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(Canada) Child-custody assessors at risk: doctors' group

Assessors view complaints by people they have separated from their children as "frivolous and vexatious"!

One of the country's largest doctors' groups wants more protection for psychiatrists, psychologists and others whose advice to judges in child-custody cases often leads to unfounded disciplinary complaints from the losing parents. Charges filed to regulatory bodies by emotionally wrought parents are deterring experts from taking on the important work of custody assessments, some practitioners say.

Child-custody assessors at risk: doctors' group

The National Post
4 March 2010

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Child-custody assessors at risk: doctors' group

By Tom Blackwell, National Post

One of the country's largest doctors' groups wants more protection for psychiatrists, psychologists and others whose advice to judges in child-custody cases often leads to unfounded disciplinary complaints from the losing parents.

Charges filed to regulatory bodies by emotionally wrought parents are deterring experts from taking on the important work of custody assessments, some practitioners say.

One Saskatchewan psychologist said he hikes his fees for assessments, knowing he could well have to defend himself against a professional complaint afterward.

"The people who complain have usually lost their children," said Oren Amitay, a Toronto psychologist.

"Not only have they potentially lost your children, but they've lost them to someone they've had a very acrimonious battle with. It doesn't get any more personal than that, so they want to lash out."

At a meeting last month, the Ontario Medical Association's board of directors instructed the group's staff to work with the Ontario Psychological Association and other groups to lobby for amendments that would protect professionals from "the harm" caused by "frivolous and vexatious" complaints.

A spokeswoman for the association declined to comment any further on the issue, or on what changes the group is specifically seeking.

Others, however, confirmed that complaints to regulatory bodies such as the provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons are a common by-product of bitter custody disputes - and potentially "devastating" for the practitioner involved.

Commissioned by lawyers or judges in divorce cases, assessments involve a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker interviewing and sometimes carrying out psychological testing on family members and others, then reporting on the disputing couple's respective parenting abilities. Although the reports, which can take months to prepare and cost from a few thousand dollars to $75,000, are not binding, judges usually accept the assessor's conclusions, experts say.

"The reason you have so many complaints is that we give so much power to these people," said Jeffrey Wilson, a leading Toronto divorce lawyer.

As few as 3% of custody battles actually end up in a trial and they tend to be the most bitter, adversarial cases, said Gerald Farthing, a psychologist at the University of Saskatchewan. The assessment reports, full of often intimate details about the parents' mental make-up, can sting for the losing side, experts say.

"If you're going to do a lot of work in this area, you're going to expose yourself to a lot of complaints to the regulatory college," said Brian Bigelow, psychology professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. "Winner-takes-all is often the stance of people in this situation and someone is going to be unhappy with the recommendations of the practitioner… They're going to take it out on you."

Prof. Farthing said he has done an average of about one custody assessment a year since 1981, and dealt with about 10 complaints to the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists, all of them decided in his favour.

It is such a common occurrence, Prof. Farthing said, he builds in the possibility of a complaint in his fees.

He said few psychologists are willing to do the work, but he believes it helps the children, who often become reticent in acrimonious divorces to voice their true feelings to parents.

Mr. Amitay said two of his colleagues who do child-custody assessments have faced complaints and in one case it "took years of his life," before he was cleared of any wrongdoing.

So-called third-party reports prepared by doctors, including child-custody assessments, are a significant source of complaints to the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, confirmed Kathryn Clarke, a college spokeswoman.

Not all are frivolous and some can result in a caution being delivered to the doctor, but Ms. Clarke said she knows of none that has been referred to the body's discipline committee for a full hearing.

Mr. Wilson said clients and lawyers must realize that assessors, though they try to be balanced, apply their own values to a case. Some psychiatrists and psychologists, for instance, endorse a concept known as parental alienation, where the parent's inability to relate well to a child is classified as an actual pathological condition. Others believe it is simply part of the dynamics of the family.

Knowing where an assessor stands on the issue, is important, the lawyer said.

Still, Mr. Wilson said the place to challenge an assessment report is in court, where a good lawyer can expose the expert's underlying biases, not through a disciplinary complaint.

"That's unfair to them, that's not what they bargained for," he said. "For the most part they do it in good faith."

Mr. Amitay said he would like to see the regulatory colleges have someone on staff who is an expert in child-custody assessments and can quickly screen out the frivolous complaints.

Mr. Bigelow said one possible model is the California psychological regulator, which has a "triage" system to avoid tying up practitioners with unfounded charges for long periods of time.
My question is for the victims of questionable assessors.  What protection is there for a family that accepts a bilateral parenting assessment recommendation from lawyers involved in the case and then it is discovered that the so called psychologist is not even allowed to practice in that field and also has been proven that they take bribes to make a report more favorable to a specific party.  Seems that in Canada there is nothing in place to support or help victims of this. I know, as I have thoroughly investigated this and unless you have thousands of dollars for a personal civil suite against the individual you are hooped and this is after the emotional and financial destruction of the family. It seems anyone can hang a shingle and claim they are a registered psychologist and there is not a lot you can do about it.  Even the College of psychologist will not do much as the individuals are no longer governed by them and do not fall under their mandate.  If you are a family that has suffered through a lengthly custody battle and found out all of the above, you are beyond being mentally exhausted and financially ruined.
Others, however, confirmed that complaints to regulatory bodies such as the provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons are a common by-product of bitter custody disputes - and potentially "devastating" for the practitioner involved.
Forget the practitioner. What about one of the parents who has had their children taken away, in some cases simply because the other party separated. Is that fair and reasonable.
Commissioned by lawyers or judges in divorce cases, assessments involve a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker interviewing and sometimes carrying out psychological testing on family members and others, then reporting on the disputing couple's respective parenting abilities. Although the reports, which can take months to prepare and cost from a few thousand dollars to $75,000, are not binding, judges usually accept the assessor's conclusions, experts say.

"The reason you have so many complaints is that we give so much power to these people," said Jeffrey Wilson, a leading Toronto divorce lawyer.
If the professional cannot give proper, impartial and qualified advice then step out of the ring. The advice has to stand up to scrutiny, be accurate and represent the real position. Judicial officers rely heavily on these reports.  I have heard of cases where a report writer's report was completely erroneous and attempts to contact the other party to get their story were half hearted and no messages left on voice mail for the parent to contact them. So they went and "made up" a story based on only one parent's assertions and allegations. Is that fair and reasonable?

We have made various submissions on the question of the ICL in Australia. For what they are worth and with the SRL inputs, here are some notes from one of our recent submissions.

    Relationship between the ICL and parents where the ICL is seen as obstructive:
  • There is a recurring pattern of complaints about ICLs and particularly those from Legal Aid.
   These complaints contain the following main points.
  •    A perceived Father or Mother bias on the part of the ICL
  •    Failure of the ICL to speak to both parties and in many cases the children
  •    Failure to follow up.
  •    General unprofessionalism
  •    Failure to either read or appraise themselves of all available case material
  •    Appear to have a private agenda
In many cases a level of perceived bias might be considered an understandable reaction if a parent believes they are being treated unfairly, however some of these complaints are more than justified.

The SPCA and SRL-R have been directly involved in some represented and self represented cases that clearly illustrate a perceived gender basis and unprofessionalism.

The following is one example.

1.   The Mother and the Father had been in protracted mediation ( 2 years)
2.   The Father made an application to the Federal Magistrates court for regular contact.
3.   An ICL was appointed and a date set for an Interim hearing. The ICl subpoenaed DOCS and medical records.
4.   The Mother filed a Form 4
5.   The ICL who had access to both DOCS and medical reports on the Mother believed there was no substance in the allegations and recommended contact
6.   At the interim hearing the majority of time was spent with the Mothers Barrister arguing her clients case and the Federal magistrate arguing with the Barrister that the allegations were in contradiction to both DOCS and medical reports and appeared fabricated
7.   At the Interim hearing a temporary ICL was present who admitted to not having read ANY of the case material but nevertheless quote believed the Mother after she had spoken to her on the telephone that morning.
8.   The FM dismissed the allegations outright and moved towards a Final hearing.
9.   At the Final hearing there was a third ICL present
10.   The third ICL appeared to have read all the case material and generally recommended the same as the Family Report writer.

