FDRIO Board Member Awarded Grant to Study Parenting Apps in Ontario Family Courts
Dr. Rebecca Bromwich of Carleton’s Department of Law and Legal Studies and FDRIO Board member, has received a $45,000 research grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Fund to take a closer look at U.S. apps that help separating parents manage child custody and child access. Dr. Bromwich is also the Director of the Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution program at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
In Ontario, judges in Family Courts have started to order parties to use privately operated, for-profit, U.S.-based apps to manage their conflicts concerning custody and access. This raises a number of legal issues, says Rebecca, observing that child custody and access apps are an unregulated space affecting minors in Canada.
There a quite a few parenting apps available: parenting apps that assign household chores to children, to teach them responsibility; cloud-based baby monitors; family organizers, shared calendars, and task list; nursing trackers; apps that tell you the whereabouts of your children; and even apps that keep toddlers busy in waiting rooms when no other entertainment is available.
“How are these apps being used? Are they being used as intended, or are parents using them for other things, too? Are there features additional features that parents might find useful? Do these apps capture correct legal information for our Ontario courts? How do they affect conflict resolution between spouses, or partners? And, how are these parenting apps affecting the best interests of the children?” asks Dr. Bromwich.
She says she will take a multi-constituent approach to her research, meaning consultation with practitioners including family lawyers, family mediators, family therapists as well as judges (to the extent possible), consulting the apps developers themselves, and parents already using these apps.
A special area of focus for her research on parenting apps will be cyber security, specifically the collection, storage, and access of private information.
“Hacking and privacy breaches are in the media every day. So, cyber security is a huge issue for these parenting apps,” says Rebecca.
There is now documented evidence that Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home apps, both home assistants that use artificial intelligence (AI), can be used by spouses, and third parties, for surveillance as well as for malfeasance, particularly domestic violence. The New York Times published an article titled Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse on June 23, 2018.
For example, these apps work with shared calendars; supposing that the calendar containing pick-up and drop-off times gets hacked by a third party and who uses that information to compromise or harm a child? Or the apps can somehow be linked to cameras, to spy on vulnerable children. Or if the apps capture the child’s medical information (the child is epileptic, diabetic, or has severe allergies, etc.), that information could also be used to compromise or harm a child.
This law and society research is linked to a collaboration with Carleton’s software engineers to develop a non-profit application that could benefit Ontarians.
“We have a mixed team of Law and Legal studies students who are finding out what people need and what’s going wrong,” she explains.
“Our findings will be made publicly available. At the same time, we are working with software engineering students who are looking at the parameters of possible not-for-profit, Ontario-based technical solutions.”
Bromwich says the results of the study should be available by summer 2019.