Doing a Lot With a Little: Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker Program
Implemented by the Ministry of the Attorney General in 2011, Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker (FCSW) program has become a critical service for survivors of family violence who are involved with the family court process.
FCSWs work for community agencies (shelters, counselling agencies and victim service organizations), funded by MAG to deliver the service, which is available in all court jurisdictions in Ontario. Here is a list of FCSW services in Ontario.
The workers receive ongoing training, both in person and online, and legal support from Luke’s Place, a specialized family law support service for abused women and their children in Durham Region. FCSWs have access to a private, moderated online discussion area that offers resources, micro-learnings and discussion forums on a wide variety of issues relevant to the work, regular webinars, moderation of workers’ posts by a family law lawyer, news, summaries of relevant cases and more. Workers also come together once a year in person for two days of in-service training.
Workers provide a wide range of services to their clients, beginning with a needs assessment. Following that, they assist clients – most of whom are women – in developing a safety plan (including a plan for staying safe during the family court process) and in recording the history of abuse and gathering supporting evidence. Workers are not lawyers and do not provide legal advice, but do provide information about family law and family court process. They can accompany women to meetings with their lawyers, assist them to prepare for mediation appointments and attend court with them. They also make referrals to other services the client may need: housing, long-term counselling, financial assistance, Legal Aid Ontario, and so on.
FCSWs offer what is, in effect, case management support to survivors of family violence from the beginning of their case to the end. There is no financial eligibility requirement to access the program. Clients are accepted whether or not they have a lawyer.
Family court is not a pleasant experience for anyone, but for a survivor of family violence whose former partner continues to intimidate and harass her, it can be emotionally and physically dangerous. Legal bullying can lead to survivors conceding to the abuser’s demands with respect to the family law issues or even into returning to the relationship. A legal bully can also deplete a survivor’s financial resources by bringing trivial, frivolous or already-decided issues back to court. Almost always, legal bullying leads to protracted family law proceedings, whether that is litigation or ADR, which leaves the survivor and the children in an ongoing state of uncertainty and anxiety.
An FCSW can provide important emotional support to a survivor who is dealing with a legal bully in addition to safety planning, which can reduce the impact of the abuser’s ongoing harassment.
The service provided by FCSWs assists lawyers and mediators as well as survivors of violence. The FCSW assists the client to prepare for meetings by helping her put together a list of questions or topics she wants to discuss, make childcare and transportation arrangements, and assemble some point form notes about the abuse. She also helps the client create a safety plan that addresses both physical and emotional concerns. All of this combines to make the client better able to focus during the meeting and, ultimately, makes the meeting more efficient. When the FCSW attends the meeting or appointment, she can offer emotional support, thus relieving the lawyer or mediator of this responsibility. She can also take notes, prompt the woman to stay focused and to remember her questions, and can assist the lawyer or mediator in clarifying the key points at the end of the session. Following the appointment, whether or not the FCSW has attended, she can support the woman to follow-up on any tasks expected of her by the lawyer/mediator.
There is little doubt of the value of the program. Clients, lawyers, court staff and even judges regularly laud its positive impact. However, the Family Court Support Worker Program has been a victim of its own success. Dedicated and over-extended workers are stretched very thin on the ground as they attempt to meet the needs of an ever-growing number of clients. Minimally funded from the beginning, the program has received no increase in funding, despite the fact that demand for its services has grown in each of the nine years it has been in operation. This situation is especially urgent in rural and remote parts of the province, where most workers are part-time – some working as little as one day per week – and many have to use some of those precious hours to travel long distances to meet with clients and go to court.
The Family Court Support Worker Program is a best practice that needs to be maintained and expanded if survivors of family violence are to be properly supported to emerge from their family law journey with outcomes that keep them and their children safe and able to move on to violence-free lives.
Pamela Cross is a feminist lawyer; a well-known and respected expert on violence against women and the law for her work as a researcher, writer, educator and trainer. She works with women’s equality and violence against women organizations across Ontario.