Family Court Support Workers: A largely unsung family court best practice

Workers in Ontario’s shelters for women and children fleeing abuse have been providing support to women involved with family court for decades. Occasionally funded through short-term grants, sometimes with resources provided by community fund-raising and often just tacked on to an already-lengthy list of responsibilities, this support has made an enormous difference for women who access shelter services.

In 2003, Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre for Women and Children, named after a 3½-year-old boy killed by his father on his first access visit after his mother had sought supervised visits, opened its doors as Canada’s first stand-alone family court support centre for women leaving abusive relationships. It developed a unique service delivery model, pairing each woman with a Legal Support Worker who would remain with her throughout her family law case.

This model as well as the work done by shelters led to the development of Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker (FCSW) program, which was implemented by the Ministry of the Attorney General in 2011.

The FCSW program is an important best practice and, after six years, is becoming accepted as a critical service for survivors of violence within the family who are involved in the family court process.

With funding from the Ministry of the Attorney General, Family Court Support Workers (FCSWs) work for community agencies (shelters, counselling agencies, victim service agencies, etc.) in each court jurisdiction in the province.

Workers receive an intensive training when they are hired and are provided with ongoing support through an private, moderated online discussion forum, where they can post questions, share their experiences and access a wide variety of resources developed for them and their clients. As well, each year, workers come together for an in-person training. This training component of the program is provided by Luke’s Place.

FCSWs provide a wide range of services to their clients. After a needs assessment, the worker assists the client develop a safety plan, including a plan for staying safe during the family court process. They assist clients record the history of abuse to which they have been subjected, which will eventually form part of the court documentation.

Workers can help their clients prepare for meetings with their lawyer, can attend those meetings and can then debrief with them after the meeting, supporting the client to follow through on any tasks assigned by the lawyer. They can accompany a client to family court, often coming into the courtroom with her to offer support.

Many abusive men turn to legal bullying in an attempt to maintain power and control over their former partner.  This can include a wide range of tactics, intended to intimidate the woman into conceding to the abuser’s demands with respect to the family law issues or into returning to the relationship. Legal bullying can also deplete a woman’s financial resources and leaves both the woman and children in an ongoing state of uncertainty, sometimes for years.

While an FCSW can’t do anything to stop a legal bully, she can provide important emotional support to help a woman resist the abuser’s intimidation tactics and with safety planning to keep her and her children as safe as possible.

The program has been a victim of its own success, with dedicated and over-extended workers now stretched very thin on the ground as they attempt to meet the needs of an ever-growing number of clients. Inadequately funded everywhere, the crisis is especially urgent in rural and remote parts of the province, where most workers are part-time, work in isolation and often must travel long distances to meet with clients and to go to court.

Kudos to the government of Ontario for responding to women’s advocacy in instituting this program six years ago. A big round of applause to every Family Court Support Worker in the province. And strong encouragement to the government to expand the funding for this important program that helps to keep women and children alive at a very critical time in their lives.

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