Supporting Families Experiencing Separation and Divorce Initiative Evaluation

4. Key Findings

4.2. Performance: Achievement of Expected Outcomes (Effectiveness)

4.2.2. Enhanced Awareness and Understanding of Parental Obligations, Compliance and the Family Justice System

The SFI has enhanced parental awareness of the family justice system, the importance of custody, access and support obligations; and the importance of compliance for their children and families. Parent education programs were identified as the best means of enhancing parent awareness. Over 80% of the judges interviewed also indicated that parent education had the most significant impact in increasing parents' awareness of their family justice responsibilities. The SFI also contributed to enhancing the knowledge and awareness of legal professionals particularly through: funding of specialized training; development and distribution of PLEI material; partnership building and collaboration; and research supported at the federal level.

Between 2009 and 2012, 64.2% of the SFF was directed towards activities and projects that were intended to enhance the awareness and understanding of parental obligations, compliance and the family justice system. Activities related to this objective include those designed to enhance awareness among both family justice professionals and parents.

Enhanced awareness of parents

Participation in a family justice program or service was deemed by parents Footnote 41 to have had a positive impact on their understanding of the negative consequences of conflict on children, the needs of their children after separation, and different options for handling custody and access issues. Counselling and support programs for children were considered to be the most helpful types of service by parents experiencing separation and divorce.

Parents Footnote 42 indicated that involvement in a parent education program had increased their awareness of family justice matters, parent obligations, clarifying information about the legal options and resources available to them, the importance of addressing the needs of children when developing an agreement, and the importance of compliance.

Provincial and territorial representatives also indicated that the activities, services and programs supported though the SFI have contributed to a cultural shift in the way parents view their custody, access and support obligations and the needs of their children after separation. Based on their interaction with families experiencing separation and divorce, they indicated that parents show more awareness of mediation as an out-of-court dispute resolution mechanism, increased acceptance of a larger role for fathers in parenting arrangements, agree that the needs of children are a priority when developing custody, access and support agreements, and are more aware of the deleterious impact of parental conflict on their children.

Parental knowledge regarding the availability of justice programs and services has increased as they are more knowledgeable about the different services that are available such as mediation, parent education programs, and enforcement services.

Judges interviewed for the evaluation agreed that the SFI has contributed to parents becoming more aware of their family justice responsibilities and further indicated that parent education has had the most significant impact in this regard.

Although evidence indicates that the SFI has enhanced parental awareness of the family justice system, gaps in parental awareness are believed to still exist in terms of how parents can best manage the complex steps involved in the family justice system. Also parents expressed that some of the material used in parent education sessions needs to be updated and does not adequately reflect the reality and diversity of contemporary families.

Enhanced awareness of family justice professionals

The SFF provided funding to enhance awareness among family justice professionals of family law issues. Examples of these activities and projects include: training for legal professionals who work with high conflict parents; training for enforcement staff and others in the use of child support calculation software; the development of a tax toolkit to help family lawyers understand the tax system; and the provision of specialized training workshops in Quebec to enable appropriate screening of clients for spousal violence to conduct safe and appropriate mediations. In Saskatchewan, a two-day workshop for mediators, family justice services staff, police and victim services workers provided education and information on how family violence impacts children and on the role of the service providers in these situations.

The FCY has participated in the development of training materials for other legal professionals. For example, FCY provided expert advice on material for a Royal Canadian Mounted Police course relating to child abduction, including relevant provisions of FOAEAA that deal with the tracing of individuals in situations of child abduction and custody provisions of the Divorce Act.

In 2013, Making Plans, a guide for parents, and the Parenting Plan Tool were two new products added to the Justice Canada website. Early results from an online survey regarding these new products indicate that legal professionals plan to use these tools to increase the awareness of their clients on how to address their parenting arrangements.

The FCY collaborates with and provides advice on family law and the family justice system to other federal departments and divisions such as the Canada Revenue Agency, Finance Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Citizen and Immigration Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. FCY activities also extend to collaboration with other bodies such as the Canadian Bar Association (e.g. on the development of an article on obtaining passports for children in divorce cases) and the Canadian Judicial Council (e.g. discussing the needs of parents with judges who are frequently dealing with SRLs in the family justice system). These types of exchanges can help to advance the awareness of partners involved in family justice.

