The Ontario government must launch an independent review into how a psychologist found to have misrepresented her credentials was able to submit assessments for years in child protection cases, say a growing number of lawyers, advocates and politicians.
The calls come in the wake of an ongoing Star investigation into psychologist Nicole Walton-Allen, who a judge found in December had “intentionally misrepresented her qualifications” since at least 2009, passing herself off as a clinical psychologist when she is only authorized to practise school psychology.
Walton-Allen, whose company has offices in Hamilton and Etobicoke, testified in court that she had completed more than 100 parenting capacity assessments going back to 1992. Few records of her opinions are public, but the Star has found several cases in which Walton-Allen recommended children be permanently taken from their parents and placed for adoption.
“The big question is how did we let this happen?” said lawyer Tammy Law, head of the Toronto chapter of the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers.
Law is calling for a review similar to the Motherisk Commission, which had the power to access children’s aid society and court files to review cases involving now-discredited drug and alcohol hair tests from the Hospital for Sick Children’s shuttered Motherisk lab.
The case, she said, suggests the problem is bigger than one psychologist, pointing to how the legal system, children’s aid societies and lawyers in past cases all allowed Walton-Allen to give an expert opinion. “We’re all implicated in this and we should do better,” she said.
Irwin Elman, the former Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, agreed there must be a review into Walton-Allen’s cases, as well as a broader public inquiry into Ontario’s entire child protection system — something he has long called for.
At best, the Walton-Allen case erodes public confidence in the child welfare system, he said. “At worst it has deeply harmed children and their families.”
Elman’s office was abolished by the Ford government last year. Its investigative powers were transferred to the office of Ombudsman Paul Dubé, but not its advocacy mandate. (Through a spokesperson, Dubé declined to comment on the need for a review.)
Parenting capacity assessments like those prepared by Walton-Allen are often “the kiss of death” for parents, retired justice Judith Beaman, who led the Motherisk Commission for two years, told the Star Thursday. “In so many of these cases, the parents are not represented, so there’s no one to challenge the evidence of these experts.”
Beaman would not go as far as saying there should be an independent review, but did point out that the assessments came up as a concern during her work with the commission.
There are parallels with the Motherisk hair testing example, she said. “In fact … we discussed that the parenting capacity assessments are the new Motherisk. We felt that there are many issues related to those that would raise alarm bells.”
Beaman’s commission was created through an order-in-council by the previous Liberal government. Its mandate included leading a resource centre to offer support and assistance to people affected by Motherisk hair test results and reviewing child protection cases that may have been affected by Motherisk over a 25-year-period.
In the case of Walton-Allen’s assessments, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services has said it is working to determine the scope of her work “and determine the potential next steps.”
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In a Thursday statement, the opposition NDP urged the Ford government to quickly launch a “Motherisk-style review.”
“It is incumbent on the government to call that review to ensure that there is some trust put into a system that deals with our most vulnerable families,” NDP children and youth services critic Monique Taylor told the Star.
Law, the head of the lawyers association’s Toronto chapter, said any review must also analyze systemic problems in the child protection system. For example, it should look at how assessors are chosen, whether there should be mandatory guidelines for how they go about their work, how much weight a court should place on an assessment, and whether it should take specific qualifications to become an assessor, she said.
Parents who were the subject of one of Walton-Allen’s parenting capacity assessments should also be able to speak to the commission in closed-door hearings, she said.
In the case that led to damning judicial findings against her, Walton-Allen submitted a parenting capacity assessment supporting the Halton Children’s Aid Society’s request that all five of a woman’s children be placed in its extended care.
Novalea Jarvis, the lawyer for the mother, learned through the College of Psychologists that Walton-Allen was only authorized to practise in school psychology, despite materials — including her CV — indicating she was a clinical psychologist.
After Jarvis brought the issue to the judge’s attention, Walton-Allen’s report was thrown out last December.
“My client and I believe that there needs to be an independent review of all psychological and parenting capacity assessments undertaken by psychologists (particularly Dr. Walton-Allen), in child protection cases for the last 10 years at least, to determine whether the assessors were authorized to practise in the areas of clinical and/or clinical/forensic psychology and if they had the necessary training, education and experience to conduct the assessment,” Jarvis said Thursday.
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies — the umbrella organization that represents the province’s children’s aid societies — has so far refused to say when it became aware of Jones’ December ruling or whether it supports the calls for an independent review.
There’s also the lingering question as to why the Halton Children’s Aid Society still wanted Walton-Allen’s report admitted into evidence in the December case, even after it was made aware of her credentials. (Halton CAS deferred to the OACAS, which said Thursday it will not comment on specific cases.)
The association’s CEO, Nicole Bonnie, has said it no longer supports the use of Walton-Allen’s services for parenting capacity assessments, and that the association is “continuing to consult with its membership to determine the best approach to support good outcomes for the children, youth and families of Ontario.”
Jacques Gallant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering legal affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant