Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker Program provides invaluable supports to increasing numbers of domestic violence survivors who are involved in the family court process. It has done so with no funding enhancement since its inception in 2011.
The following are speaking notes from a presentation to Honourable Rod Phillips, Honourable Peter Bethlenfalvy, MPP Lorne Coe and MPP Lindsey Park by Luke’s Place Executive Director, Carol Barkwell, on October 16, 2020
Thank you for the opportunity to present today. I represent Luke’s Place, a provincial centre of excellence in family law support for abused women. We provide direct services to hundreds of women and their children in Durham Region and share our expertise with thousands of service providers across Ontario every year. Our service delivery model is efficient and effective and has been leveraged by the Ministry of the Attorney General in the development of the Family Court Support Worker (FCSW) program. In fact we are a two-time recipient of the Attorney General’s Victim Services Award of Distinction. Last year we served almost 900 women in Durham and have already seen a 60% increased demand during the pandemic, including an influx of calls from women across the province.
To begin, we commend the government for quickly implementing a number of effective measures to address the Coronavirus outbreak and for working collaboratively with health and many other partners to do so.
We also commend the government for moving forward with important legislation such as Bill 207 and on court modernization, leveraging what is being learned through innovation during the court reopening process.
Luke’s Place is requesting the opportunity to work with government to help address violence against women in Durham Region and across the province in the context of access to justice, and court modernization during and post pandemic. Continued collaboration is key to ending violence against women. As a member of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transitions Houses (OAITH), we have seen this collaboration at work with respect to addressing the needs of women requiring shelter and transition services with policy and enhanced funding supports. Many of OAITH’s members along with Luke’s Place deliver programs that support abuse survivors effectively engage with the family law process and OAITH has also highlighted the need for additional funding supports for this work.
Developed in 2011, Ontario’s Family Court Support Worker (FCSW) Program, has provided invaluable supports to increasing numbers of survivors of domestic violence who are involved in the family court process. It has done so with no funding enhancement since its inception.
The Family Court Support Worker program
Located in 41 community agencies, primarily violence against women organizations these workers offer:
- information about the family court process
- Assist clients prepare for court proceedings and debrief outcomes
- referrals to appropriate community and court-based services
- Help with safety planning, including getting to and from court safely
- Assistance with Legal Aid Ontario applications
- Accompaniment clients to court proceedings, as appropriate
The FCSW program has been a victim of its own success, inasmuch as the demand for its services has grown consistently since the beginning. COVID-19 brings into sharp focus ongoing funding issues with the program.
The impact of COVID-19 on court support
Since mid-March we have been hearing COVID-19 challenges for survivors from workers throughout Ontario.
- Remaining with the abuser rather than leaving because of concerns about health and safety in communal living situations such as shelters or because of lack of access to the courts or because they are unable to search for or secure new housing options
- Increased levels of abuse due to physical distancing requirements
- Limited access to family court as regular operations were suspended and slowly reopen
- Lack of information and access for survivors unrepresented in their family law case, which is as many as 70% of those served by the FCSW program
- Challenges in accessing legal advice and safety issues related to doing so while in the home with the abuser
- Suspension of many services that had assisted survivors of family violence in the past: supervised access and exchanges, and no in-person court services such as FLIC and duty counsel
- New legal issues due to manipulation of the pandemic situation by the abuser
- Family law challenges arising as a result of criminal court responses to COVID-19, in particular, increased release from the police station, release on bail and early release from a sentence
All of these realities emphasize the importance for survivors of family violence to have access to the supports that can be provided by FCSWs.
COVID-19 has brought long-standing funding issues for the FCSW program to the fore. Luke’s Place wishes to work with government on innovative ideas to help ensure that everyone is safe and healthy in Ontario. Enhanced and sustainable funding for the unique Family Court Support Program fosters safe and healthy communities.