Promoting Parenting Assessments by Discouraging Complaints

In family law disputes, parenting assessments – also called bilateral assessments, custody and access reports, parenting evaluations and so on – are reports prepared by mental health professionals aimed at providing parents and the court with recommendations about the parenting arrangements that are in the best interests of the children. Because these reports can be rather expensive and take a fair bit of time to complete, they are generally not prepared unless the parents find themselves in an intractable disagreement about the future care of their children or the capacity of a parent. Not surprisingly, the cases in which parenting assessments are solicited tend to be of the high conflict variety, and an assessment can be a critical aid to the judge’s thinking in reaching her decision or to breaking an impasse between the parents and reaching settlement.

There are, however, precious few mental health professionals willing to prepare these important reports. I can count on two hands the number of people, other than court-attached personnel, who conduct parenting assessments in British Columbia, and the number seems to be about the same in Alberta; some writers, like Tami Moscoe and Barbara Jo Fidler, even suggest that the number of assessors is dwindling.

The reasons for the limited, and possibly diminishing, supply of assessors are likely obvious. Although these assessments are obviously profitable – they generally cost between $6,000 and $15,000 in British Columbia, and between $20,000 and $40,000 in Alberta – those preparing them have targets painted on their foreheads, and they know it. If parenting assessments are primarily used in high conflict cases, the odds that one or both parents involved in any given assessment have a personality disorder, or another mental health concern such as bipolar disorder, are quite high, as are the chances that a parent unhappy with the assessment will file a complaint with the assessor’s governing body, regardless of the triviality or objective merit of the complaint.

Most of the parenting assessors I know well enough to ask have had to deal with at least a handful of such complaints, and none of them liked it very much. Family law has always drawn the greatest number of complaints to the law societies by subject area, but there are ways to practice law, including rigorous client intake standards, that minimize the likelihood of even specious complaints being lodged. Given the common predispositions of those involved in high conflict family law litigation, I’m not sure that parenting assessors who have the courage to express the firm opinions such assessments require have the same opportunities. Complaints, it seems to me, are inevitable, and I admire the fortitude of those mental health professionals who are prepared to accept these assignments.

Nevertheless, dealing with complaints is highly unpleasant, as is the risk, however slight, that disciplinary action may be taken. I’ve helped an assessor who worked with me on a file respond to a complaint, and the questions her college required her to answer struck me as condescending and paternalistic, excessively detailed, and demanding an extraordinary amount of unbillable time to complete. No wonder so few people are prepared to put their necks out and provide this service.

These services are, however, critically important for families and for the children who suffer their parents’ conflict. We need more mental health professionals willing to prepare parenting assessments, if for no other reasons than to reduce backlogs and exert market pressure on the fees charged for these reports, which are far less commonplace in Alberta than they are in other jurisdictions.

It seems to me that the first and easiest step toward increasing the pool of mental health professionals willing to prepare parenting assessments might be to amend the legislation and rules of court dealing with parenting assessments to provide assessors with a limited immunity from professional complaints. (Other steps might include the establishment of clear guidelines and protocols for the preparation of parenting assessments, which are oddly lacking in most jurisdictions, by the professional colleges and the colleges’ preparation of standard information sheets explaining the nature, limitations and consequences of parenting assessments, and outlining the sort of conduct which may be complained about and that which may not.) The sort of immunity I have in mind would restrain the parties to a family law case from lodging complaints against parenting assessors to their governing bodies and business associations without leave of the court until such time as all avenues of appeal have run their course.

As an alternative to the amendment of rules or legislation, however, counsel might seek to extend some protection to parenting assessors when obtaining orders for their appointment; assessors might even demand such safeguards as a condition of their service. An order such as the following would have the same net effect as an amendment.

The Applicant and the Respondent shall be and are hereby restrained and enjoined from making any complaints concerning [name of assessor], and the parenting assessment [name of assessor] is directed to prepare, to his or her governing body, to consumer protection bureaus and to any other similar organization without leave of the court until such time as the claims in dispute in this matter have been resolved and all potential appeals and appeal periods have been exhausted.

The immunity I propose would not impose an absolute bar on the ability of an individual affected by a parenting assessment to make a complaint, he or she would still have that right, although its exercise would be either delayed or subject to judicial approval. This would, I hope,

  1. impose a cooling off period and discourage spur of the moment, ill-considered complaints,
  2. relieve parenting assessors of the threat of complaints while the case is underway, and
  3. decrease the number of frivolous complaints made against parenting assessors, as well as the number of substantive complaints.

The lack of parenting assessors and affordable parenting assessments is an important barrier in parents’ ability to access family justice. The limited immunity I suggest is not a complete solution to this issue but it is an easy, and relatively uncontentious, start.

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful article. I have often felt that there needs to be protocols in place to protect assessors and court ordered therapists in high conflict cases. Your suggestions are excellent, and I hope they will be utilized by family law professionals. These cases are the most challenging of cases. Many good mental health professionals end up avoiding them because of the inevitable fall out, and your suggestions may actually assist in drawing qualified professionals back into this line of professional work.

