Calgary family lawyer Charles Fair and special guest Evelyn Wotherspoon discuss Practice Note 7s.
Evelyn Wotherspoon shares her expertise as she has been conducting PN7 evaluative interventions since 2010. Charles Fair has been practicing law for nearly 30 years and founded Fair Legal because he is passionate about helping others, ensuring their rights are protected and that they are treated fairly. Fair Legal deals with Criminal, Family, and Civil Litigation matters.
Partnered with the Canadian Centre for Men and Families, Fair Legal provides monthly webinars on topics dealing with criminal or family matters.
WATCH: Introduction to Alberta Family Law: Practice Note 7: Intervention
Vanessa Farkas-Brahmakshatriya: Practice Note 7: Interventions.
Charles Fair has been practicing law for over 30 years and founded Fair Legal because he's passionate about helping others, ensuring that their rights are protected, and that they are treated fairly. Fair Legal deals with criminal, family, and civil litigation matters.
Charles is generously volunteering his time with the Canadian Centre for Men and Families, Alberta to deliver monthly webinars on topics of common concern to population that we aim to serve in other words, men struggling due to intimate relationship breakdown and turmoil.
I'm Vanessa Farkas-Brahmakshatriya. I am here as a volunteer for CCMF Alberta, where we are committed to meeting men where they're at, so that they can feel heard and validated and have conversations that matter to them. We help equip men to manage stressful situations, rebuild their lives after relationships fail, and stay connected with children. We recognize that providing mental health support for men leads to optimal parenting outcomes, reduction in family violence, and lower rates of suicide.
This is the first time we are joined by special guest Evelyn Wotherspoon. She holds a clinical Master's in social work from the University of Toronto, with a specialization in family therapy. She has spent most of her four decade career working with vulnerable children and families in child welfare, child development, and children's mental health services, specializing in infant and early childhood mental health.
Evelyn has published on the topic of high conflict co-parenting and child mental health for a variety of peer-reviewed publications, including the Zero to Three Journal, the Family Court Review Journal, the Infant Mental Health Journal, and the Michigan Family Law Journal. She has presented on the topic of child mental health, toxic stress, and high conflict parenting throughout the United States and Canada. And she has been conducting Practice Note 7 evaluative interventions in her private practice since 2010.
This is an educational offering. It is not legal advice. If you have questions, please send them via the chat function to Melanie Seneviratne, who is from Fair Legal, and she'll be assisting Charles in the question and answer period. Please keep your questions related to the topic of this webinar.
And if you're looking for additional supports for your mental health as you navigate your legal challenges, here's the link to the program page on our website, which I'm just dropping into the chat.
So I will turn it over to Charles to begin the presentation.
Charles Fair: Great. Thank you Vanessa. And it is certainly my honor to assist the CCMF Alberta. I like the the organization's focus on helping men where they're at. So that's really good.
And I feel especially honored to have Evelyn Wotherspoon as my co-presenter. I feel hugely underqualified to be her co-presenter, but that's life. And, you know, we record these things live and I just want to say again, as Vanessa just did, that this is not legal advice because everybody's situations are different, and this is intended to really give you some help and some direction as you're facing your own issues and maybe hopefully make you a little bit more comfortable with the situation and feel a little more in control of what's going on.
So, without further ado, what we're going to do is, i'm going to give a brief introduction again to recap on some of the issues - on what Practice Notes are - and then i'm going to let Evelyn speak mostly because I think she's got some really valuable stuff to share and I don't want to take too much of the limelight away there.
So I guess we should have had this screen up there already.
But anyways, it's just some nice little quotes here. "Children ought not to be victims of the choices adults make for them." And, you know, this is a lot of what we're going to be talking about tonight, is how we make choices for the the children in our lives.
And then here's a quote from Evelyn herself. And I was in court the other day with one of the judges who actually was referring people to a book on how to parent and I thought, oh my God, there is a book on parenting. I didn't think kids came with a manual. But apparently there's one, but I wrote it down and promptly forgot it, so one of these days I'll remember what that is.
Okay. So Practice Note 7. What is it? Why is it used?
Well, this is a way to complement the Alberta Rules of Court, and it provides options for the parties to reach out of court resolutions because, fundamentally, the Courts are in a really difficult place when it comes to children.
And I often tell my clients there is, it's very - and judges will say this as well - they just cannot know you and your children as effectively as you know your children. And your lives for that matter. And so, any decision that has to be made by a judge is just not going to be as good as a decision that is made by the parents of the children.
That being said, as we said, parents don't often come with - or sorry, children - don't come with instruction manuals. And sometimes we have trouble figuring out what it is that the children need.
And sometimes, if the parents really can't articulate what is in the children's best interest, that's why the Courts say, look, why don't we get an expert involved?
And the Practice Note 7 has two basic kinds of interventions, and Evelyn is going to talk about that more, but the purpose is to assist the Court and also to assist the families in coming to a resolution.
So I'm going to turn it over to Evelyn and let you take it away.
Because you've testified in court. And so - there you go. Now you're going to have to take off your mute. We got you muted. Unmute yourself.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: I can't.
Charles Fair: There you go.
Vanessa Farkas-Brahmakshatriya: You're unmuted now, Evelyn.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Oh, thank you. There we go.
