In response to amendments to the Divorce Act and the Children’s Law Reform Act that came into force earlier this year, Professor Nick Bala is leading a project to develop guidelines that parents and legal professionals can use to make post-separation arrangements for the care of the children. His multi-disciplinary research team is developing key resources, the Parenting Plan Guide and Template, to address “parenting plans” that cover a wide range of issues related to parenting time schedules and decision-making.
Watch the video to learn what he has to say about parenting plans, his research on them, and how they help parents, lawyers, and judges.
Bala got the idea for the Parenting Plan Guide Project a few years ago. “We had experience in Canada with collaboration between judges, lawyers, and academics in the development of advisory guidelines for spousal support in the early 2000s, and I thought that a similar effort could be successful in regard to preparation to help resolve parenting issues,” he recalls. In 2018 he approached the Board of the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC-Ontario) with the idea. He received enthusiastic support and agreed to chair a Task Force of professionals and social science scholars to develop parenting plan materials.
That Task Force prepared the first version of the Parenting Plan Guide and Parenting Plan Template, which was posted on the AFCC-Ontario’s website in January 2020. “We had very positive informal feedback from parents and professionals, including lawyers, mediators, counsellors and judges,” says Bala about those materials. “There are a number of reported Ontario decisions that have cited the materials as providing useful guidance.”
One of the most significant issues requiring such expert guidance is parenting time. “These materials have quite an extensive discussion of developmentally appropriate related factors to take into account when making a parenting schedule,” Bala explains. “Newborns are very different from teenagers, and parenting plans need to be made, and varied, to take account of individual, age-related factors.”
Another of the many issues addressed by the Guide reflects changing technology: the use of social media by both parents and children. Should parents post pictures on Facebook of their former partner with their children? How should children be able to use social media? “There is a range of ways to deal with these issues,” says Bala. “What is important is for parents to discuss potential concerns and develop a mutually agreeable solution that takes account of the interests of their children. If they cannot resolve issues, there should be a dispute-resolution mechanism, if at all possible outside the court process.”
Bala was also appointed to Chair of the 13-member task force that is undertaking a revision of the materials he materials to be consistent with the amendments that came into force in early 2021.
For this new Parenting Plan Guide Project, Bala received a $24,100 Response Programs Grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO). The grant is supporting the Task Force’s work, which includes translating the materials into French. The grant is also funding research on the use of parenting plans and the AFCC-O materials being undertaking by Bala and Dr. Rachel Birnbaum, a Western social work professor.
“We are surveying professionals and parents about their experiences with the materials, as well as continuing to read court decisions that cite them,” says Bala. “We will be writing about our findings, and sharing them with professional and academic audiences, as well possibly using them to further the revise the materials.”
For more information, read the article, “The AFCC-Ontario Parenting Plan Guide and Template: Jurisdictionally-Specific Resources for Family Justice Professionals and Parents,” by Professor Bala and Justice Andrea Himel, published the July issue of the Family Court Review.
Related to their work on helping parents to make child-focussed parenting plans, Bala and Birnbaum also received a Response Programs Grant for over $29,000 from the LFO for their research project on child inclusive mediation. “An important aspect of the Parenting Plan Guide is the recognition of the need to involve children in making post-separation parenting plans in a way that is age-appropriate, sensitive to their vulnerabilities, and takes account of the level of parental conflict,” Bala explains. “Child inclusive mediation is one way to include children in making plans. It is starting to be used in Ontario but has not been the subject of any Canadian research.”