What Protects the Mental Health and Well-Being of Kids Experiencing the Family Justice System?

The BC Family Justice Innovation Lab and its Youth Voices Initiative [Note 1] continue to support the ground-breaking work of the Transform the Family Justice System Collaborative.

Last month, I attended the Youth Family Justice Conference, co-hosted by A2JBC, the Representative for Children and Youth, the Youth Voices Initiative, and the Society for Children and Youth of BC. Young people were involved in the planning, hosting and presentation of the entire conference and dozens attended both in person and online to consider how to improve their “meaningful participation” in decisions that significantly affect their lives.

As Chief Justice Bauman commented:

On Saturday I listened to young people about what meaningful participation in the family justice system could look like, and heard how little they had been listened to when it mattered most to them. It is evident from their experiences that the justice system hasn’t done enough when it comes to putting youth at the centre.

At the conference I heard from young people in small groups and heard from two very powerful panels of diverse young people talking about how things could be different if the professionals in their lives had listened to them as they and their families navigated family justice issues like parental separation and being in government care. I observed there is a need to see young people as part of an intergenerational circle alongside adults and elders, involving them in decision-making about their future, as well as in the design of systems that support their safety and well-being.

We are very grateful for CJ Bauman’s leadership of and support for A2JBC and its many important initiatives, and hope that his leadership in the family justice transformation movement continues past his retirement from being Chief Justice.

Research and the stories of young people demonstrate that youth who have experienced parental separation and those who have been in government care are more likely to experience mental health challenges. The current family justice system can damage their mental health and well-being. So what, if anything, can be done to support children and youth having these experiences? What are the “protective or positive experiences” that can counter “adverse childhood experiences” (ACE’s).

The TFJS Collaborative and Youth Voices believe that meaningful participation and voice in decisions that affect their lives is one way to support youth mental health and well-being. This conclusion is supported by recent research published by CHART Lab, Simon Fraser University, Faculty of Health Science. They collected data using the 2022-2023 Youth Development Instrument (YDI). Of the 14,596 participants, 17% reported having separated or divorced parents and 2% reported experiences in government care.

The study found that, for those two subgroups:

“..autonomy, supportive adults at home, positive family communication, and positive childhood experiences were associated with fewer symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety and higher mental well-being and life satisfaction … “

“Autonomy” is defined as “I decide most of my life decisions”. It is closely aligned with the concept of “meaningful participation” in those decisions that impact the young person’s life.

The report concludes:

“Fostering these protective and promotive factors may enable and equip youth with experiences in the family justice system with the necessary tools and resources to enhance their mental well-being and support their long-term mental health.”

Isn’t that what we should be aiming for?

Details of the YDI report and a helpful infographic can be found here (pages 23-26 of the Conference Guide).


Note 1: The best way to explore the Youth Voices Initiative is through its Instagram account: @youth_voices_bc. Also, check out www.seenandheard.ca .

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