Charles Fair: Okay, good. All right.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Sorry, I was fussing over that. So what would you like me to speak to now, Charles?
Charles Fair: Just take it - I've got a slide here that says "Expectations from the Court", and then we have "Types of Interventions" after that.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Okay, so just I've been doing these for a while now and there seems to be a lot of confusion, both among some of the lawyers, as well as some of the clients, around what these Practice Note 7s are meant to do and how they're to be used.
So, as a parenting expert, I think of myself as a friend of the Court that, when I'm retained under a Practice Note, as far as I'm concerned, my client is actually the Court and not either parent, even though parents might actually be paying for this service. But, when you read the - and everybody should know that you can go and read about Practice Note 7s, and Practice Note 8s, on the Alberta Justice website. If you Google Court of King's Bench Family Law Practice Notes, you'll come right to a whole bunch of them. One of them is Practice Note 7.
But what it says right at the very beginning is that the purpose of the Practice Note is to assist the Court in helping families reach a resolution about their parenting disputes. So that's what I see my role as, is to provide information to the Court that will assist them in making decisions.
So that information might be the results of an intervention. It might be that we're able to assist families by doing, for example, some mediation. Or some consultation. Or some family therapy. We do some reunification therapy. All of that can happen under a Practice Note 7 intervention. But the reason it's Practice Note 7 and not just any old intervention, what makes it a Practice Note, is that the Court has referred to the parenting expert for assistance in helping the families manage their dispute.
Is that correct, Charles? Do I have that right?
Charles Fair: Yes. Yes, that's right. Because it's a little more detailed than the regular Rules of Court, and it provides some guidance for people in how they're going to use the Court to present their case and and have a an expert, as you say, as a friend of the Court.
Can you guys see the Practice Note 7?
I put it up there.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah, so that's what it looks like.
It still says Court of Queen's Bench, which is a bit out of date. It should be Court of King's Bench now, but I don't think they've updated them.
Charles Fair: That's right. I just downloaded this last week.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah. Yeah. And, so the other purpose of doing it as a Practice Note is actually protection of the Court expert.
So because we're involved in highly litigious matters, like, usually there's somebody who's happy with what we have to say, and somebody who's very unhappy. So we tend to attract a lot of complaints to our college. Which is time consuming and often what we would call vexatious complaints. And the Practice Note is actually a way of ensuring that there are a set of rules that everybody understands and follows, and that there's a court order around how the parents will cooperate with the assessment or the intervention, how complaints to the college will be handled, those kinds of things. So that all provides us with some measure of protection from - a buffering.
So my college, for example, if you have a Practice Note and you want to complain about me, and I've done an intervention under a Practice Note 7, the college will tell you that you need to go and speak to the judge with your complaint because the judge is actually the client as far as the college is concerned.
Now I don't know about the psychology association, if they're the same, but I know that my college has referred people back to the Court if they have complaints about my services. And it's for a very good reason. It has to do with ensuring that we're not dealing with a lot of vexatious complaints that are basically disgruntled people who are unhappy with the way that the report turned out.
And it helps us reduce costs to clients because the more we have to defend ourselves against Complaints, the more we have to charge for our hourly service, and it can already get very expensive for people to engage parenting experts in these Practice Notes. So it's helpful for everybody to work under Practice Notes.
I like working under them. The rules are clear to me. I understand what my role is. It's laid out for families quite clearly what the expectations of them are.
So the Court expects, I think, basically, that you will comply with the Court Order and cooperate with the parenting expert and work with him or her to make sure that they can provide the very best advice back to the Court on your situation. And I think that's basically what's expected of parents.
So do you want to go to the next slide, Charles?
Charles Fair: Yeah, sure. There we go.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: So there's basically two types of interventions that come under Practice Notes I think. One is evaluative, and those are - meaning it's an assessment of some kind, and I would include Voice of the Child reports in that, which I'll talk about in just a second.
And the other thing is, any kind of assessment that is not a bilateral parenting assessment comes under Practice Note 7. So it might be for - other than sexual abuse. I think that has its own Practice Note. Practice Note 5. Is that right, I think?
Charles Fair: Yeah, it's Practice Note 5, but that's really just a triggering of some reporting mechanisms. Practice Note 5 is very simple.
And we're going to be talking about that next month...
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Okay. Okay. So an evaluative intervention could be, for example, an individual psychological assessment of one of the parents. It might be a psycho-educational assessment of a child. I do child mental health assessments under Practice Note 7. And Voice of the Child reports might be considered an evaluative intervention.
Then there's therapeutic interventions, and that can include a range of things, like sometimes it involves mediation around constructing a parenting plan. It might be therapy for parent-child reunification where a parent has been has lost contact with the child and wants to reunite with the child. Or where there's been some parental alienation, which is a word I really don't like to use, but where a child has been in some way put off of contact with one or the other parent and there's an effort by a therapist to help the child and parent repair that relationship. So that could come under therapeutic intervention.
So those are the kinds of things we do under Practice Note 7. Do you want to - oh, I should talk a little bit about Voice of the Child. That's a very common one for people to ask for. And I think the reason that they're asked for is because I think - and, Charles, you can help me out here, but the Family Law or the Divorce Act talks about hearing from children, and children having some opportunity to express their views and feelings with respect to parenting plans. Particularly as they get older. Is that right?
