Voice of the Child reports empower youth in family disputes
By Kathy Rumleski, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor
A Voice of the Child (VOC) report can help settle family law matters before they reach court and is also a useful tool if a case proceeds to trial, says Toronto family lawyer Erin Simpson.
“It can be a great alternative to litigation or a significant piece of evidence that can assist the judge in determining what is in the best interest of the child,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com. “We’re seeing more and more of these reports.”
Simpson, founder of Erin Simpson Family Law, says a VOC report is prepared by a professional — usually a social worker or senior lawyer — who seeks a child’s views and preferences on family issues, she says.
Some of the questions children are asked include their preferred residence and how often they would like to visit each parent, Simpson says.
“They can be focused on any parenting issue that requires the child’s input,” she explains.
Simpson says if a temporary parenting plan is in place, a VOC can confirm if it is working for the child or if changes should be made before it's finalized.
“It’s an opportunity for the child to have a voice, and it does empower him or her,” she says.
VOCs are used only if the child is old enough to be able to articulate his or her wishes and concerns, Simpson says.
“They are particularly useful in gleaning how the child really feels,” she says.
Sometimes a child will express one thing to one parent and something different to the other, Simpson says.
"This can be the case if the child is fearful of hurting one parent’s feelings and wants to please both parents, she says.
“The parents may be getting conflicting statements from the child, and it ends up a ‘he said, she said’ scenario. In this case, having a child speak with an independent third party to ascertain the child’s true views and preferences can be extremely helpful."
Where a VOC won’t won't be as useful in resolving an issue is if there are allegations of abuse or a parent has an addiction, says Simpson.
“These are situations where there has to be an investigation beyond simply talking to the child,” she says.
In order for the reports to be effective, it’s essential the child is a willing participant in the process, and that he or she communicates honestly, Simpson says.
“I have had situations where a child hasn’t been truthful, and the idea that a VOC would be helpful then backfires,” she says.
Sometimes a client believes the other parent is influencing the child’s decisions, Simpson says.
“In these cases, part of the role of the professional is to ascertain if the child’s views and preferences are independent,” she says.
The person preparing the report will want some background information about the situation, and material on what the relationship is like between the parents and the child, Simpson says.
“Sometimes the professional will have a call with the lawyers representing each parent, or they will ask for the parties to prepare a written explanation about the ongoing situation,” she says.
In her experience, Simpson says most reports accurately reflect how the child feels.
“Sometimes they provide surprising details about the wishes of the child,” she says. “The parents may not have ever heard what the child actually desires.”
The report can also help the parents with a resolution because they are each getting the same information from a professional who has spoken with the child, Simpson says.
Having the child take part in the process means they are less likely to resent the outcome, she says.
“If a schedule is just thrown at them without their input, they may bear a grudge against one or both of the parents,” Simpson says.
A VOC report can cost on average between $3,000 and $4,000, she says.
“While the upfront cost of a VOC report may seem like a lot, determining a child’s views and preferences could lead to resolution of an issue and prevent further legal fees moving forward," Simpson says.