Shielding Children from High-Conflict Harm: A Project to Advance Parenting Coordination in Alberta

The Cause

To organize a provincial workshop for family law & mental health professionals to finalize a proposal to advance Parenting Coordination (PC) in Alberta; to disseminate the proposal to key players in the Family Justice system; and to produce and disseminate an educational pamphlet promoting PC as a child-focused, harm-reducing, out-of-court dispute resolution model for post-separation families in conflict.

Alberta was one of the first provinces to develop PC as a hybrid legal-mental health service for high- conflict parents, combining education, dispute resolution, and decision-making functions.

This proposal follows a 3-year volunteer-led research project and provincial consultation by the Alberta Chapter of the Association of Family & Conciliation Courts (AFCC Alberta aimed at clarifying and advancing PC in Alberta.

AFCC is an interdisciplinary international non-profit association of professionals dedicated to improving the lives of children and families through the resolution of family conflict. AFCC has taken a leadership role in developing best practices and guidelines for PC.

With support from the Field Law Community Fund, AFCC Alberta proposes:

1. DATA ANALYSIS & DOCUMENTATION: Collating and analysis of input gathered by a Provincial Working Group on PC over a 3-year consultation process;

2. WORKSHOP to finalize a Proposal for PC in Alberta: A full-day virtual workshop in mid-2024 to finalize a proposal defining and promoting best practices in the delivery of PC in Alberta as a child-focused, harm reducing, out-of-court dispute resolution service model. With the participation of approx. 40 family law and mental health professionals, judges, researchers, and policymakers, the expected outputs include:

a. clarity in our understanding of PC and best practices in Alberta;

b. endorsement by key stakeholders working with families in post-separation conflict on how, when, and why PC can be an appropriate service model to keep families out of court and to reduce harm to children;

c. a launching point to develop and disseminate the proposal for PC in Alberta, and a public-oriented educational strategy including a pamphlet and a webpage promoting PC as a child-focused, harm-reducing dispute resolution service.

3. EDUCATIONAL STRATEGY: Produce and disseminate 10,000 pamphlets across Alberta and develop a webpage to inform & educate Albertans, as well as all stakeholders in the Family Justice system about PC in Alberta.

Who Will it Benefit?

With emerging “brain science” research showing that exposure to post-separation parental conflict causes toxic stress and is harming children, there has been a clamoring to reform the Family Justice system: to keep families out of court and to shield children from harm. Specifically, there have been calls to clarify the legal framework in which PC can be of assistance to post-separation families, and the best practices to ensure buy-in by the public and the service-users, the service-providers, and the courts.

Over the years, PC in Alberta came to be a court directed intervention aimed at shielding children from harm by assisting co-parents to resolve their minor parenting disputes out-of-court. However, since 2019, the practice of PC in Alberta is no longer court-directed, and PC has been lost in the shuffle, with much confusion among family law & mental health professionals, and the public, on what PC is or should be, who should be providing this service (and with what qualifications & training), when and why it is an appropriate service model for co-parents in conflict.

Many legal & mental health professionals in Alberta are reluctant to provide PC services to high conflict co-parents in the absence of a more defined legal framework, and greater clarity on the service model and best practices.

With quantitative & qualitative input on PC gathered over a 3-year provincial consultation process (including a long Survey with 132 responses and 5 Focus Groups with 48 participants), AFCC Alberta has the raw data with the potential for advancing PC as an established service model. Support from Field Law for the proposed project activities will enable AFCC Alberta to harness these learnings and diverse experience & perspectives into a proposal for PC in Alberta, with an accompanying dissemination and educational strategy.

Most immediately, the project will benefit family law & mental health professionals. Benefits will then accrue to post-separation parents, with a more readily available and better understood PC service model. While parents in conflict may not initially articulate the benefit of PC in terms of shielding their children from toxic stress, we know that the children caught up in the ugly tug-of-wars of parenting conflicts will benefit directly and indirectly if their parents access PC, and their exposure to parental conflict is reduced.