Charles Fair: Yeah, and that is one of the factors that is to be taken into account by the Court when it is appropriate given the age and circumstances of the child. And, of course, a lot of people say, well, that's when the child reaches the age of 12, but it's not a magic number on that respect. It might be appropriate. I've had one judge want to hear what a 5 year old was saying. There's been other cases with older children that it's questionable as to whether their voice should be the definitive.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah. And I find that usually, with most of the Courts that I've worked with, that the Voice of the Child report isn't definitive, like, it isn't the deciding factor, but it is input for the judge to consider.
And, usually, when I'm doing Voice of the Child reports - and I'm imagining that there's several people in your audience here tonight that are interested in either requesting a Voice of the Child or they've had one.
Voice of the Child reports are a way to hear from children about their experiences of family life. I don't usually do Voice of the Child reports for Children under the age of seven, because, in my view, they're really not able to adequately express anything other than immediate needs under the age of seven. And they're very vulnerable to influence from the primary caregiving parent when they're under seven years of age.
So I think it would be - most people I know won't do them under the age of seven, but between seven and about twelve, I'm interested in hearing from children and having them express concerns, or views, or prefrences, or needs that they want brought in front of the judge who's making decisions about parenting time.
But I don't ask children which parent do you like better? Which parent do you want to live with? What do you want the parenting plan to look like? What kind of schedule would you like? But I do ask them what their experience of the current parenting plan is. And often children have a lot to say, particularly about 50/50 parenting plans where there's a lot of transitions back and forth.
So, I think, things like 2-2-3 or 2-2-5 parenting plans. I think a lot of kids don't like those because there's too much back and forth and too many transitions. So I hear a lot from kids that they don't like them. But, other than that, I don't usually really try to encourage - I don't encourage children to weigh in on the parenting plan per se.
But I do ask them, what is it like living with your Mom? And what's the best thing about it? And what do you wish was different? And about your Dad? I'll ask them, what do you wish your parents knew about you that you haven't been able to tell them? Is there anything you want me to tell your parents or the Court that you haven't been able to express yourself? What's important to know about you is we're working towards putting together a parenting plan.
So some kids will say things like it's really important to know that I love soccer and, whatever the parenting plan is, it can't interfere with my soccer practice. Or, you know, they'll say I'm really close to my friends and they all live, you know, near my Mom and my Dad is, you know, out of - you know, further out of town. So it's important to know that there should be some thought given to how I'm going to stay connected with my friends, that kind of thing. For some kids, it's staying in the same school is really important because they really like their friends and their teacher. You know, things like that.
So I don't mind hearing from kids weighing in on those things, but I don't typically ask kids to pick a parent or to express a preference for one parent or the other, that kind of thing.
The other thing that comes up a lot in Voice the Child reports is concern from parents that the child is being influenced unfairly by one or the other parent. So I get a lot of worries around parent coaching. And all I can say to you is that most parenting experts have very specific strategies that we use to evaluate whether a child is expressing their own view or echoing that of a parent. And it usually becomes evident fairly quickly when children are echoing what a parent wants them to say. It's very hard for children to to fully keep up a coached position.
So, just a few examples. I've had children come into my office and say to me, Mrs Wotherspoon, do you know what it is to have your heart broken? My mother does. Or they'll say, my Dad never once changed my diaper. Well, how would you know that? So when kids are telling me things that they - you know, when they're expressing adult feelings and concerns that children their age typically wouldn't be experiencing. It is not typical for a seven or eight year old to be telling me about their mother's heartbreak. That is not a developmentally expected thing for a child to be saying. Or when they're expressing criticisms of a parent for things they couldn't possibly know about, such as whether the Mom or Dad pays child support, or whether Mom or Dad changed their diapers when they were little. They couldn't possibly know that.
So, those are little clues that these children might be coached. And there are many other clues and cues that we use to evaluate that. So I usually feel reasonably confident, when I'm talking to a child, whether I'm talking to a child who's being coached or hearing from a child who's truly expressing their points of view.
I would say, too, that most children - and I've been doing this for thirteen years now and speaking to children long before that - most children, what they mostly want, is for the conflict to stop. I would say, over and over again, that is a universal expression that I hear from almost every child I talk to is they're heartbreak and dismay that the people they love and trust the most don't like each other. And it breaks my heart often to have children plead for peace in their family. And, hard as that is for parents, I guess I would really try to encourage parents to just think carefully about when you need to draw a line and litigate, or when you can find a way to compromise. And be always keeping in mind that your children really want you to get along with your parenting partner.
And I know for many people that can't happen, it's not possible, but as much as you can do to shield children from your conflict and protect them from it, I just encourage you to do so, because of all the Voice of the Childs I've done, and I've done hundreds of them now, that is a universal feedback that I hear from children.
And, in fact, I would almost say that most children I talk to will say they would put up with almost any parenting schedule if it brought an end to the conflict. So, for them, the issue isn't the schedule, it's the conflict.
Anyway, shall we carry on?
Charles Fair: Yeah. Well, it does raise an interesting question.
Do you see your intervention as helping the parties come to a more peaceful resolution?
