To answer this important question, we will start by defining what is meant by custody and outlining its different forms:
· Sole custody: This essentially means that one parent will be the key decider on the major decisions in the child’s life. This parent will have the prerogative to choose where the child will go to school, the details of any important medical treatment, religious upbringing, major activities, etc.
· Joint custody: In this situation, both parents have essentially equal say in making key decisions for the child. In other words, both parents work together cooperatively to make decisions that are in the best interest of their child. The workability of joint custody depends on how well the parents agree and can handle the strains of a separation. While it can be a difficult balancing act for some, for others it may be the one thing that the separated couple are able to agree upon because they both prioritize their child’s needs above their own differences.
· Parallel Parenting: This is a more unique and rare form of joint custody where decision-making on particular major issues is divided amongst the parents. For example, one parent may be solely responsible for making decisions on religious affiliation and medical issues for the child, whereas the other parent may take up full authority on decisions pertaining to the child’s education.
It is very important to note that custody does not imply residence of the child, nor does it address how much time either parent will spend with the child. Residence and Access are two separate issues apart from major decisions.
What To Do When Custody Or Access Cannot Be Agreed Upon
Several options exist to facilitate resolution on these major issues, which may include, but are not limited to the following:
· Parenting Coordinator: A parenting coordinator is a professional who is often a psychologist, social worker, or a similar mental health worker. He/she is trained in helping parents resolve their differences and assist the parents in collaborating to make the best decisions possible for their children, together. A parenting coordinator’s role is to work with the parents, although from time to time, he/she may suggest seeing the children as well. Unlike a Judge, a parenting coordinator will not make any decisions for your family. Rather, they try to assist the parents in deriving appropriate methods of communication when it comes to parenting their children together, etc
· Office of the Children’s Lawyer: Often referred to as the “OCL”, this is a department of the Ministry of the Attorney General that represents children under the age of 18 in court cases involving parenting issues. The OCL can provide a legal representative to a child or they may get involved to prepare a report for the court on the child’s situation that explains his/her observations and/or provides recommendations. The OCL’s role is to assist the Judge in making his/her decision and also to encourage settlement, which can often times occur once the parties better understand their children’s situation from this impartial body whose only interest is the children’s well-being.
· Private Assessment: Usually done by a professional who is a psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist, or similar mental health professional. The parents jointly retain a private assessor to provide his/her recommendations on the parenting issues in dispute, typically pertaining to custody and/or access of the child. The assessor typically communicates with the parties, the child, others involved in the child’s life, etc. This is so that he/she can understand the needs of the child and provide an appropriate recommendation that he/she feels is in that child’s best interest. A private assessor can be included by a court order or with the consent of both parents.
· Voice of the Child Report: This is a relatively new initiative in Ontario, but one that is gaining popularity, depending on the family’s unique set of circumstances and whether it is most appropriate for them or not. This report is essentially a child’s opinions and views about his or her situation within a separated family. This is compiled through interview(s) by a mental health professional with the child. Unlike some of the above, this report does not provide the Judge with the mental health professional’s views or recommendations, but rather is meant to convey the child’s viewpoint.