The Ontario government has ordered all children’s aid societies to immediately review the credentials of experts used to assess whether parents should lose their children.
The directive comes in the wake of an ongoing Star investigation into parenting capacity assessments, expert reports which can be heavily relied on in child protection proceedings when deciding whether children should be permanently removed from their parents’ care.
The assessments typically examine parents’ ability to address the needs of their children and whether there are supports available. As the Star’s investigation has found, there are no qualifications required to do a parenting capacity assessment, no rules around methodology and testing, and no oversight body that tracks assessors’ performance.
The investigation was sparked by a Halton region child protection case in which a judge found that psychologist Nicole Walton-Allen — who testified she has done more than 100 parenting capacity assessments — had lied about her credentials for years.
Walton-Allen is authorized by the College of Psychologists to practise in school psychology but, the judge noted at the time, materials including her CV and website listed her as a clinical psychologist.
“I became convinced that she had been intentionally using the clinical designation to increase her credibility as a psychologist,” Ontario Court Justice Penny Jones wrote in her December ruling, tossing Walton-Allen’s assessment, which had supported the society’s position that five children in one family should be placed in CAS care.
Jill Dunlop, associate minister of children and women’s issues, said the ministry directive was sent to the societies Thursday. It is “unacceptable” that children and families may have been affected by Walton-Allen’s misrepresentation of her credentials, Dunlop said, speaking at the Jewish Family & Child CAS in North York on Friday.
She shared news of the directive while announcing a government review of the child welfare system that will include an online survey for youth, families and front-line workers. The government will also be bringing on a third party to provide independent advice “on modernizing services,” according to a news release.
The directive — which advocates have already criticized as inadequate — orders societies to identify all parenting capacity assessments that are in progress or that have been completed in cases that are still before the courts, and to verify the assessor’s credentials.
For example, if an assessor is a psychologist registered with the College of Psychologists or a psychiatrist registered with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the CAS must verify with the college that the individual is who they say they are, and are in good standing with their regulatory body.
If the society has concerns with an assessor’s credentials, and remains concerned after speaking with the individual, the society must file a complaint with the assessor’s respective college, the directive says. The society must also keep a record of the steps it has taken to verify the credentials, as well as a record of any complaint filed and its outcome.
In the Halton case involving Walton-Allen, it was lawyer Novalea Jarvis, representing the mother in the case, who discovered on the College of Psychologists’ website that Walton-Allen was only authorized to practise in school psychology.
Despite being told of this find, Halton CAS still tried to have Walton-Allen’s assessment admitted, but the judge rejected her opinion.
Halton deferred to the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS), which declined to comment on the case.
Going forward, each society must have a process in place for verifying an assessor’s credentials, the directive says. All societies are required to report back to the ministry by Sept. 30 that they have followed the directive’s requirements.
In a statement to the Star, the CEO of the OACAS said that the association and CAS leadership have been reviewing measures to improve the process for finding qualified professionals who do parenting capacity assessments and that “these measures are well-aligned with the ministry’s recent directive.
“We are confident that Ontario’s children’s aid societies are well-positioned to undertake the actions described in the ministry’s directive efficiently and effectively,” said Nicole Bonnie.
Tammy Law, the president of the Toronto chapter of the Association of Child Protection Lawyers, said the directive fails to address many of the concerns around parenting capacity assessments, including the qualifications necessary to do an assessment in the first place and the types of tests that should be used on the parents and children.
“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a cut on a broken arm, and not treating the broken arm,” she told the Star. “It doesn’t address the root issues.”
Meanwhile, the ministry said in a statement that it is continuing “to understand the scope of the work conducted by this individual,” referring to Walton-Allen. The ministry has so far refused to say whether it will launch an independent review into parenting capacity assessments, which lawyers, advocates and the official opposition have said is necessary.
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Irwin Elman, the former provincial advocate for children and youth, said he was struck by the fact that such a directive was not already in place.
Elman’s office was abolished by the Ford government last year; its investigative powers were transferred to the ombudsman’s office, but not its advocacy mandate. He said an independent, restorative inquiry into the child welfare system could help come up with guidelines and qualifications for these assessments.
“For me, the fact that there was no such directive or thinking in the past, and the fact that the ministry has still not made any declarative statement about what our children and families connected to child welfare can expect, is a sign that the government yet again has not taken the whole child protection system seriously,” he told the Star.