The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family has just released a new report on parenting assessments, prepared by Calgary articled student and UBC graduate, Zoe Suche. These assessments, also called “custody and access reports” and “bilateral assessments,” are usually requested when the views and opinions of an independent expert are needed to help separated parents or the court determine the parenting arrangements that are in the best interests of minor children. The report uses a mixed methodology of case law research and interviews with assessors, and examines practice and procedure in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario.
Ms Suche’s review of the case law identified 620 decisions from trial in 2014 and 2015 involving a parenting assessment, and a rate of adoption of assessors’ recommendations ranging from 50 to 62%:
Parenting assessments were most commonly used in Ontario and British Columbia. (In Ontario, most assessments were prepared by the Office of the Children’s Lawyer pursuant to the Children’s Law Reform Act and the Courts of Justice Act.) British Columbia had the highest rate of adoption, in about three-fifths of cases, while cases from Alberta and Ontario each adopted assessors’ recommendations about half the time, despite assessments being used one-fifth as often in Alberta as in Ontario.
The assessors Ms Suche spoke to all had at least ten years of experience with parenting assessments (most had considerably more), and assessments formed a regular part of their practice (on average between 10 and 20 each year). Assessors’ involvement in parenting cases resulted primarily from contested court orders or orders going by consent. Although assessors were routinely retained as the expert of a single party, such situations have become almost nonexistent in recent years.
When asked what professional guidelines they adhered to in conducting assessments, responses varied slightly. Assessors frequently made reference to the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the guidelines of the American Psychological Association, or the codes of conduct of assessor’s governing bodies, such as the College of Psychologists of British Columbia. While guidelines for conducting parenting assessments had been provided by the College of Alberta Psychologists, these were rescinded several years ago. The 2013-2014 CAP Annual Report attributes this to the fact that they were “found to be dated in terms of current practice and legislation.” British Columbia assessors indicated that the Code of Conduct of the College of Psychologists of British Columbia provided sufficient guidance in lieu of rules specifically applicable to assessments. The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers provides a set of Practice Guidelines for Custody and Access Assessments, though the College of Psychologists of Ontario does not.
The length of time taken to complete an assessment varied across jurisdictions. In British Columbia, private assessors reported the shortest timeframes, typically aiming to produce reports in two months or less, although unforeseen factors can easily lead to this time increasing. In Ontario, assessors acting under the Children’s Law Reform Act indicated that reports took an average of three to four months to produce. With respect to clinical investigations under the Courts of Justice Act, once a case is accepted and assigned (a process that can take additional time), OCL clinicians aim to complete their reports in three months. Assessors in Alberta reported the longest timeframes: reports that went smoothly took a minimum of four to six months, while delays could push that timeframe back by several months, or in some cases take over a year.
British Columbia assessors indicated that the cost of producing a report usually ranged between $10,000 and $15,000. In Alberta, the range was higher, with a minimum of $15,000, and often extending well into the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Children’s Law Reform Act assessors in Ontario reported high costs as well, ranging from $15,000 to $25,000. However, an OCL clinical investigator reported billing for private assessments as well, and doing so in the $6,000 to $10,000 range.
Assessors interviewed for this project were widely in agreement that the prospect of complaints to their governing bodies operates as a powerful deterrent to individuals considering providing these assessments. Several suggested that concerns about complaints might even dissuade other professionals, such as child therapists, from close involvement with high-conflict families. Since these professionals are often consulted by assessors as collateral resources during preparation of the report, concerns about complaints can operate to limit the overall utility of the reports themselves.
While the prospect of complaints to professional bodies is far from a new issue, several assessors suggested that the problem has recently been exacerbated by the arrival of social media and smartphones. One assessor revealed that interviews conducted for the assessor’s assessments had been surreptitiously recorded (despite a term of the assessor’s retainer agreement forbidding such recordings) and sent to the College of Psychologists in support of complaints. Another pointed to online forums and social media, where grievances about assessors, whether well-founded or not, are shared publicly and used as mutual encouragement for complaints to governing bodies. One assessor pointed out that litigants with considerable experience manipulating the court system are uniquely well-equipped to take advantage of governing bodies’ complaint mechanisms.
The report makes a number of recommendations for further research to explore: the qualitative difference between assessments conducted by psychologists and psychiatrists compared to social workers and their impact on the settlement of family law disputes; the utility and feasibility of establishing standard guidelines or best practices for parenting assessments; and, options for shielding assessors from the damaging impact of unmeritorious complaints.
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.