Evelyn Wotherspoon: I think, often, it does. And often it doesn't. It's hard for me to know. But I have had both, where parents have been unhappy with the report and ignored it and carried on with litigation, and other ones, where they've had a moment of reflection and have been startled to learn how their child is experiencing the conflict. And I think sometimes, when I do mental health assessments of children, parents are often surprised to learn how damaged their child's mental health is as a result of the conflict. Children are quite stoic and often don't show or reveal just how much they're suffering. And I see a lot of kids who are quite high achieving and appear to all observers, teachers, friends, parents, like they're doing great, and they get into my office and collapse in tears, and talk about the loneliness and sadness and depression and anxiety that they feel.
A lot of these kids are suffering from anxiety and depression. A lot of them. And it doesn't always show easily.
So, yeah, I see a lot of that. And when parents find that out, it can be a moment of startling new information to them. And it can lead to some resolution of the conflict.
I usually, in my reports, do try to provide a pathway for resolving conflicts. Whether parents choose to take it or not is up to them.
I think the best gift I can give a parent when I'm working on a Practice Note 7 is honest feedback, and truth, as I can see it, about their contribution to the conflict and what they need to do, what power they have, to actually make their children's lives better.
But, whether they pick it up or not, I don't have any control over that. Often, I don't find out, because they get the report, the Practice Note 7 is submitted to the Court, and then I never hear from them again. But if I'm not hearing from them, it means they're not litigating, because I'd be called as a witness if they were. So I rarely attend court, so I'm assuming that most people when they get the report are able to come to some peaceful resolution.
Charles Fair: Yeah, well, perhaps you can talk about some of the limitations and restrictions on what you can, and particularly can't, do as part of the Practice Note 7, because it may be that some people are under the impression that it can accomplish certain things that it really can't.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah. So, I think, a lot of times, what happens is people go to a Practice Note 7 because they can't afford a Practice Note 8. Practice Note 8 is the Bilateral Parenting Assessment. And that is the only assessment, under the rules of the Court, that allows a parenting expert to weigh in specifically on parenting time and parenting matters.
So, under the Practice Note 7 - where does it say... under Limitations. A parenting expert conducting an intervention under the Practice Note 7 will not provide an opinion or recommendation on parenting time, parenting responsibilities, decision making or relocation. So all of those things would have to come under a Practice Note eight and that gets very expensive.
The parenting expert can describe what is happening with the children and within the family dynamic. So, often, that description may be enough to guide the Court of what needs to happen. I find, often, it's enough. But I cannot under a Practice Note 7 say this child should have alternating weekends with Mom or Dad. I can't say that this child should be allowed to relocate. All I can do is describe what I see.
So I do get mobility applications under Practice Note 7, but all I can say, when I'm doing a child mental health assessment where a mobility application is in play, is how the child is experiencing these relationships with Mom, relationship with Dad, what's important for them in the community that they're currently living in, and what the factors that need to be considered in allowing a child to relocate to a new community. What factors to consider in a parenting plan that involves mobility. But I can't say the child should or shouldn't go, in a mobility application.
Does that make sense?
Charles Fair: Yeah. I put up the the section of the Practice Note 7 that you were just talking about. This one here is interesting. Parenting expert is not permitted to engage in both an evaluative and a therapeutic intervention.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah.
Charles Fair: Because a Practice Note 7 seems to have both, right? There's the evaluative and the therapeutic. Why is this rule there? And how do you keep from violating it?
Evelyn Wotherspoon: So that was written by a psychologist, I'm pretty sure. Social workers like me operate a little bit differently.
So, basically, what they're saying is you can't come in and do an assessment and then recommend yourself for therapy.
So I can't write up an assessment, a child mental health assessment, and then recommend this child should continue to see me for therapy.
So they don't want parenting experts drumming up business by recommending therapy that they would then provide. So they don't - if you've done that assessment and you're recommending therapy, you can't be the therapist that would offer that.
Do you see what I'm saying?
Charles Fair: Yeah. So it doesn't mean that you can't say things that are therapeutic in nature.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Well, and if it's in a therapeutic intervention, you can do the therapeutic intervention, but you can't do an assessment and then come back and do the therapeutic intervention that you've just recommended in your assessment.
Charles Fair: Yeah.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Right?
Charles Fair: Okay.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: So that's more what that's about.
And, also, psychologists have a very thick wall between assessment and intervention, whereas social workers are more likely to - like, I, as part of my assessment, when I'm doing child mental health assessments, for example, if the issue is, the transitions between Mom and Dad aren't going well, and we're talking about an eight-month-old baby, I'll come and watch those transitions and give Mom and Dad some suggestions of things to try. That would be considered an intervention. A therapeutic intervention. But I want to know if it works before I put it in a report and recommend it.
So I'll try a few things with Moms and Dads. If - sleep with little ones under five. Sleeping at the non primary caregiver home - usually it's Dad, but not always - but if it's Dad, often Dads are struggling with getting kids to sleep at their house when they're little. And so, often, I will, as part of an assessment, provide some intervention to assist with that, and just see how that's working, before the report is finished and submitted to the Court.
