Paradigm shift needed

The world is changing and we have to keep up. The dangers our children face today are no longer the issues of yesterday.

The world is changing and we have to keep up. The dangers our children face today are no longer the issues of yesterday.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram drive the interactions and communication of our youth and us.

What if there were grade school and high school classes teaching a wide range of topics such as the effect of bitter divorces on children, the dangers of sex trafficking and the importance of developing a child’s self-esteem? 

We think such classes are not only necessary but critical.  Let us explain and illustrate.

Challenges children face include suffering repercussions from bitter divorces and self-esteem issues that can lead to depression, drug use and suicide.

Family law lawyers and other professionals, such as the staff at the Children’s Aid Society, see how these ailments affect our communities.

Consequently, it may be time to have a conversation about whether we as professionals could utilize our experience and knowledge to teach and warn children before the harmful effects occur.

A paradigm shift in the way we approach the above challenges may be necessary since these dangers are real and not simply confined to poor and marginalized communities.

They touch children and young adults regardless of race, socio-economic status or in which neighbourhood they live.

Consequently, we must approach these issues through a lens of prevention and proactive education; otherwise, we will continue just picking up the pieces when it is simply too late. 

For example, the end result of children being affected by a high-conflict divorce starts off with much more innocent beginnings.

Take Gordon v. Gordon, where a married couple who both love and care for their two children, aged 9 and 12, decided to separate after nine years of marriage.

The animosity was so bitter that it required two separate trials within three years.

After the first trial, the mother was ordered to be the primary caregiver of one of the children and the father was ordered to be the primary caregiver of the other. 

Justice Anne Trousdale ordered that the parents have joint custody with decision-making, but she also noted that the continuation of the parents being stubborn and opinionated “put these children at risk of damaged development.”

In the second trial, the parents did not learn their lesson and continued to fight over custody.

Justice John Johnston indicated that each parent blamed the other for the acrimony, the grandparents were embroiled in the fight and neither parent had insight to recognize they were both part of the problem.

Each parent was ordered to be the custodial parent of the child in their care, but they were also ordered to attend counselling.

As Johnston wrote, “Involving children in the parents’ battles in high conflict cases is ‘akin to sprinkling poison on the Kids Cornflakes every morning.’

“While the parents in this case would not think they are harming their children, their conflict is doing just that.”

But what about something as subtle as a child’s self-esteem?

How important is that to develop? In a recent decision out of Nova Scotia, Kelly v. Benoit (2017), 2017 NSSC 212, a woman left Halifax with her child and went to Saskatchewan to escape an abusive relationship that included the child’s father’s issues with addiction and mental health.

The father denied the accusations and started a court application to bring the child back.

In permitting the child’s mother to stay in Saskatchewan, Justice Beryl MacDonald took note of the father’s parenting deficiencies, which included his self-centredness, lack of empathy, lack of insight into his mental illness, his use of name-calling and degradation to express his frustration and his propensity to blame others without any introspective examination of his contribution to what had happened.

MacDonald said, “Demeaning and degrading insults can destroy a person’s self-esteem and can contribute to feelings of uselessness, worthlessness and self-blame.

“This can lead to depression, anxiety, and physical illness.

“As a result, a parent’s caregiving ability may be undermined.

“Children who know or become aware of one parent’s propensity to demean, belittle, dominate and control the other parent are placed in an unhealthy situation . . .”

The importance of maintaining one’s self-esteem was echoed by Justice Alison Harvison Young in Bolla v. Swart (2017), 2017 ONSC 1488, 2017 CarswellOnt 3659.

Although not finding the evidence to support the mother’s claim in the case, Young wrote that certain long-term emotional abuse may have harmful effects.

“Like repetitive movement injury, ‘emotional abuse’ consists of repetitive neglect, put-downs, name-calling, blaming, rejection, creating doubt, degradation, public embarrassment, and other ‘systemic’ attempts to erode a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth,” she wrote.

If only we had classes that taught lessons about self-esteem, mental illness and the effects of high-conflict divorce before their effects permeate our children.

So many inoculating seeds could have been planted and nourished in the minds of children and adolescents whose brains were still developing and malleable.

We, as professionals and future educators, would have many more opportunities to keep them safe in a world with so many risks.  

So, what is the solution?

Maybe it is time for family law lawyers, psychologists and social workers to stop missing important opportunities in educating our youth during their most formative years on topics that education and therapy after the fact helps too little too late. 

Maybe it is time to re-evaluate where our resources should be better spent in our schools and where they can have more lasting effects on child development with a preventive rather than a reactive approach.

Maybe it is time for a paradigm shift for family law lawyers and professionals to help children not just in their regular line of work but rather to regularly volunteer in the schools, in concert with school administrators, to teach students critical lessons based on their experiences with the youth that were not as lucky to escape the above-mentioned calamities.

The risks are simply too high in continuing to miss such opportunities.


David Frenkel is a lawyer at Gelman and Associates, practising exclusively in the area of family law for the last 10 years. This article was also written in collaboration with Mahesh Prajapat, chief operating officer of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society.

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