Child Custody and Access: The Experiences of Abused Immigrant and Refugee Women

Publication Date: 
Resource Origin: 

In January 2000, Education Wife Assault (Springtide Resources), with the support of Status of Women initiated a participatory research project to:

  • Learn more about the child custody and access issues experienced by abused immigrant and refugee women.
  • Help abused immigrant and refugee women to increase their knowledge of Canadian family law and their rights under the law.
  • Enhance the effectiveness of advocates and lawyers who work with abused immigrant and refugee women on custody and access.

This project builds on work being done on custody and access in Ontario's Durham Region.  Since 1997 the project has:

  • Brought together lawyers and counselor-advocates to discuss the impact of  custody and access proceedings on abused women and their children
  • Conducted focus group research with 52 women to learn more about the experiences abused women had in maintaining custody of their children and protecting them from further exposure to violence and;
  • Held a conference, where working groups were established to develop resources to support abused women and their children, make the legal system more responsive to the needs of abused women and their children and protect women and children from further exposure to violence.

This project, however, primarily focused on the experiences of Canadian-born women. A comprehensive literature review found that although there is a growing body of literature on the experiences of abused immigrant and refugee women very little of this literature dealt with custody and access. A review of 26 Canadian titles found only 5 references to the custody and access experiences of abused immigrant and refugee women. However, informal consultations with service providers in immigrant and refugee communities found that abused immigrant and refugee women had "many experiences" to share about the difficulty of keeping themselves and their children safe after leaving abusive relationships.

Participatory Research

The project used participatory research to gather information on the child custody and access experiences of abused immigrant and refugee women. Community partners worked with the researcher to ensure that information was gathered in a sensitive, respectful and inclusive manner and assisted the researcher to:

  • Design data collection methods and tools
  • Identify research sites and research participants and
  • Organize data collection.

Data was gathered from:

  • 11 focus groups and 5 key informant interviews with 92 immigrant and refugee women (90 of whom were woman abuse survivors) in 9 languages
  • 8 key informant interviews with lawyers
  • 12 key informant interviews with counselor-advocates
  • 1 round table with 3 lawyers and 18 counselor-advocates

Major Findings

"For the sake of the children"

The research found that immigrant and refugee women, like Canadian born women, often stayed in abusive relationships "for the sake of the children."

Some said that they were afraid of losing their children to their partners' family if they left -  "In my community children are considered their 'father's property'."

Others said that they were afraid that their children would be stigmatized in the eyes of the community if they left.

Still others said that they were afraid that they would be deported without their children if they left or that they and their children would be deported and they didn't want their children to miss out on a "better life in Canada."

Barriers to Leaving

Immigrant and refugee women who wanted to leave reported that they faced numerous barriers to leaving including:

  • Attitudes of family, friends and community members
  • Fear of poverty and homelessness
  • Not knowing where to turn or what help was available
  • Partners who dominate and control their communication with the outside world
  • Their immigration status or lack of status


83 of the women interviewed reported that they had sole custody of their children and that they remained their children's primary caregiver after they separated.  All of their former partners, however, had access.
1 had joint custody with her former partner.
2 women lost custody to their former partners.
3 women had children in the care of a Children's Aid Society.  In 2 of these 3 cases it was the children's fathers who called the Children's Aid Society with charges of abuse and neglect.
1 woman sent her child to live with her parents in her country of origin.


67 of 83 women whose former partners had access described access as "difficult" or "stressful" for both their children and themselves.  Former partners would:

Make unannounced visits
Miss visits without notice or explanations
Return children late from visits or demand transit fare or gas money to return the children

During access visits children were exposed to further violence and gender stereotyping. One father, for example, told his son to hit his daughter if she bothered him.  Children were not properly dressed or fed during visits. Established routines such as mealtimes, bedtimes and bath times were ignored or deliberately undermined.

Several women reported that their former partners used access visits to "keep tabs on them" by asking the children what they were doing and who they were seeing.  Others reported that their former partners would use access as a way to stalk and harass them.  Former partners would call to talk about the children and then proceed to use the call to insult and demean them.

Even supervised access could prove "difficult" and "stressful".  In cases where a member of the father's family or a friend was supervising access there was often a "multiplier effect."  Not only would the father say bad things about the mother to the children but his family and friends would join in.

One father was able to use access visits in a Supervised Access Center, with a trained supervisor to continue the abuse.  He would threaten and intimidate the children in another language.  The access supervisor—who did not speak that language—was not aware of what was going on and therefore could not stop it or report it to the Family Court.

Changing access arrangements

Women who tried to hold their former partners to what was written in the custody order around access found themselves charged by their former partners with being "unreasonable" and taken to court.   Most women whose former partners had access wanted this changed but found the process of doing so to be slow.


Women who had sole custody reported that that their former partners would block or challenge any attempts they made to travel out of the country.  Visiting with extended family was important to these women because it provided a break from being their children's primary caregiver.

Access to Justice

Most immigrant and refugee women reported that they did not know what their rights and legal entitlements were under Canadian law when they left.  Women, from many communities, for example, did not know that in Canada children are considered the responsibility of both parents and not their father's property.

Most women also reported that they did not know what kind of legal help was available or where they could find it. Many women turned to people they knew in the community (e.g. police officers, spiritual or religious leaders), friends and family members for help only to find that the support and information they were given was inadequate or inaccurate.