I would say that, often, when there are problems with children transitioning from one home to another, the solution, for one or the other parent is, well, I need to cut back your parenting time because it's not working. And what I usually encourage parents to do is look for - there's a lot of ways that we can help children adjust to a new parenting plan, or adjust to transitions, that don't involve interfering with anyone's parenting time. And parents, often, just have the one solution, which is, I mean, you know, Mom is saying I need to cut Dad's parenting time because the child comes back upset or, you know, disoriented, dysregulated, or won't sleep. Or Dad is saying, I love having my son, but I can't get him to go to bed at night when he's at my place. He's crying from Mom whenever he's here. And that discourages them from having overnights if that's happening. And there's lots we can do to solve those problems.
Do you want to carry on?
Charles Fair: Sure, there's been a couple of questions posted up here and one of them was: Why don't you like the term parental alienation?
I think a better way is maybe discuss what's meant by that and what's wrong with the term in terms of how useful it is in court. Or making decisions.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Sorry, my earbuds are running out of juice. Just give me one second here.
Okay. Sorry. What did you say Charles?
Charles Fair: The question is about the term parental alienation, because you mentioned earlier that you don't like that term. And it's got a real history. I first encountered it back in the 1990s when I was first practicing, and the fellow who came up with the term was still active in the court system. And, yeah.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah.
Charles Fair: Yeah.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: So the reason I don't like the term is because I think there's an assumption about what is meant by parental alienation, and I think it means different things to different people.
So - just hang on here. I'll try and get you on my speaker.
Can you hear me still?
Charles Fair: Yeah. We can hear you.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Good. There we go. I was able to make the switch.
So parental alienation is just a problematic term because it comes with a whole bunch of assumptions that may or may not apply to any particular situation. So I prefer to talk about, you know, relationship breakdown.
It also tends to suggest that there's a perpetrator and a victim, someone is alienating a child, where that may not be the case. It may be children are resistant. I prefer the term "resistant refusal", so children who are refusing or resisting contact, but that doesn't imply that mom or dad are responsible for it or causing it. It's always - and, I mean, every situation is different, but it's hard to know, up front, when you're dealing with a resisting, refusing child, to know why they're doing that. And whether it's anyone's fault. Very often, it's not.
So I just try to avoid that term because it does come with all this baggage. It, kind of, has taken on the aura of a diagnosis, almost as weighty as a psychiatric diagnosis. And it's not. It's just somebody's description of something. There's no real good evidence one way or the other. It's just not a diagnosable category. But I do find the term, you know, "child resistance refusal of contact" is a better way of describing it. It's just a little less, you know, explosive a term.
Charles Fair: Yeah, I think that's - you picked up on that issue. And that was one of the criticisms is that it actually isn't - it's not treatable, and so it's hard to think of it as a diagnosis. Whereas, if you're talking about resistance refusal, well, that's maybe something that can be treated once you figure out what the cause is.
But parental alienation is a label that would be applied to the alienating parent without a diagnosis. There's a bunch of problems with the term from a legal perspective.
I do hear it every once in a while used in court because it's worked its way into, you know, our social fabric, but I don't think it's a particularly useful term for anybody.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: What I recommend is describing what the problem is, as opposed to labeling it alienation, or even resistant refusal. I find it's better just to describe what you're talking about.
The same is true of the term "attachment". You hear the term "attachment" a lot. Attachment disorders. Secure and insecure attachment. Avoidant attachment.
There's a lot - I mean, if you Google attachment, you'll come to plenty of articles. You hear about attachment parenting, that kind of thing.
The advice coming from people in the field who are expert in attachment is to avoid using that term and describe what it is you're talking about. So usually I'm talking about a relationship between a parent and a child. A nurturing, loving relationship that that has meaning and importance to the child developmentally.
So I just talk about the relationship, and I try to avoid the word "attachment".
Charles Fair: One of the other questions here was: can the PN7 determine if there is enmeshment between parent and child? And it strikes me that that is a relationship issue, but it's not clear...
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Charles Fair: You know, what the legal consequence of that... and maybe you could just define what enmeshment is in terms of that parent-child relationship.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Well, enmeshment is an old term that comes from family therapy literature, and I think it was, Salvador Mnuchin way back in the 70s who first talked about enmeshment. And usually it's referring to a relationship between a parent and child that is overly mutually dependent in such a way that it's actually interfering with the child's ability to grow and develop and become autonomous.
I will often talk about things like role reversal, where their child's job is to look after the parent and keep the parent right. I talk to kids who tell me all the strategies they have for managing Dad's temper. Or all the strategies they use to keep Mom from getting upset. You know, like, they'll talk - and that's role reversal, when the child is now feeling responsible for the emotional state of their parent instead of the other way around. Or feeling responsible for comforting and soothing the parent when it should be the parent comforting and soothing the child, right?
So I'll use terms like that. But enmeshment is just an old family therapy term and it does refer to this overly involved relationship where children can't display any autonomy, or grow and develop, you know, expand their circle of relationships beyond the one relationship, which is usually a parent-child relationship of some kind.
Yeah. I think there's a lot of - I would say there's probably a lot of Dads who feel that Moms and their kids are really enmeshed. And that makes it really hard for Dad to get a foot in the door. Especially with very young children. That's my specialization is the very young children.
