Child custody and access are some of the most emotionally fraught issues following a divorce or separation. The emotional toll can last longer than the legal dispute itself, especially when a parent does not have as much time with their children as desired. In some serious cases, parents can become alienated from their children, causing lasting damage to the relationship. In these situations, the court may order family reconciliation therapy to help mend those wounds. In a recent decision, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered how to address a situation in which an older child refused to attend court-ordered therapy.
The parents had two children, the youngest of which was about to turn 13 at the time of the parties’ separation in 2017. Since that time, she lived with her father and adult sister, who was an adult when the parents separated. The youngest child had not spent any time with the mother since November 2017.
Orders for parenting time were granted in 2017. While the father admitted he hadn’t complied with the orders, he denied responsibility for the child’s alienation from her mother.
An order for reconciliation therapy was granted in January 2017. The father told the court he complied with the order until the youngest daughter refused to continue. The mother argued the father not only failed to encourage the therapy but spoke negatively about it with the daughter.
The daughter, who is now 17 years old, was represented by the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (“OCL”). The OCL told the court it opposed the motion to require the daughter to attend therapy and stated the daughter should review and approve any orders. The mother opposed this position on the grounds that the child hadn’t followed prior orders and should not have a say in new orders.
The mother’s lawyer stated these issues aren’t about the views and preferences of the daughter, who clearly does not wish to have a relationship with the mother. Instead, it was pointed out, therapy aims to change the daughter’s views. The mother’s lawyer added that the orders presented to date had been detailed in a way to make the experience a positive one for the daughter.
A social worker engaged by the Office of the Children’s Lawyer said that at 17 years old, the daughter is “mature, thoughtful and well spoken”. The daughter said on many occasions she does not want any contact with her mother. She indicated she would oppose any contact not initiated by herself and would continue refusing participation, even if it was ordered. Additionally, the reconciliation therapist advised the court that her continued involvement wouldn’t be helpful and could be harmful for the daughter given the father’s refusal to support her reunification with the mother.
The mother requested the father recant his criticisms of the therapy order, and asked he “use his parental authority, influence and suasion with respect to the parties’ adult child to foster her support with the goals and intent and specific terms of the reconciliation therapy”.
Some of the mother’s requests related to asking the father to take back statements he made that were critical of the therapy order and conflict with the spirit of it. She also requested that the father “shall use his parental authority, influence and suasion with respect to the parties’ adult child to foster her support with the goals and intent and specific terms of the reintegration therapy.”
The court sympathized with the mother’s “pain and frustration,” but added her suggestions may not help. It found that while the daughter’s position might not be reasonable, her opposition was rooted in past experiences. The court also determined the father’s lack of participation in the therapy fell short of being classified as parental alienation, but agreed the father was at least partially responsible for failing to assist with therapy when the child was younger.
The court stated the daughter’s refusal to attend therapy didn’t mean it was not in her best interests to do so. Ultimately, the court found it would not be helpful to compel the daughter to participate in a therapy against her wishes. It held that even if the daughter’s perception was not reasonable, the court needs to promote and respect a child’s ability to gradually assume autonomy and independence.
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