Even if women got advice and information from a lawyer or a counselor-advocate most did not know how to check the quality of the advice and information they received.  Several women, for example, reported that they got inaccurate information about child support and division of property from their lawyers but did not know until long afterward that it was wrong.

Most women found accessing legal aid difficult.  Most, even those fluent in English, found the forms extremely difficult to fill in.  Some did not know how to get the documentation they needed in order to qualify.

For women who got legal aid, the number of hours the Ontario legal aid plan provided were too low for a lawyer to adequately represent them.  The legal aid plan also did not provide funds for cultural interpreters, so women who spoke little or no English found themselves using lawyers from their communities.  While some of these lawyers understood woman abuse and were sympathetic, most were not.

Women who could not get legal aid found lawyers' fees too high and the process of going through the legal system extremely time and labour intensive.

Fear of the Legal System

Several counselor-advocates and lawyers reported that immigrant and refugee women they worked with were afraid of using the legal system because:

It is unpredictable
They knew women who had a hard time going through the system
They were unfamiliar with the Canadian legal system
There was no cultural interpretation provided in family court
They came from countries where the legal system was unjust or even corrupt

Stereotyping and Discrimination

Once in the legal system, immigrant and refugee women were subjected to stereotyping and discrimination.  Many immigrant and refugee women reported that their lawyers assumed that they "did not know anything" because they were immigrants and refugees and that their lawyers told them that they should "be grateful for what they got" whenever they questioned their decisions or asked for explanations.


This report could not have been written without the thoughts, stories, insights and enthusiasm of many women.

First and foremost, I am thankful to the 92 immigrant and refugee women who chose to share their stories of surviving abuse and being mothers with us.

This report is a tribute to your courage and perseverance.

I am also thankful to counselor-advocates, cultural interpreters and lawyers who took the time to sit on our Project Advisory Committee, share their professional experiences with, review our research tools, identify research participants, facilitate/interpret focus groups, and read drafts of this report.

They include:

Habiba Adan, Family Services Association
Amala Ambalwarner, formerly of the South Asian Women's Centre
Nora Angeles, former Lay Bencher Law Society of Upper Canada
Frances Antwi-amponsah, African Training and Employment Centre
Patrick Au, Chinese Family Life Services
Dorothy Bakkos, Family Services Association of Toronto
Shazia Bashir, South Asian Women's Centre
Laila Bondugjie, Arab Community Centre
Linda Cornwell, Women's Health in Women's Hands
Lina Costa, Abrigo
Andree Cote, National Association of Women and the Law
Deone Curling, Women's Health In Women's Hands
Mary Lou Fassell, Barbra Schliefer Commemorative Clinic
Viviana Fleming, Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples
Irene Gabinet, St. Joseph's Health Centre
Elizabeth Gajewski, Polycultural Immigrant and Community Services
Kerry Gearin, Family Lawyer
Gail Gould, formerly of Jewish Family and Child Service
Vivian Green, Woman Abuse Council of Toronto
Frances Gregory, Family Lawyer, Murray and Gregory
Karla Hartl, Status of Women Canada
Maria Jackson-Greasley, Interval House
Ayse Jalil, Working Women Community Centre
Kurshida Kareshi, Bloor Information and Life Skills Centre
Lisa Kostakis-Edwards, Greek Community of Greater Toronto
Ruth Lara, Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples
Catherine Larkin, Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped
Hyunju Lee, Korean Canadian Women's Association
Domenica Luongo, COSTI
Catherine MacKinnon, Deaf Women Against Violence Everywhere
Rita McLean, Jamaican Canadian Association
Faduma Mohammed, Rexdale Community Health Centre
Dora Nipp, formerly of the Advocacy Resource Centre for the
Kathleen O'Connell, Parkdale Community Health Centre
Mary Pritchard, Assaulted Women's Help Line
Angela Robertson, Sistering
Theresa Robeson, Sistering
Maria Rose, Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples
Nagla A Rouff, Arab Community Centre
Linda Ryall, Durham Deaf Services
Cristina Santos, Abrigo
Jackie Sato, Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples
Deborah Sinclair, Durham Project on Custody and Access Issues
Affecting Woman Abuse Survivors and their Children
Pathma Sivaram, Human Rights Lawyer
Janice Shaw, Jewish Family and Child Services of Toronto
Sura Su, Chinese Family Life
Jaspal Tulasidas, formerly of Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Services
Felli Villisin, Intercede for the Rights of Domestic Workers, Caregivers
and Newcomers
Milana Vunokur, formerly of Sistering
Yuqin Xing, Chinese Family Life Services
Suzanne Young, Flemingdon Neighbourhood Services

This report is indicative of your commitment to making the world a safer place for women and children.

Last but not least, I wish to thank my colleagues at Education Wife Assault:

Marsha Sfeir for initiating and guiding this project
Joanne Bacon for consulting with me on issues related to Deaf Women and Women with Disabilities
Erna Opeña for administrative support
Neslyn Burgess for keeping me on track
Tiffany Veinot and Penney Kirby for technical support and our placement students, Melissa Fields and Christina Sayers, for their meticulous copy editing.

This report is a testament to our collective "woman power."

A very special thanks to Karla Hartl of Status of Women Canada for her commitment to justice for all women.

Beryl Tsang, Education Wife Assault