  2. All this sounds reasonable till one recalls the Gregory Carter debacle that consumed so much media ink a few years ago. Should he have been protected from complaints? And if we want to protect family law/custody assessors then what about auto insurance assessors. Their assessments draw the second greatest number of complaints to the Colleges – sometimes for bias – and sometimes regarding a lack of qualifications. The Ontario auto insurance assessors want the very protections you describe. For example- they too have agued that complaints about their work product ought not be dealt with by the College(s) until after the case is resolved. But how does that make sense if the nature of the complaint calls into question the competency or partisanship of the author of the assessment? Should we allow unqualified assessors to taint cases (revisit the Gregory Carter coverage)? True. They are rare. But do you really want to set up a system which protects them?

  3. I honestly have no opinion about auto insurance assessors, but as far as parenting assessors are concerned, the problem you mention is why I am not suggesting that there be an absolute ban on complaints but a limited prohibition in which complaints can be made in the midst of a case with leave of the court, as well as after.

    Balancing the interests of children and parents in the speedy, thoughtful resolution of family law disputes against the very real risk of a bad apple, yes I do want to set up a system that protects parenting assessors.

  4. The argument against your idea in a nutshell is contained in this excerpt:

    Carter was listed as a registered psychological associate and has a limited ability to practise in the areas of clinical psychology, counselling psychology and school psychology.

    As an associate, Carter can’t make an independent psychological diagnosis.

    He was contracted with the Durham CAS between 2003 and 2009.

    Carter, 63, is charged with three counts of fraud, two counts of obstructing justice and two counts of perjury.

    “All for 56¢,” Callahan alleges.

    “If the legal profession isn’t warned, and the judges aren’t warned, they don’t engage in the inquiries, then how else can we protect the public?

    “Lawyers are not well trained in the art of qualifying an expert or challenging the qualifications,” he says.

  5. Interesting case, and thanks for the link, but I don’t think the the limited immunity I propose would have any impact, good or bad, in cases in which the assessor is a fraud. I could be wrong, but the problem you raise seems to me to be more about con artists and credentialing than a system that would extend a limited protection against professional complaints.

  6. Or I could be wrong. All I know is what I learned by following the extended press coverage. For six years Carter did custody assessments without question. It wasn’t until the grandfather of the subject of one of Carter’s assessments complained to the CPSO that all Hell broke loose (CPO investigation, police involvement and letters like Callahan’s to the press (saying lawyers aren’t good at determining necessary qualifications). Bottom line – left to the participants of the system Carter would have gone on for several more years doing unqualified, unquestioned, unchallenged custody assessments. Only because the CPO paid attention to the complaint were the problems finally unearthed. So, I’m a skeptic. But then again, you know far more about this area than I ever will so perhaps you are right. Only in retrospect does Carter look like an obvious rogue. At the time, while he was do his work, not a single insider ever noticed anything untoward. Even after all this had hit the press a case involving one of his assessments came before the court and one of the lawyers sought to adduce the coverage and the info about an ongoing investigation so as to have Carter’s report tossed. The judge would have none of it saying he’d met Carter at a conference – heard him speak – a was thoroughly convinced he was properly qualified. What?? Lawyers and judges have more faith in the expert assessors/witnesses than the public. That is why for years none challenged Dr. Charles Smith. But now I’m drifting way off topic.

  7. I wonder if it’s possible to establish standards for this type of activity ?
    For example, one parent may be stressed, overworked, emotionally exhausted
    and appear to be a psychopath. I speak from personal experience having been the
    subject of a custody battle.
    Or maybe nobody wants the job because of a genuine belief or ethical concern that the
    process is not a useful one.
    But I agree there must be standards. Financial auditors have specific guidelines about
    what constitutes a red flag deserving of further inquiry; So I’d be worried
    for kids who might be taken away from the best parent because of
    a “family auditor” applying his/her own personal impressions or getting
    duped by a good actor (as we know psychopaths as well as anyone else can be).

    I don’t think limiting liability would be much help – if I understand correctly, the
    usual case would be a parent who has been deemed unfit, and then will want
    to have the case re-opened and would not be seeking financial damages.

    I for one would have a lot more confidence in the justice system if more was invested
    in clear detailed objective standards, especially in an area like this where there
    is some divergence about what good parenting means.

  8. Certainly appreciate your comments/concern and perhaps before offering comment I ought introduce the basis for such…

    I have been in independent practice now for over 35 years, a practice devoted to family psychology. During that time I have executed hundreds of custody/access evaluations, including child welfare and statutory matters. I have also served as ethics investigator, providing expert opinions to the College as well as being involved in the crafting of standards for practice.

    I have experienced complaints arising from forensic work; three specifically, two of which I referred for independent review. These are out of 40K hours of practice.and i am the first to state ” i have been lucky” but luck favours the prepared.