A majority of family justice professionals indicated that the SFI has contributed to increasing the awareness of family justice professionals of the needs of parents experiencing separation and divorce. Almost three-quarters of family lawyers and mediators participating in a web survey indicated that they believed family justice professionals were more knowledgeable about specific factors (such as parent conflict) that made it difficult for parents experiencing separation and divorce to comply with their custody, access and support agreements.

Family justice professionals who received high conflict training indicated they gained knowledge, awareness and expertise in terms of understanding and providing services and support to high conflict parents. These skills focused on improving the capacity of the family justice system to meet the needs of these parents.

All the federal, provincial and territorial representatives interviewed indicated that the SFI had significantly contributed to enhancing the awareness of family law professionals of services and programs and the needs of families. In terms of gaps in the awareness of family law professionals, some federal, provincial and territorial representatives indicated that they felt some newly qualified professionals may not be fully aware of the scope of family justice services available to families experiencing separation and divorce.

4.2.3. Expanded Accessibility of Family Justice Programs and Services

Evidence of expanded accessibility

Evaluation results indicated that the SFI has promoted accessibility of family justice services and programs to parents.

Between 2009 and 2012 17.4% of SFF resources were directed towards expanding the accessibility of family justice programs and services to linguistic and cultural minority families and to remote communities.

The SFI has been able to expand accessibility in many jurisdictions across the country through the SFF. Some examples of projects and services that were funded include:

In addition to activities funded through the SFF, there has also been an increase in the accessibility of information and tools for families. Examples of the increased accessibility include the traffic on the Justice Canada website providing PLEI, which receives more than 1.2 million visits each year and operation of the FCY Justice Canada Family Justice Information Line.

Federal, provincial and territorial representatives indicated that mandatory parent education, child support improvements, development of child support recalculation services and distribution of PLEI were the SFI activities that had been the most effective in ensuring accessibility of information and services to families.

While family justice professionals indicated that access by parents to mediation services had increased since the SFI began, they were somewhat more cautious about the degree to which the SFI had increased the accessibility of services and programs to some groups of parents, mainly those in remote and geographically isolated areas and from cultural and linguistic communities. Judges indicated that, although the types of services funded by the SFI such as mediation are effective and well targeted, mediation is not available widely enough in all jurisdictions.

Over 80% of the parents Footnote 43 surveyed were satisfied with the accessibility of the programs. Some parents indicated however that they had experienced a wait time to attend parent education programs. This underscores that timely accessibility to parent education and information after separation is critical because these sessions inform parents about out-of-court options such as mediation.

Remaining gaps in services

Although accessibility to services was mostly achieved through parent education programs, federal enforcement assistance delivered through the MEPs and the dissemination of PLEI, the lack of stable long-term funding was considered to be a barrier to expanding the accessibility to services and programs needed by families.

The SFI has enhanced the accessibility of family justice services and programs to targeted groups of parents including linguistic and cultural minorities and those who are geographically isolated. However, there are some continuing access issues for families living in remote communities with limited internet access: First Nations families; cultural and linguistic minorities (other than francophone groups which were well served by the initiative); and high conflict parents.

Need for specialized programs

High conflict parents were described by all federal, provincial and territorial representatives and family justice professionals involved in the evaluation as a group with significant and specific needs. Most of the federal, provincial and territorial representatives indicated that the SFI has achieved some improvement in access to services for high conflict parents. Accessibility was improved by funding for triage and assessment services, high conflict parent education, and the training of mediators in specialized skills to work with this group.

Family justice professionals identified high conflict parents as needing a specialized approach and services related directly to their complex characteristics. The SFI is addressing some of these needs through targeted programs and services such as the evidence-based Differential Response to Conflict Assessment Tool which is being implemented province-wide in Nova Scotia. Funded under the SFF, this tool was developed to systematically address and differentiate the level of conflict parents have at an early stage of their contact with the family justice system so that these needs can be addressed in a timely and appropriate fashion by the family justice and related systems.

Parents participating in focus groups prioritized the need to have more programs and services available for separated fathers and for children. Fathers indicated they needed more "fathers only" access to support and information to help them adjust to separation, handle custody and access issues, resolve communication problems with the other parent and learn more effective parenting skills. Timely access to low cost counselling and support programs for children was also a priority for many parents who felt their children were having post-separation adjustment problems.

Results from the SFI Parent Survey found that counselling support programs for children were considered to be the most helpful type of family justice service by parents.

