COVID-19 driven fear has piqued parental anxieties creating a surge in co-parental conflict. While health care workers are risking their lives fighting COVID-19 on the front lines, mental health professionals, family law lawyers, and dispute resolution professionals have become first responders responsible for guiding families through the uncharted parenting territory created by social distancing.

Reports are pouring in, “How do I keep my children safe when my co-parent refuses to social distance. I don’t care what the cost, my children stay with me”. 

Previously cautious parents, moderately doubtful of the other parent’s decision-making capabilities, are taking matters into their own hands, threatening to withhold children due to their increased fears. There is no doubt, people are afraid.

Seemingly overnight, family justice professionals have gone from supporting parental conflict driven by day to day challenges over regular parenting schedules, summer holidays, extracurricular activities, and other important but non-life-threatening matters to supporting enormous, and valid safety concerns where emotions have skyrocketed.

The courts are normally a source of protection for families facing child abuse, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, gatekeeping, and parental alienation. However, the collective fight against COVID-19 has forced the Superior and Ontario Courts of Justice to limit access to courthouses. Unless ordered otherwise, urgent family law matters are heard via conference call. The support system family justice professionals rely on to assist families in crisis, is largely unavailable leaving professionals to manage this new world order independently.

This doesn’t change the fact that these families have nowhere to go. More than ever families need the help of professionals offering mediation, arbitration, and parenting coordination to help shield children from conflict. Yet we are scrambling to acclimate to the limitations of social distancing via online service provisions.

The family justice mantra runs parallel to the Hippocratic oath, it is our professional duty to not only do no harm, we must also wield our collective expertise in such a way as to help heal these families. In health care, interprofessional teams work together via the medical model. Doctors, social workers, nurses, and other disciplines come together to develop and action lifesaving treatment plans. The family justice system needs to borrow from this model during these unprecedented times. There is a need for coordinated remedies to support these families.

The various disciplines on the family law front lines must confer, cooperate, and consult with other disciplines to ensure we are upholding our various competencies. We must remain vigilant for signs and symptoms of emotional dysregulation, not only in our clients, but also in ourselves during these times of heightened stress. We must share technical knowledge to help shoulder the burden of online systems, protocols, and efficiencies, which we must do quickly.

Family justice professionals have an opportunity to forge a new and collaborative best practice, where family law lawyers, mental health professionals, financial professionals and other dispute resolution professionals come together to quell fears, prevent trauma and lesson acrimony for those in crisis. Steve Jobs said, “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. We challenge all family justice professionals hard at work on the family law front lines to innovate, to reach out and support each other inter-professionally while creating new guiding precedents for the field. Support, consideration, and kindness are integral to supporting the families we work with. Therefore, let’s innovate and continue to keep this in mind, while we are in action.

Joanna Seidel RSW, MSW, AccFM is an Accredited Family Mediator, Child and Family Therapist and Custody Evaluator in Private Practice in Toronto for 15 years. She provides specialized services for families impacted by separation, divorce, alienation and high conflict.  You can reach Joanna at www.torontofamilytherapist.com 

Sherry Barrett RSW, MSWc, AccFM is an Accredited Family Mediator and Registered Social Worker in Private Practice in Toronto. She brings years of experience supporting individuals and families in the healthcare industry.

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