This is the question being asked by a number of critics of the current practice across Canada to have psychologists assess the children and parents involved in a custody dispute. Some say that this practice, rather than shedding important light on matters pertinent to the court’s decision to award custody, can actually be detrimental to the families involved, and to children in particular.

Dr. Ira Turkat, a psychologist based in Florida, has been arguing against the practice for more than ten years and recently opined further on the issue in the American Journal of Family Law. In his opinion, these evaluations can cause severe harm for the children and parents involved, sometimes even resulting in the loss of life. The reason for this is that these assessments have historically overlooked or failed to properly consider issues of domestic violence in the family being assessed.

In Alberta, these assessments are known as “parenting assessments” or “custody and access reports”. A study conducted in 2017 found that such assessments are used less frequently in Alberta than they are in British Columbia or Ontario. Despite that, the findings of the assessments still form the basis of a Court’s decision in a custody dispute about half of the time.

Domestic Violence Not Often a Factor

A primary concern with these parenting assessments is the lack of focus on the issue of domestic violence. Critics say that not only are psychologists failing to properly consider this issue, but they are often failing to even ask the relevant questions. Haley Hrymak, a research lawyer with Rise Women’s Legal Centre in Vancouver has found that several women have reported bringing concerns about a violent ex-partner to the attention of a psychologist during an assessment only to have the issue ignored or downplayed. In some cases, these concerns have even been turned against the mother. The mother may be labelled as paranoid or dishonest, which can result in her parenting rights being lessened or taken away.

A Canadian Psychologist Faces Criticism

A psychologist operating in British Columbia who has provided parenting assessments in more than 200 cases around the country, recently faced multiple complaints to the College of Psychologists of B.C. After investigating several cases, the Inquiry Committee found enough evidence of wrongdoing that it recommended the matter proceed to a disciplinary hearing. Among the issues were the fact that the doctor had gathered insufficient evidence to justify his conclusions, failed to give adequate attention to issues of domestic violence, and failed to properly distinguish between his opinions and objective findings of fact.

In one case, a court went so far as to discredit the doctor’s report recommending that the father of a child be granted sole custody, despite the fact that the father had been accused of hitting his child and had been convicted of assaulting the child’s mother. The Inquiry Committee found that in this case, the doctor had not only failed to give weight to the domestic violence issues, but these issues were not even documented in the final assessment.

Ultimately, the doctor came to an agreement with the College that he would retire, and in exchange, the disciplinary action against him was dropped. This is of little comfort to the parents who feel his assessments permanently and negatively impacted their ability to parent their children, and may have even put their children at risk.

Costly and Ineffective

In addition to creating emotional distress for parents and children, psychological assessments can also impose a significant financial strain on families at a time when they are already vulnerable in that respect. While an assessment itself might cost in the neighbourhood of $20,000-$30,000, there may also be added associated expenses, such as follow-up visits and counselling that may be ordered on the advice of the assessor. Hrymak is quoted as saying that some parents have faced expenses upwards of $100,000 relating to these assessments, which can result in a complete financial crisis for families under strain.

Recommendations for the Future

Despite the considerable concerns with parenting assessments, there is no question that, conducted properly, the information gathered can be helpful in determining the best interests of the child in a custody dispute. However, significant changes are clearly needed across Canada and North America in order to regulate and improve the system. Hrymak has recommended that discussions of domestic violence form a part of every assessment going forward and that all psychologists charged with undertaking an assessment receive training on domestic violence issues.

The family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman are exceptionally experienced with respect to child custody and access disputes following the breakdown of a relationship. We will work with you to ensure a custody and access arrangement that fits your family’s specific circumstances. Further, we have assisted multiple clients facing issues or concerns relating to domestic violence in seeking and obtaining emergency protection orders. Contact our office today by calling us at 403-910-3000 or contact us online.

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