The SFI funds The Positive Parenting From Two Homes "For Kids" program which offers comprehensive counselling support, delivered to children in schools in Prince Edward Island. This is a cost-free, voluntary, facilitated program for children in grades 1-9 that provides age-appropriate information and support that helps reduce the impact of separation and divorce on them.

Parents who were surveyed about the value of the Prince Edward Island children's programs stated that counselling for children not only assists in the child's adjustment but leads to more compliance with custody/access/support between the parents because post-separation conflict and distress in the family is reduced.

Provincial and territorial representatives, family justice professionals and parents all agree that there is a need for short-term, easily accessible, timely, low-cost legal advice during the initial stages of the development of custody and access agreements or arrangements especially if parents are unable to access other assistance. SRLs who participated in the focus groups expressed the view that limited legal advice provided in a timely manner could have helped them develop more collaborative and long-lasting custody, access and support agreements. Although not within the federal mandate, the provision of limited legal advice is considered to be essential in cases where legal information alone is not sufficient to address the needs of families.

4.2.4. Improved Efficiency in Enforcement Tools and Services

The SFI has made progress in improving the efficiency of enforcement tools and related services through multiple initiatives undertaken by FCY in relation to FOAEAA and GAPDA, through collaboration with and funding provided to the provinces and territories to create technical and electronic system improvements, and through research and policy initiatives.

Between 2009 and 2012, 23.1% of the SFF was directed towards improving efficiencies in provincial and territorial enforcement tools and services. The SFI has supported improvements in enforcement systems and technologies, the hiring of specialized enforcement staff, and has provided assistance with participation in national data collection on enforcement issues.

In one jurisdiction funding was provided to meet with clients to review the effectiveness of services, to develop voluntary payment plans and liaise with staff at Family Justice Centres. All jurisdictions received SFF funding to enhance maintenance enforcement programs.

The FCY has also contributed to federal improvements in enforcement generally by creating system efficiencies, improving business practices, adding new sources of garnishable moneys, and enhancing electronic transfer of enforcement information to and from the jurisdictions so that provincial and territorial efforts to support compliance can be simplified and made more efficient.

Examples of specific improvements undertaken by the FCY during the SFI include the following:

FCY's ongoing contribution to enforcement activities in the provinces and territories is reflected in an increase in tracing validations, garnishment activities, and the number of passport and marine licence denial requests received during the SFI. However, federal, provincial and territorial respondents identified the lack of legislative amendments as a barrier to expanding the effectiveness and efficiency of tracing and enforcement tools through FOAEAA and GAPDA.

CCSO-FJ related activities have also led to collaboration and exchange with international partners to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of enforcement tools and services, including enforcement in cases of child abduction. For example, from 2009 to 2013 Canada participated with international partners in International Heads of Agency meetings with counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the United Kingdom. Also, in 2009, Canada sent a delegation to the Special Commission of the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Maintenance.

Family lawyers and mediators Footnote 44 also indicated that federal child support enforcement mechanisms (e.g. garnishment and licence denial) have helped encourage parent compliance with child support, another indication of the value of the federal contribution to enforcement activities under the SFI.

4.2.5. Enhanced Capacity of Parents to Reach Appropriate Custody, Access and Support Agreements

The SFI has had a significant role in enhancing the capacity of parents to reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements particularly through the funding of services and programs such as mediation, parent education and the development and distribution of public legal information and education products.

Between 2009 and 2012, 53.9% of the SFF was directed towards enhancing the capacity of parents to reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements. The majority of these activities focus on services such as parent education, mediation and PLEI. They also include initiatives related to the training of family law professionals to help parents reach agreements.

SFF funding has supported a wide range of services and programs in the provinces and territories and clusters of services or activities that, in combination, enhance the ability of parents to reach agreements. For example, in one jurisdiction, the cluster of funded activities included the integration of mediation services, the coordination of mediation programs, recruitment to and expansion of mediator rosters, support for parent eligibility assessments, assistance with staffing for information centres, and contributions to the delivery of parent education sessions including the collection of data, updates to the curriculum, payment of facilitators and refinements to the program.

Nine project coordinators involved in the evaluation case studies stated that their projects had contributed to a significant extent to the capacity of parents to reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements. In general, these projects provided parents with information on the family court process, court forms, parent rights and mediation. The majority of the projects also had components that addressed the needs of cultural and linguistic minority groups and parents who are geographically isolated.

