Calgary Judges Discuss New Ways for Families

On June 6, I met with 14 judges in Calgary, Alberta, Canada (before all the rain and flooding!), to discuss the status and procedures of the New Ways for Families program in Calgary. This program has been funded for 3 years by a Ministry of Justice grant (under their “Safe Communities Initiative”) by the Province of Alberta. The two goals are to reduce the number of high conflict court hearings regarding parenting matters and to reduce conflict in the community – ideally, reducing divorce conflict that often spills over. The grant has been managed by the YWCA of Calgary, with Allan Rosales as the Program Coordinator. I was accompanied to this presentation by Allan and also by Cassidy Sheehan, New Ways for Families Program Coordinator in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. They presented some information about the 120 families who have been involved in their combined programs over the past 1 ½ years. Hopefully, early next year we will publish full research results about this method. The preliminary results are very encouraging (see blog posted June 20).

The judges raised several important concerns. One was whether it was desirable to order families into the New Ways skills building method if there has been serious child abuse. For example, in cases of child sexual abuse would it be advisable for the abusing parent to meet in 3 parent-child counseling sessions with the abusing parent. This is a concern I also have had - having dealt with several child sexual abuse cases, as well as false allegations cases, as a social worker and family law attorney.  I explained two approaches: One is that some of these families are inappropriate for the New Ways program, as there will always be a few families that should be excluded.

But the second approach I suggested is that in some cases it is appropriate for a parent and child to meet together with a counselor to supervise them and structure the conversation. There may always be supervised access/visitation for such a parent and child. The benefit of them having contact is that children in these situations create fantasies of what the abusive parent thinks and the power that person has over them. By having direct contact under the counselor’s supervision, the child can raise issues at his or her own pace, and the parent can respond to them – with the intervention of the counselor when necessary.  Also, it’s not uncommon for sexually abused children to have individual therapy after court decisions have been made, which may at times include an abusive parent. In short, it depends on the case.

Also, we discussed how New Ways is structured for cases involving domestic violence.  This program does not in any way prevent the court from issuing Restraining Orders at the start of a case and supervised access/visitation, when necessary. At no point do the parents need to have any direct contact. With six individual counseling sessions and three parent-child counseling sessions each, they are never together unless both parents choose to have a joint session at the end. In many D.V. cases, the parents are unlikely to have direct future contact, but focusing on their individual roles and time as parents can be very helpful for the children.

In reality, children almost always have contact with a parent who has engaged in domestic violence. The question is whether the contact will be supervised, limited in terms of time or other restrictions. But given the reality that there will be contact, New Ways focuses on teaching both parents the four skills to help their kids throughout their lives: flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behaviors and checking themselves.

Several of the judges said that they really liked the purpose and structure of the program, and we hope that all of the judges will order more cases into it now that we have explained it further. It is up to each judge to decide in each case. However, we suggested that they order New Ways for Families for any case which has an application by a parent for court orders restricting the other parent. Right from the start, they can contain the case by ordering both parents to learn the skills provided in this short-term program. After all, it’s designed to help the children regardless of the personal issues of one or both parents.

Children of high conflict divorce really need all the help they can get! We think New Ways helps provide that. The cases over the next year in Calgary will help us study its effectiveness. I enjoyed speaking with these judges and I really respect the difficulty of the job they have. (I also hope they can bail out of the flooding of Calgary soon, including their court buildings, which had to be closed last week!)

About Bill Eddy

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and mediator based in San Diego. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute, which developed the New Ways for Families method. The Institute also provides speakers and trainers in managing high conflict situations in other legal disputes, workplace disputes, healthcare and educational settings around the world. For more information: www.HighConflictInstitute.com, www.NewWays4Families.com.