By Zoë Paddock
In December 2021, OJEN wrapped up the pilot for the new iteration of the Family Law for Young Parents (FLYP) program, funded through a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. It was delivered to 2 community partners in Hamilton. One program with St. Martin’s Manor ran as a hybrid model, both virtually and in-person. At Regina’s Place it was delivered entirely online.
Earlier versions of OJEN’s public legal education (PLE) programs for young mothers focused on providing legal information and building legal life skills. The new version of FLYP, expands on this to create opportunities for connections between young mothers and justice sector professionals. It aims to not only increase the legal capability of young parents, but to challenge the perceptions of justice system professionals. Through their interactions, the program builds mutual respect, empathy, and understanding. The young mothers are encouraged to propose ways that the justice system could better support their needs.
This new version of the program gives pregnant teens and young mothers the knowledge, skills and confidence to manage the legal issues that face them. At the same time, it provides an opportunity for them to propose ways for justice sector professionals to work with them to resolve their legal issues. The program covers topics such as different parenting arrangements, including decision-making, responsibility and parenting time, as well as how to navigate legal aid. It also helps build legal life skills like communicating in writing and keeping good records.
FLYP ran for 6-8 sessions with each of the community partners. Over the course of the sessions we were lucky to have a number of different legal professionals from the Hamilton area volunteer their time. The volunteers included professionals who work at the duty counsel office, and lawyers who both work in private practice and as duty counsel at times. Having this knowledgeable group of people join the program was an amazing asset. The young parents who attended made excellent use of their expertise – asking insightful questions, and leading conversations about the different aspects of their jobs.
As well, the young parents were generous in sharing their own experiences and perceptions of the family law system with the legal volunteers who came to the program. This was a challenging aspect of delivering FLYP in ways other than the traditional in-person format. Asking the participants to share the details of their lived experiences, and the emotions that come along with those experiences is a lot to ask under ideal circumstances. When a group dynamic is formed without being in the same room together, it is even more difficult. Despite this, many participants offered their thoughts and helped to create an exchange of knowledge between the legal professionals and the young parents.
Throughout the program, we found games to be an integral part of delivering the legal information, and of building a sense of community within each group. Over the weeks, we played lots of rounds of trivia games using the online platform Kahoot. There was intense (but friendly) competition between the young parents, and sometimes the legal professionals and OJEN staff. Not only did the participants excel at the games, the questions from the quiz also started conversations which often expanded outside of the planned content for the session. These conversations were a great reminder to me that while we make our best effort to construct a program which covers all the bases, sometimes a group is ready to go beyond the initial plan. Conversations about child support were especially relevant. Going beyond legal information and strategies, they sparked an overarching discussion about child support being the right of the child, and the impact of stigma on young mothers when making decisions about where and when to seek financial support.
We were thankful to receive positive feedback from the young parents who attended FLYP, as well as from the awesome community partners who hosted the program. In the process of evaluation, many of the participants mentioned how helpful it was to have starting points for legal language so that they knew which questions to ask in future. One participant wrote, [the program] connected me with professionals who gave information and helped me to make up my mind.
As for the legal professionals, we were also happy to hear how much they enjoyed the program. All who participated and completed the evaluation said they would be interested in coming back to work with a FLYP program in the future. Many of the volunteers highlighted that they would move forward from the program with a renewed perspective on what they could offer to young people seeking legal support.
I began working with OJEN last summer as a Social Justice Fellow from Windsor Law, and have continued working with the organization since then, first on contract, and now for credit in my last semester of school. In that time I’ve learned so much about what makes good public legal education. Being involved in designing and delivering a program was a perfect way to see all of that brought to life. While sharing information about legal terms, roles and systems is of course very important. Without also discussing and practicing the life skills that go along with that information, and the lived experience of the people using them, the usefulness of the legal knowledge is minimized. The feedback from participants indicating that they now felt more comfortable with legal language as a starting point to ask their own questions and navigate family law problems was great to hear. It combines these key elements of PLE work. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from all of the smart, impressive young parents involved in the program, as well as the volunteer legal professionals who were so generous with their time and knowledge.