You don’t have to be a family lawyer or a parent in the midst of divorce to know that a child custody battle can become very personal very fast. Just watch Kramer vs Kramer, or any of a dozen other Hollywood dramatizations, and you’ll understand how easily a custody dispute can become a battle of egos. While each parent often has a lawyer defending his or her interests, in British Columbia the one person whose life is most affected by the outcome -- the child -- typically has no legal representation.
This serious gap in the province’s justice system will soon be addressed. The Law Foundation of BC recently posted a funding notice calling for proposals to create a Children’s Lawyer’s Office for British Columbia. I’m pleased to say that the Law Society is among the funding partners behind this two-year pilot project, which we can only hope will become a more permanent agency, similar to Ontario’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer.
The Children’s Lawyer’s Office for BC will provide direct legal services to children and youth in British Columbia in the areas of family law and child protection law, and depending on the proposals received, it might also represent children and youth in such areas as youth criminal justice, employment law and school law.
The need for a children’s lawyer is particularly acute right now in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’ve long known that Aboriginal children are over-represented among children in government care. In British Columbia, Aboriginal children make up just eight per cent of the province’s total child population, yet more than 55 per cent of the children living out of their parental homes are Aboriginal. One in five Aboriginal children BC will be involved with child welfare at some point during his or her childhood.
Nationally, the numbers are only slightly better: 48 per cent of 30,000 children and youth in foster care are Aboriginal, even though Aboriginal peoples account for only 4.3 per cent of the population.
The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission addresses this imbalance by calling for reform of child welfare legislation, and for measurable targets and timelines for reducing the numbers and proportion of Aboriginal children in care. The Commission also recommends as a guiding principle that placements of Aboriginal children into temporary and permanent care be culturally appropriate. While we can hope that the recommended legislative reform is forthcoming, the Children’s Lawyer Office will play a crucial role in BC by speaking up for the needs of children in care, including advocating for culturally appropriate placements.
I know that a lot of lawyers in British Columbia are deeply concerned about the welfare of the province’s children and have worked tirelessly to protect their interests. But until now the most vulnerable in our population have had no voice in our justice system. The creation of this Office is a very positive step.
If you, or anyone you know, is involved in a non-profit organization that has the expertise and the capacity to get a Children’s Lawyer’s office up and running, I urge you to visit the Law Foundation website for further details.