How COVID-19 has impacted supervised access
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased conflict between custodial and access parents, and this has been particularly acute in the cases of families with supervised access orders. One of the side effects of the pandemic has been a lack of neutral supervised access centres and services; thus, parents with court-ordered supervised access schedules have found their parenting time disrupted by the provincial lockdowns.
Both private and not-for profit centres have closed. In the early days, parents with unsupervised access had to improvise, meeting at a park or the end of the driveway; however, parents with supervised access orders were not able to fully exercise their parenting time, and as a result have gone without seeing their children for extended periods.
Objectives of supervised access
The goal of supervised access is to provide a “safe, neutral and child-focused setting for children, non-custodial parents or other family member.” Supervised access is based on the premise that a neutral third party must be present during parenting times to ensure a safe and child-focused family interaction. Often this person many be another family member or a neutral third person from an agency.
In families where one parent is unable to control their behaviour due to such issues as mental health, drug and alcohol addictions, criminal charges, etc., supervised access will be a must. Supervised access can proceed with the written consent of the parties, by separation agreement, or a court order. The terms must be clear and direct.
Supervised access options in Ontario and systemic strain caused by COVID-19
Ontario has both not-for-profit and for-profit supervised centres. Of course, COVID-19 interrupted both. The most familiar access centres may be the Access Centre for Parents and Children in Ontario (APCO). APCO provides support for parents with a supervised access order in most cities in the province and certain locations can have long waiting lists. With APCO closed, many families have had to turn to private centres, causing many private centres to have long waiting lists as well.
The causes of delayed access seem to be snowballing. The ongoing pandemic increases the risk of violence in the home, leading to the need for more supervision orders. With more cases, less availability at access centres and long waiting lists from the spring, the backlog can be significant. With the recent lockdowns, it will be all the more challenging to obtain supervised access services. And if any in-person access does proceed, certainly all COVID-19 protocols would be mandatory.
Alternatives to in-person supervised access
Many parents are turning to private services requesting virtual options for supervised access. While some providers are still able to facilitate in-person meetings, others are moving to communication options such as telephone, text, e-mail and the use of virtual platforms like Zoom, FaceTime or Skype. Each of these options may be supervised by a neutral agreed-upon third party, depending on the order or agreement made. Many children are now adept at using their hand-held devices, whether by participating in online school or socializing with family and friends by video.
Virtual access through an electronic device with a neutral third-party supervisor who would be muted and not shown on screen may be a way forward. In this way the neutral observer would be able to view the parent and children’s interaction and make notes.
Challenges of online supervised access
There may be challenges created by shifting from in-person to online supervised access depending on the ages and stages of development of the children, and their needs and abilities should be front-of-mind when crafting any virtual access schedule.
For example, children under 10 may not be able to maintain interest in long online access times with a parent, lacking the focus to stay seated and stare into a screen. The right duration for each child can likely be gauged within the first few online interactions between parent and child.
The success of such online access time will require the access parent to be prepared for the parenting time with fun questions, activities and games to keep the children engaged. Timing of online access will also be important to its success, ideally not conflicting with dinnertime or bedtime. Finally, the parent under a supervised order must make best efforts to contact the children on the agreed upon dates and times.
Drafting orders and agreements respecting online supervised access
It may be reasonable to include terms in a supervised access order that will help address some of the issues associated with online access, for example:
… the parent’s communication with the children shall be child-focused conversation and shall not disparage or speak ill of the other parent, nor discuss any issues regarding the children’s custody, access, support, or other financial issues between them; the parent participating in online supervised Zoom calls shall engage a third party supervised access provider for the express intent of monitoring the access between the children and their parent during Zoom calls scheduled on specific dates and times. [One parent] shall pay all upfront and ongoing costs of the service, subject to reapportionment.
COVID-19 has brought a myriad of changes to our legal process and systems. It is incumbent on all service providers and justice participants to develop new systems and evolve their processes to fit our new circumstance.
For a list of APCO sites, see the Ministry of the Attorney General’s website.
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