I recently attended one of the great “Open Bar” lectures at 311 Jarvis St— the Ontario Court of Justice in downtown Toronto. It is remarkable that in the court, after hours, gather leaders of the Toronto family law bar, dispute resolution community and judiciary who are working with the most vulnerable of Toronto families at a difficult time in their lives. It is hard to reconcile this evening with what we keep reading in the media about the failure of the courts. Organized by a committee of volunteers in and out of court and the Family Lawyers Association, this is an example of how much is happening in the courts.
Speaking this evening were Dr. Tracey Skilling, an expert on the adolescent brain, and Mary Birdsall, Executive Director of Justice for Children and Youth. Justice Brian Scully moderated and a full house of members of the FDR community were in attendance.
We heard how the brain of young people is not fully developed as they travel through adolescence, and their ability to anticipate consequences of their actions, engage in future-oriented reasoning and rational problem-solving can be severely compromised as a result. Those in the justice and dispute resolution systems need to respect the evolving capacity of youth, we learned.
Adults and youth are equally poor at making decisions. Respect for youth includes their right to sometimes make bad decisions, as this is how they learn to make better decisions as adults. We also heard that chronic trauma— such as exposure to violence in the home— causes physiological changes in the brain which results in a range of adolescent behaviours including hyper-vigilance and impaired reasoning. We heard about how disadvantaged youth with expressive language disorder can be in our world of the spoken word. Learning how to give such youth agency— to help them make good autonomous decisions— is the new frontier of much of the work we do in the family dispute resolution field.
We were reminded that the Ontario/Canadian Bar Association has produced a fantastic “Child’s Rights Tool Kit” which can be found here.
This evening reminded me how critically important our courts and court-based services are for Ontario families going through separation and divorce.