I'm meeting with a lot of families where Mom and Dad never were in a couple relationship. They may have been in a brief dating relationship and found themselves pregnant. Or they've both moved on to new relationships very quickly before the child is even born. And now they're trying to raise this little baby in two homes. And I will often hear from Dads how difficult it is to establish or get a foothold going with their child when they're quite, what they would call, enmeshed with Mom.
And that's particularly true in the early years. You know, birth to three.
Charles Fair: And so it sounds like you think that there are strategies to help Dads with that.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: There absolutely are. First of all, it helps if you have two parents who are willing to work on it. But yeah, no, there's a lot we can do to help parents.
And I don't know if you do handouts, Charles, but I can send you some handouts for families. Or maybe the CCMF can offer some handouts, I don't know, but there's lots and lots of strategies we can use to help children with transitions. And just understanding their developmental stage and what they're capable of cognitively, what they're capable of emotionally, at different stages of development.
And very often transition problems are the result of parents just not understanding, not having a realistic appraisal of their child's developmental stage and capabilities.
Charles Fair: That's great. Thank you for that. We do handouts.
What I'm going to do is get Melanie to follow up with you and with CCMF and she'll sort that out.
I think, last time, we put together a package of all of the Practice Notes so that people can have it in one easy kind of place to find them, along with some of - there's actually sub Practice Notes, for lack of a better word, like, little commentaries, and forms, and things to go along with some of the Practice Notes. So we put together all of that in a single package.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: I was involved with a committee working on guidelines for developing parenting plans, and a parenting plan template, that parents can use who are trying to put together a parenting plan for their children. And that's going to be available online through the Association - oh, my gosh - the Alberta Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts, the AFCC. But they really want to distribute it widely.
It was started in Ontario. It's used in Ontario. And it's now available in Alberta, Alberta-specific information in it. And I can send that off to you too Charles. I know they really want to get it distributed widely.
Charles Fair: Okay, that's good.
I mean, because quite frankly, lawyers, I don't think, are any better at this than the Courts are. I mean, we have some experience.
You know, that's one of the things that I keep wondering whether - as a practicing lawyer - whether it makes sense to have clients consult independently with a professional such as yourself to get some advice on how to do things better, even without the formality of a Practice Note 7.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: I do that all the time. I call it litigation support. So, often, we'll work privately with lawyers just to consult with them on what is a realistic parenting plan. Or what, you know, suggestions can be offered to assist with, you know, obstacles to transitioning to more - I think most parents want at least 50/50 parenting time with their children, and it can be really challenging to get that with very young children. So just helping people develop a pathway towards a 50/50 parenting arrangement often.
The parenting plan guidelines and the parenting plan template can be useful for lawyers who want to put forward a proposal, to know what the current guidelines are for children of different ages around parenting time and parenting responsibilities.
So it's a really good little template for lawyers to use, too, if you're proposing, you know, a parenting plan to the other party and you want to cite that you've used these guidelines, or they're in keeping with the guidelines offered by the AFCC.
You know, that can be useful too.
And for parents who are self-represented, I'm guessing there's lots of folks on this webinar that are self-represented, and it can be a really good, useful, tool for you as well, if you want to propose something to your co-parent to know what recommendations are.
Charles Fair: So here's, maybe, a good segue. Perhaps we can get you to comment about what should a parent do to be prepared for a Practice Note 7? I guess it depends on what kind of intervention it is, but what are your thoughts on that?
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Well, I'm just seeing a lot of - I had asked for this particular slide to be in here because so many parents do such, just, self-sabotaging kinds of things when they're dealing with a parenting expert. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about some of the things that I see parents doing that I really wish they wouldn't do because it just isn't helpful, and it's not helpful to the parenting expert, and you're not coming across the way you think you are.
So the first thing I would say is, be civil to your co-parent, especially, and always, but especially in writing. So a lot of people leave a written history of fairly caustic, toxic communications, name calling, just very unpleasant, very problematic communications going back and forth, and it just isn't good when the other parent has been behaving themselves, and you've been the one to get really nasty in the communication, and the other one has been smart enough not to do that in writing.
So it doesn't mean they're not just as bad, but if they've been smart and haven't put it in writing, then it puts you at a disadvantage for sure. So I would just say, first of all, don't do that. Try to be businesslike, civil, succinct. Don't write novels to your ex, your co-parenting partner, complaining about everything that - you know, litigating past issues and arguing about stuff that's, you know, the book is closed now and, you know, it's time to move on, those kinds of things.
Try to stay child-focused in your communications with your co-parenting partner. And try to sound like someone of goodwill who's trying to solve a problem if there's problems arising. So that would be the first thing.
The second thing that happens often is that parents, when they first get involved with me and I'm trying to either conduct a child mental health assessment or provide some kind of an intervention, they want to bend my ear about how terrible the other parent is, and how bad they've been treated, and how much of a victim they are. And it's not helpful because I will figure that out myself if what you're saying is true. And your telling me that isn't helpful. It's just much better to trust a little bit in your parenting expert that you've hired - obviously you've hired them for a reason - and just allow the process to unfold a little bit before you start, you know, raising concerns about your co-parent.
And everything that you say should be child-focused. So not about what your co-parent did to you, but how it's impacting your children.
I think often it's hard for parents, especially if it's a fairly, you know, high-conflict situation, to not focus on themselves. Because you're in pain and you're hurting a lot. And I think most parenting experts actually do understand that. But if you're not focusing on your child, it's just very hard for the parenting expert to write a report that's promoting your relationship with the child if you're not focused on your relationship with your child, right? So, I would recommend that.
