I work for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver. E Fry is our registered trademark. We provide support services and programs for women, girls and children affected by the justice system. We are the oldest, most diversified and largest of the Elizabeth Fry societies in the country. We are also a member of Child Rights Connect. Child Rights Connect is the United Nations NGO working group on the rights of the child, and we're one of 80 organizations in the world who belong to that organization. Our programs address the intersection of justice involvement and women's daily lives. We understand that rights compete, and that the rights of the child come before all else. It is from that perspective we speak today.
Our programs support not only women exiting the prison, but also offer shelters, outreach for women who are homeless and a full spectrum of addictions treatment from detox to intensive intervention for women, including those pregnant with children. We offer counselling programs inclusive of traditional one-on-one programs; income support programs for people banned from accessing government offices so they have difficulty receiving their statutory and regulatory entitlements like every other British Columbian; and therapeutic access programs for families involved in child protection investigations or family custody disputes.
We enable children to see their parents for those reasons related to family violence and parenting deficits. In addition to that, we have programs for children impacted by homelessness, parental neonatal exposure to substances, and parental incarceration. In short, we see ourselves as a living laboratory provided with the opportunity to see where gaps exist within the current system.
As it would apply to domestic violence and family breakdown, those are the predecessors leading to homelessness for women. Because inevitably when we talk to homeless women in our shelters and we explore what led to that road of homelessness, we are talking about domestic violence, which is the most common pathway women eventually enter. This is inclusive of when we work with street women who are homeless, again through our housing first outreach program.
We see failures in child and spousal support payments that lead women in utter frustration to be labelled as difficult and uncooperative, and therefore, banned from receiving services in government offices or speaking to workers to access things like social assistance entitlements or to discuss problems. We see women struggle with those same frustrations when faced with representing themselves in court against a spouse of higher income represented by a lawyer, and the impact that has on both their ability to explain what they think is important for the court to consider and to orchestrate a response to a well-ordered opposing argument in court.
Lastly, we see the failure of government programs both provincially and federally, such as child support enforcement programs and the child benefit to enable children to receive benefits to which they are entitled.
My comments to the bill are directed to the lives of children. We believe that the Convention on the Rights of the Child would offer the viewpoint that all children in Canada, no matter where they live or who they live with, should enjoy the equal benefit and protection of the state. They do not in fact now do so because of the patchwork of differing provincial and federal laws addressing marriage, common-law marriage and provincial child support enforcement programs, and even income assistance programs and the treatment of child support payments that are paid for women on welfare.
Secondly, divorce disproportionately impacts women and their ability to participate in the process. According to the 2016 census, over a half of Canadian taxpayers who are women have an income of less than $30,000. For women with an income of less than $20,000, that's 40% of Canadian women, and that directly impacts their access to justice.
The federal government, under article 2 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, should respect and ensure that the rights set forth and presented in the convention are there for every child within the jurisdiction, without discrimination. It says that state parties should take “appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status”.
While recognizing the limitations the federal government operates within, one of the ways it can at least influence and level the playing field over time for children, as provincial legislation is rewritten, is to ensure there is a higher benchmark than what currently exists within provinces. Therefore, we encourage it to identify from witnesses particularly those points where provincial legislation is higher—and we do so on a few.
As it applies to the definition of family violence, the bill sets out a limited definition when it says that “family violence means any conduct” and then goes on to list measures. Many of the women and children we serve can describe the forms of violence they have endured as inclusive of isolating a woman from her family and/or her religious community, and the erosion of her sense of self, connection to others and, therefore, her ability to seek help, which this has created. We would encourage the committee to include and consider a definition that is broader and not finite.
When it comes to understanding family violence and the best interests of the child, this change would not be inconsequential. The ability of women to participate in a process is linked to their experience of family violence.
Proposed paragraph 16(3)(c) states that, in determining the best interests of the child, the court shall take into consideration “each spouse’s willingness to support the development and maintenance of the child’s relationship with the other spouse”. Although Bill C-78 proposes extensive considerations with regard to family violence, this factor may be problematic for women who are in abusive relationships or are afraid of what the court will say if they are unwilling to co-operate and accommodate their abuser. The provision may silence women because of fear of the impact on custody and access, and consequently, it may impact the full consideration of the best interests of the child.
Second, the provision is often used against women who have experienced family violence, when they are labelled as uncooperative. The mental health of women is affected by their experience of abuse, and it is demonstrated in their lives by their ability to manage stress and their emotions. These women are commonly labelled as personality disordered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, by mental health professionals. The importance of this is that those symptoms—anxiety, depression, intensive mood swings and paranoia—can cause a woman to be labelled as uncooperative, but they are also an expression of the situation in which she has been living, and they are used against her for the benefit of the person who has abused her.
In B.C., the Family Law Act is the act most often used by the women we serve because they are unmarried or unable to afford the legal fees involved in using the Divorce Act, which can only be heard in the Supreme Court. The Family Law Act sets provisions for mandatory family violence screening and education for all professionals involved in dispute resolution. Those same safeguards are not included in Bill C-78. Such training is imperative to understand and contextualize why one party may appear to be reasoned, rational and well resourced, while the other appears unable to order their thoughts, appears angry or hostile, and is unemployed. It is this understanding that can inform the dispute process and the requirements asked of the parties.
Second, Bill C-78 sets out that at least 60 days' notice must be given to the other parent prior to a relocation, and the notice must include the new address of the parent as well as a proposal for parenting time. Although there is an exception for family violence included in the legislation, the exception must be court-ordered prior to the relocation. Under proposed paragraph 16.92(1)(d), when deciding whether to authorize a contested relocation application, the court will take into consideration whether the person who intends to relocate complied with the notice requirement. That requirement may lead to abused women reconsidering fleeing a violent situation. It also places women in a difficult situation if there is child protection legislation in their province, such as in B.C., where, if you leave a child in that circumstance, you can be held responsible and it can impact your ability to keep your child with you.
Therefore, I would suggest that in considering this issue, consideration be given to whether or not you are ensuring that all children in Canada receive equal protection under the law. I suggest that you cannot do so, and therefore, I suggest this rule of looking to be a high water mark. Second, I suggest that you contextualize that information by ensuring training for staff on family violence and its impact. Third, I suggest that you consider the safety of children and women to be important, and ensure that their safety is not compromised by decisions related to custody and access.