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Presentation to the Joint Senate House of Commons Committee - Government of Canada - on Custody and Access

- May 9, 1998 (Winnipeg, Manitoba)
Reena Sommer, Ph.D.

Thank you for asking me to present at this very important meeting.

I bring to this meeting contributions from two distinct areas of expertise; my work as a researcher as well as my work as a family life consultant. Together, they have shaped and solidified my understanding of how families function and cope under a variety of conditions. Importantly, by being able to draw from aspects of both disciplines, I am able to move beyond the emptiness and detachment of unnamed and unknown data points, by experiencing first hand the human drama they each represent. In doing so, I can consider the strengths and limitations of each discipline, thus providing me with a more finely tuned picture of family life.

My work as a researcher has focused on perpetrators of spousal abuse within the general population. The results of my research have found no significant differences between the rates of abuse perpetrated by males and females. These findings have been met with controversy and have been widely disputed even in the presence of similar findings reported by other Canadian, U.S. and British researchers. Unfortunately, this area of research has been highly politicized by special interest groups who fail to consider that violence stemming from inappropriate management of conflict and anger is not a gender issue but a human condition. Because of this predominating and narrow view of human interactions, findings such as mine and others have been ignored, minimized or simply discounted.

My clinical work on the other hand has been more mainstream and certainly less news worthy. It is divided between working as a consultant and therapist in First Nations communities in northern Manitoba and conducting similar work, but servicing the general population in Winnipeg. This work has complimented my research findings by demonstrating the following:

  • Domestic abuse comes in many forms with its effects extending beyond the identified perpetrator and victim.

  • The demarcation between perpetrator and victim is often blurred because the abuse most often occurs within the context of poor communication skills, ineffective means of managing conflict, alcohol and drug abuse and histories of abuse experienced in the respective partnersí families of origin. Importantly, the abuse tends to be nonphysical and when it is, it also tends to be reciprocal.

  • Often times, concerns regarding domestic abuse or a partnerís ability to parent are raised at a time when couples experience difficulty resolving the dissolution of their relationship. It is my experience that allegations of abuse and inadequate parenting are fueled by anger and resentment, as well as by both parentsí vulnerability and fear of losing their children.

Based on my 10 years of studying and working with families, I would like to put forth the following three recommendations:

  • While domestic abuse is an important consideration in determining custody and access, when allegations are made, caution must be exercised to ensure that the context, history and progression of family violence are clearly established.

  • An attempt should be made to mediate all custody and access cases as a first course of action. The exceptions would be those cases where safety is a concern as indicated by a documented histories of unidirectional abuse, violent criminal activity, or mental illness. Given the reciprocal nature of most domestic abuse cases found in the general population, safety can be ensured by the mediator establishing ground rules regarding conduct during meetings.

  • Finally, when attempting to resolve custody and access issues, the feelings which underlie custody disputes should be addressed first. Often, when parentsí fears are allayed, concerns about custody and access likewise tend to diminish.

At this time, I invite your questions and comments. Thank you again.

The findings of the committee can be found in their report entitled "For Sake of the Children".


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I've developed a number of ebooks and ecourses that may be of interest to you. They contain very useful information on a variety of topics related to divorce, custody and extramarital affairs.

I invite you to take a few minutes to check them out. You won't be sorry. Just click on any of the product covers on the sidebar to the left. While you're at it download a FREE COPY of "The Divorce & Custody Resource Handbook" - CLICK HERE!

Have a nice day...

Dr. Reena

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