The other thing I would recommend is reading up on Practice Notes before you meet with the experts so your expectations of them are realistic. I find a lot of people retain me to do a Voice of the Child report, but what they really want is a voice of the parent report. And that just isn't what these reports - they're very limited. It's mainly just reporting and describing what the child had to say. There's no real analysis or evaluation other than to determine whether the child's been coached and whether they're speaking sincerely with their own voice, but, other than that, there's not a lot of evaluation.
You don't do a lot of collateral contacts. We don't contact the school. That would be a mental health assessment. A Voice of the Child, we're doing in very limited context. Mostly we're focusing on what the child has to say. But a lot of parents really want to give you the whole history of their relationship with the other parent, that is not the purpose of a child a Voice of the Child report. And a Voice of the Child report is gonna be disappointing if you're looking for specific recommendations around parenting time, or decision making, or, you know, residence or things like that. You know, so just be aware of what the limitations are and what you can actually expect.
The other thing that is a good idea, if you're seeking a Practice Note 7 intervention, evaluative or therapeutic, is to describe what it is you're looking for when you're contacting parenting experts. I get a lot of requests from self-represented parents saying, hello, I need a Practice Note 7 report. What's your cost and availability? Well, there's so many different things that come under Practice Note 7. I don't know what you're looking for. That isn't enough information for me to give you an idea of what it's going to cost. So it's better, rather than talking about I need a PN7, to talk about what it is you're looking for. Like, I'm looking for an assessment of my child. I'm concerned about his emotional well being. Or I need a bilateral parenting assessment, which is another thing entirely. Or I want someone to hear from my child and have their voice heard in the Court process. So, you know, those are all - like, describe what it is you're looking for rather than label it as a Practice Note 7 because it can mean so many different things.
So that's mainly the advice I have. I don't know, Charles, if you have anything else to add?
Charles Fair: No, I think that's good. I mean, your comments about not badmouthing the other parent, what people don't realize is that, I think as - I'm just going to go out on a limb. I have a background in social anthropology and I think of it as, we're almost wired to come to the defense of somebody in the group, in our social group, who's being attacked. And so, you badmouth somebody, the instinct is to come to that person's defense. And that's not really what you want.
And, Evelyn, I think your response on that is quite appropriate. If the person really is malicious or has got an agenda that's really not in the child's best interest, that's going to come out. And it's going to come out because of its effect on the child.
So, yeah, focus, stay focused on the child, that's really where it's - at the end of the day, that's what it comes down to.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Another thing that parents can do if they're preparing for either a Practice Note 7 Evaluative Intervention or a Practice Note 8 is you can also retain your own expert to prepare you for the kinds of questions you're going to be asked. To do a dry run with you of some of the interviews you're likely to experience. And get a sense - give you some feedback on how you're coming across, and what you could do to improve your presentation to a parenting expert.
I think, very often, parents don't realize how they're coming across. I have a lot of parents who come in and want to take charge of the interview. Are very garrulous. They're off topic. They're determined to get all of their information out in one interview before I've had a chance to ask a single question. And those kinds of things, if you work with a therapist yourself, they can often help give you that kind of feedback on how you're coming across and how you can be more effective in your presentation to a parenting expert. Because it's important.
Especially, like, I know we're not talking about them today, but Practice Note 8s, like, when you're in the middle of a bilateral parenting assessment, and even the kind of assessments I do, child mental health assessments, a lot of a child mental health assessment is looking at the relationship between parents and their children. So there's a lot at stake, and you want to put forward your best self. And I think, often, parents self-sabotage by just not realizing how they're coming across, and how it's not, it's actually - often I can sympathize with them and even support their position in the conflict, often in spite of the way they're coming across. And it would be nice to do it because of the way they're coming across.
So I would say, if you have worries or concerns, I do not think it's a bad idea to hire your own expert and say, hey, I'm going to be going in to meet with this psychologist or social worker for this assessment, and I'd like to, you know, have some practice with the kinds of interviews I'm likely to encounter and get your feedback on how I'm doing. Or how I'm likely to be perceived by a parenting expert.
And lots of lawyers hire people like me to help their clients with exactly that.
Charles Fair: Now, what if a family needs a PN7 but can't afford it?
Evelyn Wotherspoon: So, there are some options. They're limited. It is a real problem in Alberta. I think there is a real effort on the part of the AFCC and others to create more affordable options for families.
One of the things you - so a couple of things you can do, and I know we've only got a couple of minutes left, but some of the things that you can do are to seek therapy in the community through agencies. For example, in Calgary, there's Caria Agency, which has a sliding scale. Lots of professionals have - private practice professionals - have sliding scales.
If you're eligible for Legal Aid, Legal Aid can partially fund some of this work. You can often find newer practitioners who are willing to work at a reduced fee for the experience. They want experience with doing Practice Notes. So I mentor, from time to time, new social workers who are eager to get experience doing Practice Notes. And so I will often refer people to them if they can't afford, you know, the usual fees.
If your child is involved with the child welfare system, child welfare can partially fund some of these services. But the best - one option is to see if you can get a lawyer assigned to your child through Legal Aid and then Legal Aid can offer, at least limited, funding to support some of this work.
