Parenting after separation: there’s a course for that (in B.C.)

Ontario could learn a thing or two from British Columbia’s new mandatory parenting classes for families going through separation.

Since the start of the year, anyone wanting to appear in B.C’s Provincial Court for matters touching on guardianship, parenting arrangements or child support must first attend a Parenting After Separation course.

The free online program helps parents develop strategies for communicating with each other and their children about their split, as well as introducing the parties to alternative methods of dispute resolution, including mediation and counselling.

Parenting courses rarely ordered in Ontario

The province has also designed a separate course aimed specifically at family members who identify as Indigenous, and says that the purpose of both versions is to help people make informed choices about family separation that focus on the best interests of the children.

Something similar would be very welcome in Ontario, where sadly, the only time parenting courses ever seem to get mentioned are in high-conflict cases. Even then, they tend to be used as just another stick for warring parents to beat one another with, as each party claims the other needs help to get their inadequate parenting skills up to scratch.

While parenting courses are occasionally ordered as a condition of access, it’s a rare occurrence that usually requires some significant concerns about a parent’s ability to care for their children. The Office of the Children’s Lawyer may also recommend parenting or co-parenting courses, but they only get involved in a small minority of family law cases.

Helping parents focus on children’s best interests

One of the nice things about the way B.C. has designed this mandatory approach is that it prevents parenting classes from being weaponized by either side in a separation, clearing the way for them to focus on what’s best for their children.

Separating Ontarian parents would benefit from greater exposure to more substantial information about the legal process before embarking on their journey through the court. Currently, all family law litigants in this province must attend what’s known as a Mandatory Information Session. The first half of these two-hour seminars — typically hosted by a family lawyer along with a mental health professional — covers basic information about family law, the court process and alternative methods of dispute resolution.

In the second hour, which is only for parents, the focus turns to family law as it relates to children, touching on coping strategies for younger kids dealing with divorce and community resources for those requiring more help.

B.C. expands program province-wide

These information sessions are a good start for parties to family law litigation, but they barely scratch the surface of what parents can expect after separation, which is why I think a parenting course modelled on B.C.’s could be useful here.

When first introduced, B.C.’s parenting program was required in only 21 of the province’s 89 court locations. During the pandemic, the provincial government injected a dose of flexibility into the process, allowing parties to attend via telephone, video or other electronic means. Those remote-learning options have been made permanent as part of the expansion to roll out the mandatory courses across the province.

In a statement, the provincial government said that the updates are just one phase of a multi-year project designed to “help families experiencing separation and divorce reduce conflict and work toward earlier, more collaborative resolutions, keeping children’s best interests front and centre.”

This is an aim I can get behind, and hopefully, Ontario will follow suit.

Until then, there is family mediation. I have had great success helping separated parents work through a discrete issue or develop a parenting plan that works for their family’s unique circumstances. If you would like to learn how family mediation can help level up your co-parenting game, give me a call.

Darlene Rites

Darlene Rites