    Two things lead our colleagues to problems in this area of practice. The first is foreshadow of the second. Initially then is the setting of standards by lawyers AND the pursuit of indemnification under the oversight of law. Why, of all forensic areas of practice i.e. risk assessment in criminal matters, competency to stand trial, state of mind relative to offence, etc. do we have so much time devoted to interdicting the rights of patients to complain, the pursuit if indemnification through court order or standard of practice, and attempt to secure release of due process in these famly matters? This speaks to our second concern.

    Mental health experts have ‘leaned in’ to the courts and law in the execution of these sorts of reports. They have been induced to role responsiveness to the needs of law, and in such inducement, serve as gap’spanners’ regarding the needs of the court. Spanners connect disparate pieces of the puzzle so to speak. They gather information useful to law, and certainly to the courts. In this function they engage in investigative endeavours and case building- like activities, not to mention, provide opinions reflective of formal judgements. Reports are many pages of affidavit-like pronouncement, and all sorts of evidence gathered, in service to 1) an appearance of probity, comprehensiveness, and expertise; and 2) to ward off any possible complaint regarding the adequacy or thoroughness of their efforts.

    A few years ago, a lawyer told me how he had one of my reports dismissed by the court. It was about 15 pages long, and frankly very comprehensive within the standard of practice of the profession. Basis? He simply remarked to the justice that a report so short could not be adequate to the task, as were they not usually 40 to 60 pages long? The point is because it was not pages of affidavit deposition and vehicle for gap spanning, used to introduce a lot of hearsay and investigative material, it did not sufficiently ape law-defined appearance no method.

    Complaints, I would offer, are avoided when we stick to a clinical perspective and offer opinion on that which most appropriately pertains to us. They are avoided when we provide information to the court which answers questions they ought to have regarding parental character, divorce specific research, kids, and likelihood regarding one thing or another. The urge to be helpful associated with health-care in general and mental health expertise in particular underwrites the efforts of the expert. However, when helpfulness becomes unduly invested in law i.e. helpful to the court, we see not only gap spanning and then the egregious sorts of opinions/actions which lead to bond-able complaints but activities which stray far from our proper domain, and sponsor the more vexatious complaints of which you raise concern. .

  9. RE: “Why, of all forensic areas of practice i.e. risk assessment in criminal matters, competency to stand trial, state of mind relative to offence, etc. do we have so much time devoted to interdicting the rights of patients to complain, the pursuit if indemnification through court order or standard of practice, and attempt to secure release of due process in these famly matters?”

    I for one would very much like to hear an answer to that very important question. Any takers?

  10. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Jon. I certainly agree that professional rigour will assist in the reduction of complaints against mental health professionals who prepare parenting assessments, as will diligent adherence to the assessor’s role as unbiased helpmeet to the court. My concern is that high ethical and professional standards alone may not suffice to shield an assessor from ill-founded complaints. (It has been my experience that good counsel will try to constructively address their clients’ concerns with a well-prepared assessment, adding perspective and dampening rather than fuelling the flames. Recklessly adversarial counsel, however, may well file the complaint themselves as part of their litigation strategy, whether the assessment is well-prepared or not.) My intention in this post was to seek a halfway point that extends some measure of protection to assessors while litigation is underway, deterring both vexatious and strategic complaints, without completely obviating professional accountability. Other than promoting the high standards of conduct already demanded by assessor’s governing bodies, do you have any suggestions for the improvement of court processes and rules to address the situation?

  11. I am so sorry for not replying to your kind response to my comments. At times I have the attention span of a gnat and hadn’t returned to the post. I would like to respond to your question then..,

    It is not simply with good practice that the issue ends, it is with the leaning into law and the creation of documents that appear to be ‘case building’ as an advocate would design, and conclusions which appear as judgements, as would a jurist might design. Modest offerings to the court are the best we can offer, but if we prioritize lawyers and judges as our audience such modesty is often inadequate to the culture of legal decision-making.

    Now specific to the ways around this…initially there ought be specialty courts outside civil law, so to speak, which seize upon these files. The modest, but often very important, evidence of the expert then would serve as basis for legal structure, and dynamic accountability. ‘Structure’ is represented in the “shall/shall nots’ and the orders of the court. ‘Dynamic’ is reflected in attention to the process associated or desired around such structure. In the 1970’s there was a moment in psychology which proposed reforms as experiments. That is, programs and public policy would be enacted less as something to fight for ideologically than something to tinker with. This approach required ongoing attention to the emergent, dynamic and accountability of a given intervention. This approach serves well the high conflict parenting situation. The specialty court with its social scientist member and referral to resources and ongoing acountabiltity closes the gap between “the parents shall attend upon parenting co-odination” and on-going review of such through collaboration with the effected parties, the resources put in place, the need for more structure, or the shifting attention to the stakeholders i.e. parents, children and collaterals.

    This tinkering is what happens anyway but without containment or accountability. There is no authority in any dynamic sense, hence we se the desire in some jurisdictions to empower PCs with quasi judicial authority. Of this I would refer you to the article in Family Court Review by Amundson and Lux.