To date, much of the work undertaken in the field of child participation has centred on the voice of the child, if any, within the adversarial courts’ process. This paper examines this issue in the context of alternative methods of dispute resolution, namely mediation and collaborative practice. Effectively, it will explore the methods available to hear the voice of the child within these alternative processes – what they have the potential to offer and the extent to which these mechanisms have been used. Specific emphasis will be placed on the role of the child specialist within the collaborative process. The child specialist is a licensed mental health professional with particular training and experience in family systems, child development, and the needs of children during and after a divorce (Tesler). His or her role within the collaborative process is very different from a psychologist/ social worker employed as part of the adversarial court process and has been described by Gamache as ‘a neutral advocate for the children who gives a voice to the children’s interests.’ As a process set within the comprehensive law movement (Daicoff) and the wider field of enquiry that is therapeutic jurisprudence (Wexler), does collaborative practice fulfil its promise of providing a more holistic ‘family centred’ approach to conflict resolution where children’s voices are heard and respected ?
The paper will rely on evidence gathered as part of a wider empirical study into the role of collaborative practice in the resolution of family law matters. Acknowledging that separating couples frequently cite the potential benefits for their children as their reason for using the process, the research demonstrates that many are not willing to engage a child specialist to scaffold the children through the family transition and will outline the reasons for such reluctance. Importantly, the paper will also present the findings from interviews carried out with 15 young adults whose parents separated when they were children and will assess their views as to whether a professional in the role of a child specialist would have been of benefit to them and what if, any, they feel would have been the difficulties or barriers to engaging such a specialist at the time of their parents’ separation/divorce.
Finally, the paper will examine consider older children who remain in the family home. As an often forgotten group, could a child specialist also provide assistance to this group and if so, in what way? Having examined the extent to which the voice of the child is heard within these alternative processes, the paper will conclude with an assessment as to whether these processes improve matters for children or whether their rights are protected more effectively within the courts’ system.