Court Decides it Can Order “Reunification Therapy” To Repair Fractured Parent-Child Relationship
The parents had a child together who was now 12 years old. When the husband returned from a two-week trip out of the country to deal with some urgent matters, he found that the mother hand moved out of the matrimonial home. The next day, he received a letter from the mother’s lawyer, saying she was formally separating from him. Aside from a few visits within the next few days, the father was told that the child did not want to see him. He launched legal proceedings immediately, to get a court order allowing him some access and shared parenting time.
Unfortunately, the twice-weekly access visits between the father and son did not go well, and the child showed strong resistance to participating in them. As the court explained:
I found, based on the evidence before me, that it was undisputable that [the child] experienced significant stress and anxiety around his visits with his father. However, the cause of that fear and anxiety was quite unclear. The mother blamed that fear on the father’s own behavior and actions, whereas the father was of the view that the mother was the cause of that fear as a result of her alienating behaviours and lack of support for the father-son relationship. The contradictory and untested evidence did not allow me to come to any clear conclusions in that regard.
What was clear to the court, however, was that imposing more access with the father in these circumstances would likely lead to a further deterioration of the relationship with the child. This was echoed by a registered psychologist, who had been hired to perform a full parenting assessment. The psychologist noted there was “something terribly amiss here”, and it led to extraordinary distress and conflict. He recommended that separate therapy for the father and for the mother, as well as private counselling sessions for the child. He also recommended joint counselling sessions for the child and his father, to try to build a functional and healthy relationship, and concluded that progress could not be made unless the court imposed participation and progress requirements on the parents.
In alignment with these recommendations, the court added:
It is crystal clear to me, based on the evidence before me, that without an integrated professional therapeutic intervention with this family, any hope to rebuild a positive relationship between [the child] and his father will be lost forever. There is simply no legal solution for this family, unless it is grounded upon, and supported by, therapeutic assistance. If this court does not have the ability to impose on the parties and their child the therapeutic order that is necessary to achieve the long-term changes in behaviours which are essential to rebuild [the child’s] relationship with his father, this court will have no power to assist this family or this child. This conclusion is rooted in my finding that, without a sustainable change in behaviour, access between [the child] and his father, in its current form, is detrimental to his mental health and overall well-being, and not in his best interests.
However, this raised an important legal question: Whether the court had the jurisdiction to make a therapeutic order requiring the parents or the child to engage in these various types of counselling, including “reunification therapy”.
After noting that the significant controversy arising from Ontario court rulings on this point, the court concluded that it did have the needed powers under the provisions of the Children’s Law Reform Act and under the Divorce Act, in accord with the “best interests of the child.” The court was already imbued with broad powers allowing it to address a child’s best interests when the parents could not agree; these could comfortably include making therapeutic orders where warranted. Also, even though they are not expressly provided-for in the legislation, courts routinely make a wide variety of orders in the course of adjudicating on custody and access matters (including requiring a parent to complete a parenting course; deciding in which school or in which activities a child will be registered; determining whether a child will be allowed to travel to a specific country; and deciding whether a child will be raised in a particular faith or educated in a particular language).
Having concluded it had the legal authority to make the order, the court considered all the established factors that are relevant to its exercise of discretion in this particular case, including the child’s own willingness to participate. It added while access to the father was not currently in the child’s best interests, there was still hope that the relationship could be repaired “if everyone meaningfully engages in the therapeutic work necessary to achieve that goal.”
In the end, the court ordered the father, mother and child to each engage in the therapy and counselling recommended by the psychologist before access to the father could resume. The court also asked the psychologist to undertake an update assessment in six months’ time.
For the full text of the decision, see: