Abstract: Struggling through the Maze of Justice: Follow-up Experiences of Parents Involved in the Family Courts (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

491P Struggling through the Maze of Justice: Follow-up Experiences of Parents Involved in the Family Courts

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Saini, PhD, Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Chair of Law and Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Rachel Birnbaum, PhD, Professor, King's University College at Western University, London, ON, Canada
Background:Over the last decade, reviews of the family court system have been undertaken, all culminating in a clear message that the family court system needs full-scale systemic change. Families face a maze of services that are costly, slow to utilize and confusing to understand. Sharp criticism has been drawn in relation to the court’s ability to effectively address the unique needs of vulnerable families, especially those who are marginalized due to economic hardships, intimate partner violence and limited access to services to remedy their legal disputes.The purpose of this research agenda is to explore the barriers and opportunities for achieving access to justice for children and their families.  It was envisioned that results of this study would help to inform the field of the various barriers to access to justice and provide concrete suggestions for improving services.

Methods: This longitudinal qualitative study initially recruited parents as they entered into the family justice system across seven different court sites in Ontario and five different court sites in Quebec. A total purposeful sample of N=1,548 litigants in Ontario and Quebec were recruited at time 1.   Times 2 and 3 intervals were completed 6-8 months apart and only included participants who consented for a telephone follow-up interview. The Time 2 and Time 3 interviews took approximately 25-45 minutes for each interview and were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim for analysis into NVivo. Qualitative data were thematically analyzed with connections to the time 1 survey results.

Results:  Parents shared that the family court system is difficult to navigate.  Parents were generally unware of family justice services or did not know how to access them. This frustration was compounded by the length of the court process and time to resolve parenting disputes.  Contrary to the intent of family justice services, the involvement of professionals led to some parents feeling more stressed during the process due to feeling shamed, blamed and ill-informed about the court process.  From the experience of many parents, the lack of recriprocal information sharing with professionals made them feel more vulnerable and exposed, which created a general feeling of mistrust with the family justice system.  The treatment towards parents by court staff, judges or lawyers varied greatly depending on the interaction, who was involved in the communication and how attitudes were perceived.

Conclusions and Implications:  Despite numerous calls to improve access to justice for families experiencing family breakdown, feedback provided from participants is that the experiences of the court system remain largely negative. Parents often felt frustrated, confused and unable to seek much needed support or connect with the appropriate services/support staff. Family breakdown itself can be challenging and difficult for many parents and children and can negatively impact peoples' abilities to adjust. Collaborative, interdisciplinary research involving government and academic researchers (e.g social sciences and law) is needed to guide the courts, as well as legal and mental health practitioners, in determining which services, legal interventions, and programs to use to individual families make post-separation plans and adjustment.