The Positive Parenting Project: A Collaborative Local Initiative in the Therapeutic Justice Movement

Date:July 25, 2017

“Spare the rod, spoil the child”, the old adage went. In Canada, we have come a long way from that belief in child-rearing, even with the availability of section 43 of the Criminal Code to parents/teachers or others standing in the place of a parent.

To raise children, given what research into child development indicates, requires incredible expertise and ongoing education. Early child educators, academics and parenting experts advise parents how best to navigate this complicated road. In my experience, many of those who are charged with over-discipline of their children did not have a great example of parenting themselves, had not received current important information about child development/rearing and mainly, come from disadvantaged single parent families. One important premise of the parenting project is this: the parents, charged with child abuse, love their children and reunification of the family unit is the goal.

There is tension between the family and criminal court systems. If reunification of the family unit is the goal in the family process, child protection workers working closely with the family try to reunite parent(s) and child as early as possible which fundamentally conflicts with the timelines of the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system makes people wait so that due process protections are achieved. Notwithstanding the new Jordan/Cody guidelines, this reality is cold comfort for the child who has to testify AND is separated from his/her parent. While the parenting relationship will last longer than the criminal justice process, the impacts of the criminal justice system are extensive and lasting.

The parenting project supports improvement in the relationship between parent and child into the future. The goal is to reunite parent and child, without the child having to testify, and give the parent more parenting support tools to help them along this road as his/her child ages. Everyone wins: the child received the help that s/he was asking for by having the physical discipline stop and avoided the stress of testifying, the parent received support in an improved relationship with his/her child without resorting to physical discipline and finally, the community can rest assured that safety was the paramount concern given the extensive consultation that takes place with each file.

The Launch of the Idea

Nothing has changed my legal practice more than becoming a parent. I saw how concepts of attachment, support and appropriate discipline are important for all parents to understand but opportunity to be conversant in best practices is limited. I read many of those parenting books and listened with great interest to the parenting experts. I also learned through discussions with other parents and consultation with experts through my prosecution of files. I was convinced that parenting education could be beneficial for those charged with low level child abuse.

The Therapeutic Practice

We have seen the rise of the therapeutic practice in criminal law—drug courts, domestic violence courts, Gladue courts and mental health courts are the norm rather than the exception[1] . Therapeutic justice[2] arose because there was dissatisfaction with the current adversarial system for all cases. Like the adversarial system, the minimization of risk in making a mistake and protection of the community are twin goals of the therapeutic justice movement. To be successful, it was critical to have the support of the judiciary[3] . We were lucky to have their support in this project.

The implications of making a mistake are serious. The parenting project takes account of this tension through extensive consultation with the police, child protection workers, duty counsel, defence counsel, child protection lawyers and the service agencies assisting in the parenting education; this consultation goes far beyond the examination allowing accused persons admission to the domestic early intervention program[4]. A referral to the parenting project is based upon information from those who know the family beyond the allegations and the collaboration between the family and criminal systems ensures that the quality of the information is very high[5].

In this article, we[6] explain the execution of the parenting project, an initiative started in the Scarborough courthouse as a pilot in April 2013[7]. Four years later, this project has gained acceptance with its expansion to the North York court house in 2014. The participation of the judiciary was critical; they were integral in bringing everyone together to discuss the issues, problem-solve and assist in reaching consensus for the project to operate[8].

Our parenting project steering committee had the following experts[9]: criminal and family judges, child protection lawyers from the local child protection agencies, police from the Youth and Family Violence units of the three divisions in Scarborough, representatives from community service agencies, defence lawyer, duty counsel...

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