In paragraph 5 the ICL had read all the material

In paragraph 7 the temporary ICL had not read any material yet was to prepared to enter Court to oppose any contact by the Father. It beggars belief that a Lawyer was prepared to enter Court for a one day hearing unaware of the evidence that the FM had in front of him. It is these allegations of bias and unprofessionalism that occur and cause angst to both Mothers and Fathers.

In paragraph 10 it should be noted that the THIRD ICL had gone to some lengths to read all the case material.
(Note the FM in this case clearly indicated his decision was going towards an equal time judgment. The couple agreed to 11th hour consent orders, a 5/14 regime that had originally been requested 3 years earlier)

It is of course noted that ICL have guidelines; however complaints about many not being Independent may very well be justified.

The report further makes recommendations to improve ICL's:
  • It is suggested that the ICL guidelines should become a set of rules and clear instruction and explanation set down.
  • The ICL should follow the instructions of the Court when they have been instructed to interview children.
  • Clearly to avoid any allegations of bias they should interview both parties and explain how they have reached their views rather than occasionally adopting the extremely unprofessional approach of waiting to hear the Courts views.
    This later commentary is not uncommon and illustrates the non Independence of the ICL in willing to make their life a little easier by waiting to hear a Judges or FMs views.
  • For the public to have faith in ICLS they must be perceived as totally independent of the parents and only acting in the childrens interests and the ICL should be able to be tested on the accuracy or otherwise of their report.
  • For the Courts (Judges and FMs) to have faith in ICLS the ICL should be acting in a professional manner as if they are truly representing a party without a voice. A number of allegations and complaints have been received that suggest some ICL reports are reproductions of other family reports with name changes and that plagiarism is a factor in some reports.
Will any of the above get acted on. Probably not !

Executive Secretary - Shared Parenting Council of Australia
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It is pretty sad that people can make so much money out of families, by exploiting the children. Problem is, some persons who claim to be expert are not, and they merely copy out a few words off one of the solicitors or docs, without verification or analysis, and put it to the Court as if they had actually checked, considered or put any effort into the real story. This has been said on your site and I agree this is the state of affairs in Australia.

The secrecy provisions of family law and child welfare law may be how it is all being masked and kept not so much hidden from the public, but so that no prosecution and system changes can occur. In a recent case that I am working on, Docs claimed a child lived in their State for two years, and took the boy when a family member ended up in hospital and never gave him back. Actually the boy lived in a different State and had been visiting on holiday for just a couple of weeks. Now, that has got to be so easy to check. I did, the primary schooler has hundreds of witnesses to where he lives. But the Court report says otherwise. That child has now been kidnapped by Docs. I wonder what they are doing with the boy, and why did they want to take him so badly. I wonder if this boy will live or die in their care.

 And how come the Court is so easily overcome by a liar? In that case it was easy, a court hearing without service of documents with the false claims not being provided to the parent and threats to shut the parent up that included and I quote part of that demand and threat which was said to the parent and witnessed, " you cannot apply to the Court". The reply from the parent was that they had already done so. The docs worker attempted to stop a citizens right to access a Court and the Judges right to hear from the citizenry. In fact the docs worker threatened to have one of their own pychiatrists interfere with the parent if they told the Court that the boy actually is from a different State to the one who took him. As I said, hundreds of witnesses.

Easy pickings, at every turn with this one, for those that make a living assaulting children and get away with it.

The complaints may be mainly by those who lost their children, but they are also probably complaints by persons whom should not have lost their children. As for the colleges mentioned whom would like someone who could review complaints and screen for those that are genuine and probably need urgent help that may be a combination of law, psychiatry, pediatrics, law and order, and social work. It is very hard to find someone whom has that combination of training, almost impossible or impossible.
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 Senior Site Moderator and Administrator
Whilst it may be difficult to find an avail honest assessor that can review the cases without meeting the parties, as I have said above, that does not mean that the parents are not capable of knowing the truth. In the courtroom your lawyer or you must question psycholgists if you do not agree with them, including if you have noticed they are using incorrect data.
Data provided by social workers can be of very poor quality even if they are also public servants using public data records.

It is not in the interests if the psychology industry that mistakes are made as this damages their overall reputation. Therefore………checks should occur and corrections of reports should occur as needed.
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