Many of the women we work with become involved with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (the OCL). This FAQ provides some background information about the OCL, how it can become involved in a custody and access dispute and the role it plays and then suggests some tips to support women who are dealing with the OCL.
The OCL is part of the Ministry of the Attorney General, and can become involved in a custody and access case when requested to do so by a family court judge. However, with the exception of child protection cases, the OCL is not required to become involved and can decline a judicial request for involvement.
In non-child protection cases, the OCL’s authority comes from the Courts of Justice Act, section 112, which says it can conduct an investigation, produce a report and make recommendations to the court “on all matters concerning the custody of or access to the child and the child’s support and education.”
The clinician assigned to a particular file interviews the parties and the children and obtains information from collateral sources (school teacher, day care worker, family doctor, community agencies, police, etc.), then writes the report, which becomes part of the evidence in the case.
Parties have no say in who is appointed to be the clinical investigator in their case; this decision is made by the OCL.
The report focuses on the interests of the children, by considering their needs and wishes as well as the parent’s ability to meet those needs. As the MAG website describes: “Such a report provides a picture of a family’s history, current situation and parenting plans for the future. It may provide recommendations to help parents make decisions about ongoing parenting plans.”
Dealing with the OCL can be intimidating. There is a lot at stake because the report will have a significant impact on the outcome of the custody and access proceeding.
Women often worry that the clinician won’t believe their stories of abuse and, unfortunately, this concern is well founded. Too often, in its commitment to neutrality, the OCL ignores or dismisses allegations of abuse, claiming that to report them would mean they are taking the woman’s side.
Because not all OCL clinicians (and lawyers) have adequate training in the dynamics of family violence, it is important that women be well prepared for their role in the investigation and, in particular, their interview(s).
You can play an important role to support a woman by:
- Explaining the overall process to her, including the mandate of the OCL, the role the report will play in her case, who the OCL players in her case will be and the order/timelines for what is likely to happen
- Helping the woman understand the issues and factors the OCL clinician will be looking at. This could include reviewing the best interests of the child test with her
- Reviewing all affidavits, exhibits and other documents in the case with her before her interview so she will be ready to answer any questions and add additional, non-conflicting information if needed
- Helping the woman put together a list of third parties she thinks the clinician should speak with
- Encouraging her to think through how she wants to tell her story. Perhaps she can practice telling her story to you and you can point out where it is unclear, out of order or lacking in detail. Perhaps she can write down key points or dates so she can keep herself on focus when she is nervous
- Supporting the woman to anticipate where her partner’s story will differ from hers and how she will handle questions from the clinician that may appear to cast doubt on her credibility
- Supporting her in developing a parenting plan. She might want to write down some key points so she does not forget them in her interview
- Reminding, reminding and reminding her that the focus of the interview/investigation is supposed to be on the best interests of the children and not on her feelings about her partner or the end of the relationship
- Encouraging her to avoid badmouthing her partner
- Encouraging her to be as factual as possible when describing the abuse she has experienced and to focus on the impact the abuse has had on the children
- Encouraging her to acknowledge to the clinician ways in which her partner is a good parent
- Advising her strongly not to try to influence or manipulate the children in terms of what they say to the clinician
- Debriefing with her after any interviews or other interactions with the OC
- Providing her with emotional support throughout the process, and reminding her that you are there to support her no matter what
- Explaining what advocacy you can and cannot offer to her