Presentation Before the Joint Senate and House of Commons Committee on Custody and Access

Thank you for asking me to present at this very important meeting.

I bring to this meeting contributions from two distinct areas of expertise; my work as a researcher as well as my work as a family life consultant. Together, they have shaped and solidified my understanding of how families function and cope under a variety of conditions. Importantly, by being able to draw from aspects of both disciplines, I am able to move beyond the emptiness and detachment of unnamed and unknown data points, by experiencing first hand the human drama they each represent. In doing so, I can consider the strengths and limitations of each discipline, thus providing me with a more finely tuned picture of family life.

My work as a researcher has focused on perpetrators of spousal abuse within the general population. The results of my research have found no significant differences between the rates of abuse perpetrated by males and females. These findings have been met with controversy and have been widely disputed even in the presence of similar findings reported by other Canadian, U.S. and British researchers. Unfortunately, this area of research has been highly politicized by special interest groups who fail to consider that violence stemming from inappropriate management of conflict and anger is not a gender issue but a human condition. Because of this predominating and narrow view of human interactions, findings such as mine and others have been ignored, minimized or simply discounted.

My clinical work on the other hand has been more mainstream and certainly less news worthy. It is divided between working as a consultant and therapist in First Nations communities in northern Manitoba and conducting similar work, but servicing the general population in Winnipeg. This work has complimented my research findings by demonstrating the following:

  • Domestic abuse comes in many forms with its effects extending beyond the identified perpetrator and victim.
  • The demarcation between perpetrator and victim is often blurred because the abuse most often occurs within the context of poor communication skills, ineffective means of managing conflict, alcohol and drug abuse and histories of abuse experienced in the respective partners’ families of origin. Importantly, the abuse tends to be nonphysical and when it is, it also tends to be reciprocal.
  • Often times, concerns regarding domestic abuse or a partner’s ability to parent are raised at a time when couples experience difficulty resolving the dissolution of their relationship. It is my experience that allegations of abuse and inadequate parenting are fueled by anger and resentment, as well as by both parents’ vulnerability and fear of losing their children.

Based on my 10 years of studying and working with families, I would like to put forth the following three recommendations:

  • While domestic abuse is an important consideration in determining custody and access, when allegations are made, caution must be exercised to ensure that the context, history and progression of family violence are clearly established.
  • An attempt should be made to mediate all custody and access cases as a first course of action. The exceptions would be those cases where safety is a concern as indicated by a documented histories of unidirectional abuse, violent criminal activity, or mental illness. Given the reciprocal nature of most domestic abuse cases found in the general population, safety can be ensured by the mediator establishing ground rules regarding conduct during meetings.
  • Finally, when attempting to resolve custody and access issues, the feelings which underlie custody disputes should be addressed first. Often, when parents’ fears are allayed, concerns about custody and access likewise tend to diminish.

At this time, I invite your questions and comments. Thank you again!!

© 2008, Reena Sommer

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However often marriage is dissolved, it remains indissoluble. Real divorce, the divorce of heart and nerve and fiber, does not exist, since there is no divorce from memory. - Virgilia Peterson

Dr. Reena Sommer is an internationally recognized relationship and divorce consultant. She became widely known as a strong critic of domestic violence policies that failed to recognized the reciprocal nature of partner abuse.

Dr. Sommer has been an invited speaker to academic, government and lay audiences in Canada and the U.S.. In 1998, Dr. Sommer testified before the Joint Senate-House of Commons Committee on Custody and Access on the issue of domestic violence. More recently in April 2002, she was invited by the Canadian federal government to participate on a panel of experts on the issue of custody and access.

She has written extensively on relationship and family issues such as domestic violence, addictions, divorce and custody. Her interest in high conflict relationships led her toward developing expertise as a divorce consultant in the assessment and treatment of parental alienation syndrome under Dr. Richard Gardner. As well, Dr. Sommer recently completed her e-Book, The Anatomy of an Affair. A free condensed pdf version of the e-Book can be downloaded.

Dr. Sommer has produced three divorce related informational products which are currently available online in the form of downloadable audiofiles: Divorce 101: Things You are Unlikely to Hear from an Attorney; Developing an Effective Parenting Plan, and Preparing for a Custody Evaluation.

You are also welcome to sign up for a free mini-course, Arming Yourself for Your Custody Battle! See or for more information, please email us at E-Mail or 204. 487.7247 or fax: 204.487.3051  

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