There was consensus among federal, provincial and territorial respondents and family justice professionals that the increased knowledge and awareness of parents gained by participating in services and programs supported by the SFI have helped enhance the capacity of parents to reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements. This was seen as being most effectively achieved through family justice programs, mediation and PLEI.

Public legal education and information

PLEI products provide parents with the information they need to increase their capacity to reach custody, access and support agreements.

Justice Canada PLEI products provide information to parents that contribute to their ability to reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements. The high frequency of visits to Justice Canada's family law website pages indicates that parents frequently turn to federal PLEI products to learn more about and help to develop custody, access and support arrangements.

The Family Justice Information Line also received information requests (17,394 between 2009 and 2013); the most frequent questions of parents relate to the Federal Child Support Guidelines and how they work.

Although there has been a wide distribution of PLEI to parents under the SFI, at times information alone is insufficient in helping parents reach appropriate agreements. Some judges, family lawyers and parents indicated that although outside the scope of the SFI, some parents experiencing separation and divorce require access to limited free or low cost legal advice at key points in the family justice process to reach appropriate agreements.

Also, funding PLEI projects under the SFF has produced a number of information and training resources used in jurisdictions by families experiencing separation and divorce and professionals working with them.

Mediation programs

Mediation and parent education programs were also found to help parents reach appropriate custody, access and support agreements. Family lawyers and mediators stressed that mediation allows parents to reach agreements without going to court. This results in savings (time and financial), reduces conflict between parents, and produces agreements that are more likely to last as there is a vested interest by both parties in making the agreements work.

Over 75% of parents Footnote 45 surveyed indicated that mediation had been helpful in their being able to reach an agreement, with most being able to achieve a partial or complete agreement.

The Distance Family Mediation Pilot Project in British Columbia tested and piloted mediation technology and practices to develop practice guidelines, best practices and policies for mediating at a distance. A number of distance technologies were tested so that parents could choose the most appropriate one for their situation. The objective of the project was to help parents develop agreements that facilitate and support parental compliance with custody and access arrangements. Project participants completed the distance mediation with partial or full agreements in 88% of the cases.

Parent education programs

Parent education programs supported through the SFF, provide parents with information and tools to help them to reach custody, access and support agreements.

Over 80% of the parents Footnote 46 who participated in a parent education program indicated that the information received was key to their being able to reach an appropriate agreement. This included parents gaining a better understanding of custody obligations, decision making and the importance of compliance with their custody, access and support responsibilities. In fact, approximately a quarter of the parents indicated that they could benefit from a follow-up session a year later. However, some parents who responded to the SFI Parent Survey indicated that specific information about non-court alternatives for handling custody and access, such as mediation needs to be provided earlier in the separation process. This would help with increasing capacity to reach agreements.

4.2.6. Enhanced Ability of Parents to Comply with their Custody and Access Responsibilities

The SFI has made progress towards enhancing the ability of parents to comply with their custody and access responsibilities. This has been primarily achieved through the funding of programs such as mediation, parent education programs and PLEI.

Between 2009 and 2012, 27.2% of the SFF was directed towards enhancing the ability of parents to comply with their custody and access responsibilities. Examples of SFF funding which directly or indirectly supports compliance included funding for services such as mediation, parent education and supervised access.

Almost all case studies included in the evaluation demonstrated aspects that enhanced the ability of parents to comply with their custody and access obligations to a moderate or great extent. Case study respondents indicated that the majority of these projects involved activities that helped parents develop a greater understanding of the importance of compliance with custody and access arrangements, and also provided resources on how to maintain compliance.

Over 60% of the parents Footnote 47 who had used SFI-supported services and programs said that they were complying well with their custody and access responsibilities. Approximately 60% of the parents indicated that their involvement in SFF funded services and programs had made a significant or moderate contribution to supporting compliance with custody and access. However, 34% of parents indicated their involvement had made little or no contribution to compliance. These results were linked to levels of conflict and cooperation in the parent relationship. Where parents had compliance problems, breaches of custody and access were the most common issues they faced.

The SFI parents' survey results also indicated that agreements ordered by judges tended to have lower levels of compliance, possibly due to their involvement at a later stage in more complex cases where there is a high conflict. Agreements drawn up with assistance of a family lawyer or mediator and filed in court were associated with higher compliance levels.

