When a family breaks apart, the effect on children can be detrimental.
So says Lorrie Werden, coordinator for the Supervised Access Program Lambton (SAPL), who spreading the word about the little-known service that provides a safe and neutral setting for families going through a difficult separation.
“For kids who are used to having a solid family unit, the amount of loss they feel when they’re suddenly unable to see one of the parents — they basically go through the five stages of grief,” said Werden. “And the longer that parents is kept from the child, the more damage is done.
“It’s so detrimental to the kids.”
The program, funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General and managed by the Family Counselling Centre, has been operating for more than eight years in Sarnia, and recently moved to a new site on East Street.
The mandate is to defend every child’s right to have access to parents without witnessing conflict, providing a safe setting where visits and exchanges can take place under the supervision of trained staff.
“Our primary focus is the children,” said Werden. “It’s a place where they can continue building a relationship with the parent who no longer lives in the home.”
About 28 families currently use the service, with children ranging in age from newborn to 16.
While many referrals stem from court orders, Sarnia is the only site in Ontario that also accepts professional third-party referrals — from probation and parole, Children’s Aid Society, Ontario Works, and other agencies.
“We seem to have an extremely high number of non-residential parents who are unable to see their children because either both parents have not sought legal counsel, or one parent is denying access,” Werden said, noting that police or CAS are often involved when the non-residential parents return home in attempt to see their children.
But according to the Children’s Law Reform Act, when parents are separated and without a court order, the custodial parent (with whom the child/children live) cannot deny access to the non-residential parent.
“That’s a huge misconception,” said Werden, noting some parents go months at a time without seeing their children. “You cannot knowingly keep children from seeing the non-residential parent.”
Supervised visits at the SAPL are strategically arranged — complete with separate driveways and entrances — to accommodate parents in conflict, but most importantly, with the safety and emotional wellbeing of the children as a top priority.
“Many of these children have been exposed to abuse, fighting, etc.,” said Werden. “We provide a safe place for them to have an enjoyable, relaxing visit with the parent.”
The service also provides a means of exchanges for parents who have arranged to take the child offside for the day.
A total of nine staff with extensive backgrounds in social and youth services work at the SAPL.
“With this service, the children don’t have to worry about feeling caught in the middle of ‘mommy and daddy fighting,’” said Werden, who stresses that the SAPL is not meant to be a long-term service.
“We are a stepping stone… for the average family unit, this is a temporary measure until they can get something worked out in court.”
For more information on the Supervised Access Program Lambton, call Lorrie Werden at 519-336-0120, ext. 255.