Learning From Our Neighbours – the Honoring Families Initiative

Slaw has been a great source of information about a wide variety of creative initiatives to address the need to improve access to justice and bridge the implementation gap. I believe we need to proceed on at least two tracks simultaneously:

  • seeking out and learning from new and existing initiatives around the world and
  • stepping back to create and experiment with brand new things

My last post on the Social Lab approach encourages this two track approach by encouraging deep research and by creating a “container” within which a variety of different initiatives can be designed, tested, tried, modified in a “rapid prototyping” way.

So I want to devote this post to the first prong by highlighting an exciting family justice initiative in the U.S. that I believe could hold great promise for the future of family law reform in Canada.

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) (through its Honouring Families Initiative) partnered with the University of Denver to create The Resource Centre for Separating & Divorcing Families (the “Resource Centre”), an integrated, multi-disciplinary clinic model to support families with children experiencing separation and divorce. It has been operating since September 2013. Here is why I think the Resource Centre is of particular interest:

  1. Its mission is clear and central:

    The Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families (RCSDF) provides legal dispute resolution, therapeutic services, and financial planning to advance solutions for reorganizing families that are separating and divorcing.

    This model of an alternative service center, in partnership with the court (but separate from the court system itself), will provide families with a less adversarial option to traditional court processes.

  2. It recognizes that families experiencing separation and divorce often face a complex mix of challenges and issues – not limited just to legal issues. Accordingly, they need a mix of information and services
  3. The initiative and its model were developed in a collaborative way (involving justice system players as well as community partners). It was influenced by the Australian Family Relationship Centres and, interestingly, BC’s Family Justice Centres.
  4. The services are provided in a multi-disciplinary model. This means that in one location the family has access to a variety of services including education, legal advice, mediation, counseling, and financial planning
  5. It is also “integrated” which means that these services are carefully coordinated to avoid duplication and the annoying need for the family to repeat their stories more than once.
  6. It starts with a robust “triage” model that tries to understand the family’s situation and challenges and then involves the family in designing a pathway to follow
  7. It focuses on early assessment and services (before families resort to court processes) AND it is linked to the court.
  8. It is testing a sliding scale fee model rather than offering completely free services. It is my experience that while people seek out free services, they end up valuing what they pay for. A sliding scale (based on both income and assets in this case) is a fair way of allocating precious resources to those who really need them.
  9. It provides a vibrant training ground for students from various disciplines (law, mediation, social work, in particular).
  10. It takes a strong and consistent focus on the children.
  11. It offers families an option to have their final court hearing held at the Centre to confirm the agreement they have reached as a court order. A local Family Court Judge attends the Centre to hold these hearings on site and finalize enforceable orders.
  12. With the involvement of the University of Denver there is a clear focus on empirical research and evaluation. A comprehensive three-year evaluation is underway.

This is an experiment and it involves a relatively small number of families each year (approx. 100). However, the purpose is to test these ideas and then to replicate the model in other communities.

This exciting initiative reminds me of the Justice Access Centre model in BC (with locations in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo, with hopes of creating an e-JAC soon). The JAC was created to be a “hub” for families with multiple services available in one spot. I believe that the Resource Centre takes these goals to a new and more robust level.

Click here for an update on the project from February 2014. I look forward to following this project closely.

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