And that isn't dependent on your income, I don't think. Your eligibility for Legal Aid representation is income-dependent, but if you're getting a lawyer assigned to your child, I'm not sure that it's - I don't know much about that, but I don't think that's based on income. I don't know if you know Charles.
Charles Fair: Yeah, Legal Aid will provide a lawyer for the child, and the expectation is that the parents will share the cost, is typically what happens. But it's at Legal Aid rates.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Right, Legal Aid rates, which is quite a bit cheaper.
Charles Fair: Yeah. I notice that, in the Practice Note, I just put it back up on the screen, it says the Practice Note does not apply to matters under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act. That's child protection proceedings. But it seems like similar kinds of evaluations might be getting done there. But...
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Well, if your child is involved with a Child, Youth and Family, you won't get a Practice Note 7 anyway, so you'd have to go through the child protection services to get any kind of an assessment. But they do pay for their own services. And they have their own roster of people to do them. So that is - you can approach your caseworker and ask about getting an assessment.
You can also get some assessments, if you're concerned about your child's emotional well being, if you're really concerned about their mental health and they're expressing some symptoms, some obvious symptoms, and others have expressed concerns, such as the school, there may be services and resources available through the school or through Alberta Mental Health. And, often, you can enlist those people, either through subpoena or through a cooperative, you know, request to provide some testimony on behalf of your child.
Charles Fair: And then - some of these questions are kind of out of order. One other question that I think is worth asking is: is there an upper age limit to starting a PN7?
Evelyn Wotherspoon: No. Well, I mean, obviously 16 to 18 kids are - we might do Voice of the Child at those ages, we don't usually do other kinds of PN7s, but no, there's no upper age limit unless they're, you know, reaching adulthood.
Charles Fair: What about a situation where you've got an older teenager, say, but the issue is there's a parent, say, with an alcohol problem, and that there's a role reversal and the child is trying to say things and say, look, they're trying to make sure that they are around to protect that and look after that parent.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: Yeah, it happens all the time. And that's where I think a really good parenting expert can probably figure that out fairly quickly. And often you can refer children to individual therapy through many community agencies, if you can't afford a Practice Note, and and that person can often provide a lot of that feedback.
There are, of course, a range of agencies available out there for dealing with alcohol and addictions issues. And I would be talking to them as well. But certainly, you know, that's something that a good parenting expert should be able to sort out if they're doing a Practice Note 7.
Charles Fair: Yeah, there's just a couple of minutes. I'll throw one more in here. The question is about where - feeling like the other parent, I presume, is more of a best friend to a child rather than a parent role. I'm guessing that the questioner is frustrated about how to develop a relationship with the child when the child views the other parent as - or there's that best friend kind of relationship. Kind of related to that enmeshment question.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: You know, I think, in some of those situations, rather than seek redress through the Courts, if you possibly can, try to enlist the cooperation of your co-parent in some kind of family therapy for you and the child. Like, you know, some of that is better done through therapy rather than through litigation.
That's where the serenity prayer is very helpful. To recognize what you have control over and what you don't. Like, you know, and the wisdom to know the difference, you know? But some things you don't control. And all you can do is try to be a very supportive, kind, welcoming parent to that child. You can ask your co-parent if they would consider letting you and the child go for therapy together, even if the other co-parent isn't interested in being involved.
The other thing you can do is try to - like, I really encourage - where Dads are not the primary caregiver - I really, in the reports that I write, try to set up opportunities for their involvement through things like volunteering in the child's classroom, or coaching a team, or getting the child involved in scouts that they can also participate in, those kinds of things, or girl guides, and, you know, things that they can do together in the community. A sport is just a great opportunity for parents to be involved with their kids. So there are lots of opportunities like that. And I would just - if one door is closed, see if there's another door that might open.
Charles Fair: Okay. Well, I think we're out of time. I'll turn it over to Vanessa and Melanie. You guys usually wrap this up. And thank you very much, Evelyn. This has been great.
Evelyn Wotherspoon: I'm so honored. Thank you for asking me.
Vanessa Farkas-Brahmakshatriya: Yes, thank you very much, Charles and Evelyn, for a very insightful presentation. And I look forward to the next one. In November, our topic is What was it Charles? I don't want to get it wrong.
Charles Fair: It's Practice Note 5 and sexual abuse allegations. So that one's going to be a really tough one because we're going to be getting a co-presenter on from a forensic psychology firm talking about some of those issues. Because that's obviously very difficult.
As some of you may know, I practice some really messy, ugly stuff on both the family law and the criminal defense side. And so having an expert to come in and weigh in on that stuff will be helpful. So the Practice Note 5 is less comprehensive than the Practice Notes 7 and 8 in terms of its directions. So the topic is really dealing with how the Courts handle allegations of sexual abuse.
Vanessa Farkas-Brahmakshatriya: Thank you very much. And thanks to everyone who came and participated. And have a good evening.
Calgary lawyer Charles Fair brings over 30 years of experience to Fair Legal in criminal, family and civil litigation. Charles draws on his personal experiences related to each field of law which helps him to understand and relate with each of his clients. He is compassionate, caring, and will always be your champion for justice when life gets messy.