Some family law professionals and federal, provincial, territorial representatives also indicated that there has been an increase in the ability of parents to comply with their agreements since the start of the SFI. However, although the SFI has supported and enhanced the ability of parents to reach and comply with their custody, access, support agreements, compliance can be affected by family or personal factors that can outweigh the benefits of participating in family justice services and programs. Poor conflict resolution or communication skills between the parents are the most significant factors contributing to non-compliance with custody, access and support obligations. These factors may ultimately outweigh the benefit of some programs such as parent education, which is usually of short duration.

4.2.7. Increased Parental Compliance with Financial Support Obligations

The SFI has also made progress towards increased parental compliance with their financial obligations through supporting provincial and territorial services and programs such as MEPs, child support recalculation, assistance with software and technological improvements in the MEPs and improvements to enforcement services available at the federal level, through FLAS.

Between 2009 and 2012, 28.2% of the SFF was directed towards enhancing parental compliance with financial support obligations. Examples of SFF funded activities that support parental compliance with financial obligations included funding for MEPs (including the funding of specialized staff in the MEPs) and support for legislative amendments in the provinces and territories related to child support enforcement.

FCY provides a range of services and tools under FOAEAA and GAPDA that support the provinces and territories in assisting parents to comply with financial orders and agreements. Although the responsibility for enforcement lies with the MEPs in the provinces and territories and compliance cannot be attributed to any one enforcement or tracing action, the availability of these tools is an important commitment by the federal government to make these avenues of enforcement available. An analysis of FLAS data indicates that the use of tracing tools, garnishment and licence denial has increased over the life of the initiative, suggesting that the provinces and territories see these tools as a valuable contribution to maintenance enforcement.

In a 2009 assessment of the efficacy of SFI enforcement tools, 50% of the provinces and territories reported that they were able to locate the debtor as a result of federal tracing 0-25% of the time. Two large jurisdictions indicated that the federal tracing data was helpful 51-75% of the time. Although it cannot be reliably determined how many support orders and agreements are consistently complied with in Canada, the proportion of MEP enrolled cases that have received twelve months of full payment increased from 29% in 2005-06 to 36% in 2011-12. Furthermore, the amount of federal funds garnisheed for support recipients – although fairly consistent over the first four years of the current initiative ($163,000,000 to $168,000,000 annually) – is higher than for preceding initiatives.

Federal, provincial and territorial representatives and family justice professionals indicated that the SFI has been helpful in supporting enforcement activities directed at improving compliance with child support obligations. This was most evident through system improvements undertaken by FCY, the provision of funding for MEP projects, and funding activities that allowed MEPs to support specialized staffing within their programs.

Although the SFI has helped to increase parental compliance with financial support obligations, there continues to be a need to pass legislative amendments that would: allow for the modernization of the FOAEAA and GAPDA; add new tracing information that could be shared with provincial and territorial partners; and provide tracing information to a greater number of provincial and territorial entities that provide family justice services to Canadians. A project on sharing information regarding new hires, a long-standing priority, should also be implemented, which would lead to significant gains in enforcement capacity.

4.2.8. Increased Effectiveness of the Family Justice System in Addressing the Needs of Families Experiencing Separation and Divorce

Through the achievement of the direct and intermediate outcomes as evidenced through the evaluation, the SFI has made progress towards increasing the effectiveness of the family justice system in addressing the needs of families experiencing separation and divorce.

The SFI is helping to meet the majority of family justice needs, particularly for accurate, timely and free information on the family justice system and options for handling custody, access and support issues outside of court and the range of support and assistance provided to MEPs (including through FLAS and the SFF).

Mediation, parent education sessions, family justice information centres and enforcement related services are the most effective in terms of exemplifying best practice elements and are associated with the highest levels of parent satisfaction.

Parents were satisfied Footnote 48 with the accessibility and timeliness (both aspects of effectiveness) of the services they received. Some services such as support groups for children, free legal information provided at family law information centres, free legal advice and printed PLEI materials were seen as the most effective services. Parents were asked whether attending a parent education program had led to their considering the possibility of using mediation to resolve their custody and access issues Footnote 49. Over a third said that it had a significant influence, indicating that parent education is effective in providing parents information about out of court options for handling custody and access.

Family justice professionals also indicated they were satisfied with the SFI supported services offered to parents. Services such as mediation were seen as having the most positive impacts on the family justice system by diverting parents from the courts.