Accounting for Law

Mediation, counselling help parents stay on track

When a marriage ends and emotions are running high, co-parenting counselling and mediation can help families keep the focus on the kids, not the conflict, says Toronto family lawyer Erin Chaiton-Murray.

“The challenge for separated parents is trying to put aside their feelings about each other or why their marriage broke down, and focus on the fact that they still have to work together to parent their children,” Chaiton-Murray, a senior associate with Fogelman Law, tells

As early as the first meeting with clients, she may suggest parenting mediation or counselling.

“Occasionally I have clients where it’s clear from the outset that they’re going to be able to communicate and co-parent quite well. It’s unusual, but it does happen,” Chaiton-Murray says. “For the rest, it’s not the natural state people find themselves in. So, it’s often something I raise in the beginning.”

A mediator can help develop a parenting plan as part of the resolution process. Often, parents will agree to continue to work with them to support the family, as well, to help with issues as they come up, working from mediation through to parenting co-ordination.

Chaiton-Murray sees value in this process, which segregates parenting issues from other considerations.

And many of her clients are open to this suggestion, she says.

“Obviously there are cost considerations, but I explain that it’s usually much more cost-efficient to have one mediator or counsellor involved in parenting issues than it is to have two lawyers involved regularly,” Chaiton-Murray says.

“And generally, people want or need to be child-focused, and the idea of having a conflict-free relationship with the other parent is appealing. So, if there is an available process to try and achieve that, that is something people are usually interested in.”

There’s often a therapeutic side benefit to a mediation approach, she says, in that it allows for discussion and processing.

“It gives everyone a space to talk about how they envision things looking in their new normal,” Chaiton-Murray says. For one parent more than the other, for example, it may be very important that they have the children during a particular holiday or other special occasions.

When clients tell her they have their co-parenting arrangements generally sorted out, including decisions around when the kids will reside with each parent, Chaiton-Murray urges them to consider the range of possible scenarios they are likely to encounter, and probably haven’t planned for.  

“There are so many levels to the scheduling,” she says. “People will say, ‘We’ve already talked about it, and have it all worked out,’ but they’re often lacking some of the details.”

Chaiton-Murray points to all the potential wrenches in the works: what’s going to happen with holidays or if one parent has an opportunity to take a special vacation? What happens with class trips? What happens if one parent has to travel for work when they’re supposed to have the children?

“There are so many little considerations,” she says.

Another area that needs clarity, and where mediation or counselling can be helpful, is communication, including how the parents will do it (usually by text or email), how often, and under what circumstances.

In particularly conflict-ridden situations, in which direct communication is not possible between parents, Chaiton-Murray may suggest software solutions such as Our Family Wizard, a communication app that gives parents a neutral place to share updates, documents, scheduling and more.

“It is a different way for communication to happen between the parties,” she says. “It’s a bit more structured.”

In those cases where mediation is a good fit, and where it helped parties agree upon the terms of a parenting plan, there is sometimes a positive trickle-down effect on the rest of the details of the divorce.

“If everyone is working through the parenting issues productively, it’s easier to say, 'Well that was the hard part and the rest of it is just numbers, we’ll work it out,'” Chaiton-Murray says. “It sometimes helps to just move the whole case along.”

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