For over 35 years, Justice Stanley Sherr has worked in Toronto’s family court system. Although judges, especially those presiding over cases involving children, often make very difficult decisions, Justice Sherr says that his experiences in court have, in fact, increased his optimism in peoples’ ability to make positive changes.
During Justice Sherr’s time as a lawyer, he represented a boy who would eventually return to court as a paralegal. Arthur, who is also an ambassador of the Children’s Aid Foundation, was recently sworn-in by Justice Sherr himself; an amazing milestone considering that he views Justice Sherr’s influence as a large part of his own success.
The Children’s Aid Foundation was thrilled to have an opportunity to sit down with Justice Sherr to find out a little bit more about his experiences in the family court, and his unflappable optimism.
Q: How do judges function within the family court system?
A: We have what’s called a case management system in Toronto. What that means in English, is that we have one judge for every family. So, when a case gets put into the system, that family will stick with that judge until the time of trial. If it goes to trial, it goes to a different judge. So, it’s an opportunity for the judge to get to know the family, and for the family to get to know the judge. It helps us assess risk and also to see where people are improving. We have multiple functions and objectives within a child protection case; first of all, we have to ensure the safety of the child. But, we also want to maintain the integrity of the family; we want every family to succeed. We assess what and how high the risks are. We assess what the deficiencies are that need to be addressed and what services need to be put into place to assist the family. We’re trying to motivate the parents and caregivers to do the best they can to have the best possible chance they can to keep families together. We have all the parties involved come before us, not just the parents, but the children’s aid societies, too, so that we can set out clear expectations.
“We’re trying to motivate the parents and caregivers to do the best they can to have the best possible chance they can to keep families together.”
Q: What kind of parents do you see in court?
A: There are multiple issues, and often they’re interrelated. Probably the most striking issue is poverty. We have people who are struggling to make ends meet. However, there are many people who are in poor financial circumstances but wonderful parents, who would never end-up close to a child protection court. If you have parents who are lesser skilled, then that also becomes a factor. Substance abuse is a big issue; drug addiction and alcoholism are big factors. You see situations where parents have been poorly parented themselves, you see cycles of neglect. If all you’ve known is a parent that’s emotionally unavailable, who’s physically abusive, who’s involved in domestic violence – if that’s your model of parenting, it’s very hard to break that cycle. We see issues with people coming from other countries. One of the beautiful things about Toronto is the multiculturalism, but many people have difficulty adjusting to our culture. So, what is appropriate parenting in one country might not be appropriate parenting here. For instance, use of corporal discipline. Usually those cases are easily resolved through educating the parent [on Canadian customs].
Q: How many cases that come into children’s aid societies end-up in court?
A: It’s only anecdotal, but I would think that the high majority of cases, maybe 80%, never see a court room. And, the other thing is, again it’s anecdotal, but the majority of children who do come before the court, about 80% of them go home with their parents or extended family. It’s the exception rather than the rule that children end-up in foster care.
Q: How can society play a bigger role in helping to prevent families from ending-up in court?
A: One nice thing about working with my colleagues is looking at ways of ‘how do we make this system better?’ It’s incumbent upon us, and it’s incumbent upon all aspects of society to do it as well. In terms of education, in terms of social services, resources, immigration settlement resources. One thing that’s been very successful in keeping families together is family group conferencing. It can actually keep children out of care.
“I have a lot of faith in people, if given the right direction and motivation, to do very good things for their families.”
Q: What have you learned from your time working in the family court?
A: I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that people are resilient. I’ve learned that every person is unique, every family is unique, and you have to get to know that family. You have to examine each individual case on its own merits. I’ve become even more optimistic than when I started. When I started I was optimistic, but I’ve seen many, many stories of people who have done wonderful things. I have a lot of faith in people, if given the right direction and motivation, to do very good things for their families.
Q: How much does stigma surrounding foster care affect families?
A: The stigma’s huge. For a parent, what can be more embarrassing or humiliating to your community than having your child taken away? That’s, of course, the perception. That anyone who’s had their child taken away from them is a child abuser, and that’s just not the case. Many parents have struggles and challenges and simply can’t parent at a particular moment in time. Their lives have become too difficult. It doesn’t mean they’re abusers, they’re struggling. Stigma is a huge thing because what that means is, when you’re humiliated, there’s a tendency to displace blame, to strike back, and that interferes with a parent’s ability to recognize and address their limitations, and move forward in a timely way that allows their children to be returned. It’s an important dynamic for lawyers, social workers, and judges to understand.
Q: What did it mean to be part of Arthur’s swearing-in ceremony?
A: It meant a lot. Representing children is a lot of fun. You’re trying to help children through really a difficult time in their life. To be able to re-connect later with Arthur and see him thriving makes you feel good; it makes you more optimistic. So, it was very nice moment.