Children’s Lawyer in demand during first 100 days
Supporting Island families -
The door of the province’s first-ever Children’s Lawyer’s office is wide open, and so far lots of Islanders have come through it to find the help they need.
It’s been 100 days since Catherine Chaisson started her new job as a legal representative for individual Island children in high-conflict custody and access cases. In her first few months more than two dozen cases have crossed her desk.
“There’s no doubt the need was there,” she said.“They’re coming every day.”
The goal of the Children’s Lawyer is to protect the needs and interests of children whose parents have separated or divorced and are engaged in significant parenting conflict.
Chaisson's office is warm and welcoming. Books with titles like “Tug of War” and “What Happens Next?” are on her shelf. A big box of Kleenex sits on her desk.
“People don’t know where else to turn,” she said, “and those who are coming in the door are hopeful.”
Chaisson helps children in cases where proceedings have commenced in court under the Divorce Act and the Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. Children in need of representation are referred by the court, parents, family members, professionals working with children, and community groups.
Her role is ultimately to represent the children in any court proceedings and ensure their voices are heard by the judge. However, much of her job also involves representing those voices to parents and trying to resolve issues outside of the court system.
She seeks input and cues from the youth so she can work at their speed. In most cases gaining the trust of the child or youth is the easy part, but gaining trust of both parents can be tricky.
“The starting point is to stop blaming and have people acknowledge that everyone has a hand in the problem and be open to try a different approach," she said. "Many of these families have longstanding issues that have been compounded, and some relationships are so damaged you have to start with baby steps.”
Chaisson, a Dalhousie-educated lawyer, has spent most of her career working with families in conflict. She realizes her new position is an enormous responsibility.
She has worked for the Prince Edward Island government since 1994; she was with the department of health working with the family support orders program. And she has worked with Legal Aid’s Family Law Office since 2004.
Finding the right approach for each family takes a lot of patience, she said, and there are no quick fixes.
“Some of these cases are daunting, they’ve been in and out of courts for a reason. It’s about changing behaviours.”
Her biggest goal is being able to meet families’ expectations.
“This program is going to evolve; we don’t have all the answers, she said. “This is a learning process for all of us.”
Government is working to protect children in high-risk situations, prevent high-risk situations from occurring, and give children a stronger voice. The Children's Lawyer is part of a series of government initiatives to support Island families by helping children when they need it most.