their emotions and resolving their legal issues outside of court. Relatively few high conflict cases take up a disproportionate amount of the courts’ time, diverting resources away from other needs and asking judges and lawyers to solve problems that, at their core, are not legal.
Skills for Changing Families is a collaborative project that seeks to change the way the justice system responds to high conflict family law disputes, so that instead of escalating conflict, the justice system increases the opportunities, skills and experience of high conflict families to manage their issues consensually and constructively for the benefit of their children.
The A2JBC Skills for Changing Families Working Group [Members] has developed a promising model (based on the research and the collective experience of its members) to be tested in Victoria, British Columbia. The ambition of the project is to develop a scalable model that can be used throughout the province and, in the process, to impact public policy in a way that will enhance the well-being of children.
The Skills for Changing Families model
The proposed integrated model combines:
- Referral from a judge, and periodic judicial intervention to create a structure for the family and increase the likelihood of their compliance and meaningful participation in a skills development program and mediation;
- Assessment of the appropriate process for a family and referrals to needed community services;
- Two levels of the New Ways for Families program to develop the conflict management skills of family members; and
- Mediation, when and if the couple are ready for it, by mediators experienced in high conflict situations.
The New Ways for Families program was developed by the High Conflict Institute, based in California, and has been demonstrated to work in Medicine Hat, Alberta. It focuses on three fundamental problem-solving skills for parents: flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviours.
While the New Ways for Families program is well-defined and tested, there is still much to learn about how it can be designed to go beyond being a pilot project to becoming integral to how the BC family justice system responds to separating families caught in a web of high conflict.