Sunday, December 11, 2011


If you want to know what a Parental Capacity Assessment is, today's blog post is written by Ray Ferris. Ray had career of 31 years service in child welfare and protection as a social worker and district supervisor and family court coordinator. Ray is the author of 'The Art of Child Protection'. You can purchase it from him by writing to

"Parental capacity assessments are essentially a method of making an inventory of the life skills of parents. PCAs are similar to Risk Assessments and the main difference is the starting point of each assessment. A risk assessment usually starts with a perceived risk and then assesses the strengths of a parent to resolve that risk. A parental capacity assessment is principally geared to assessing the historical and current functioning of a family in order to provide a profile. This past and present profile is then used to assess the likelihood of future risk. Some types of risk cannot be assessed properly without considering profile.

Now I am going to jolt some of you out of your mental ruts by stating that adoption and foster home studies are in fact parental capacity assessments. In an adoption study one looks at age, health, education, training, earning ability, income, occupation, housing and marital history. One is looking at whether the couple is stable and responsible enough to raise a young child to adulthood. One does look at a number of other things, but the main components are the same as those of a PCA. While a foster home study is similar to the adoption study there are important differences. Foster parents usually have children of their own or they have raised their own children. One can assess parenting ability by observing direct results. Adopting parents take a nice little baby and after a few months they are on their own, just like any other family. With foster parents one seeks very special qualities and the selection process is much more exacting. These foster caregivers will have the challenging task of taking children, who may have suffered severe and prolonged abuse or neglect. The children will be in the home for various lengths of time depending on court outcomes and life plans and so on. Foster parents will need a lot of support and guidance until they gain experience and they must learn to work with the social workers, for better of for worse.

A parental capacity assessment should be an objective and fact-based record of age, health, education employment. A life skills inventory is not very difficult to do. The vast majority of children coming into care are from homes where the life skills are conspicuously absent. They have little education and employment skills, poor job histories and often unstable marital histories. They are poverty stricken and often live in substandard housing. There are money problems and schools complain about hygiene and lack of lunches. So you can see that whether we are talking risk assessment, or parental capacity assessment, the people who discuss and design the outline of these studies are mostly discussing the lowest economic strata in society.

Children get injured all the time and these injuries are nearly always accidental. So how does a doctor assess the cause of an injury? He or she looks at profile. If the injury happens to a child who seems to have decent, caring parents who have looked after the health of their child, he will take the parents' word about the injury. However, if the family has a history of alcohol or drug abuse, family violence, or a criminal record with violence, then the picture is different. Another warning sign is if there are simply too many injuries occurring in the family.

Now you can see why shaken baby is such a dangerous hypothesis. In Ontario and many states of the USA, SBS charges and convictions put a lot of innocent people in jail, many of whom are now being released and compensated. In child protection and Shaken Baby diagnosis is an automatic accusation of deliberate injury and an exemplary profile will not save you. The obvious inference should be that if the profile contradicts the probability of deliberate injury, then one should ask if the doctor might be mistaken and certainly a second opinion should be sought. Definitely, the profile should not be re-invented to match the accusation as it has been in a recent case. People with good life management skills and apparently good social profiles can be a cause of concern for future care of children if they are becoming problem drinkers, or if they are developing a diagnosable mental illness. Marital disputes can become problematic and so on. However, not all addictions cause behaviours which put children at risk and so on.

So there you have it, a parental capacity assessment is a systematic record of the functional abilities of the parents. It can be done on a very factual basis. Who is qualified to do a parental capacity assessment? The assessment is to gather and record a specific body of information and make an informed opinion about it. Who is able to do that? Basically anyone with the background and interpersonal skills to follow the guidelines can do them. Anyone with a degree in one of the social sciences should be able to take the training in doing such assessments. It takes time to develop those interview skills and the experience to assess the material. One needs to be able to read people. For instance you have received a positive written reference and you choose to interview that person. In the interview she seems to hesitate about certain things and shows some discomfort. There is something she is not telling you and your interview skills draw out the fact that this mother has an explosive temper that gets out of control.

With some exceptions one must bear in mind that education is not training, but it does provide a sound platform for certain types of training. An MSW does not qualify one to do child protection; neither does an MA in counselling psychology. Psychologists own the expertise in doing psychometric and certain related testing. No one else can do it. One must have a doctoral degree for licensing and those with an MA often become registered clinical counsellors, but one can have other degrees to join. This is not a legally protected title like licensed psychologist or registered social worker.

Family court counsellors often have bachelor’s or master’s degrees and they are called upon to do custody and access reports for which they are provided guidelines. The college of psychologists also has similar guidelines for psychologists so evidently one does not need a doctoral degree to do these reports. However, one does need extra training and mentoring to do them. I was once involved in helping a man in a custody dispute. Both a family court counsellor and a psychologist had done custody and access reports, so I obtained both sets of guidelines and studied them. Neither person had come remotely close to following the guidelines. The chief difference between them was that one cost a pile of money. Similarly with guidelines for parental capacity assessment, psychologists and social workers need additional training. However, I would say that the skills needed are much closer to social work skills than general counselling skills. For instance psychologists do not generally make home visits and so on. In general it is not necessary to use a psychologist for a PCA, but I would not hesitate to use one if psychometric testing were needed, should I suspect intellectual deficit. In the same way I would use a psychiatrist if I suspected a diagnosable mental illness.

Ray Ferris, knowledgeable - retired from MCFD
There were three things that got me interested in the Bayne case. I read about them on the CBC blog and contacted them. The first was that the director pursued the case against advice of counsel and I had already had a very bad experience with the same man. Secondly, it seemed to me that all the time guidelines had been bent out of shape and the act was not being followed. Thirdly, it only took about an hour on the phone to convince me that the parental profile completely contradicted a likelihood of abuse. You see one of the advantages of having done hundreds of cases is that you can work very fast and focus on the essentials very quickly. I guess it was a skill I learned early with caseloads of 250 cases."   by Ray Ferris

1 comment:

  1. Removal of a child is an assumption that the highest level of risk has been exceeded.

    It should be worth noting that a comprehensive risk assessment (CRA) done by social workers are made obsolete when a parent is subjected to a PCA by a PhD psychologist. If the CRA and PCA is not in alignment, this is a good indication of bias on MCFD's part, since they are not governed by a code of ethics as are psychologists.

    Typically, the 'risk' aspect is addressed by the psychologist recommending counselling for the parent. By the time most assessments begin, such counselling has already started. This 'helps' the psychologist make the recommendation that such counselling continue for a specified period.

    In the Baynes case, this was the sequence that was followed. First, the "Project Parent" counselling was very quickly implemented after the trial decision was delivered, then the PCA commenced soon after. The counselling was, of course, a complete waste of time and taxpayer money, since MCFD wanted out, and had no intention of providing follow-up services after the children were returned.

    Project Parent counselling was like the parents getting together for tea with the counsellor and talking about the weather for once a week. Since trial was already completed, and MCFD typically uses such counselling to gather ammunition to be used against parents, these sessions were pointless and for show only.

    In Derek's case, no such counselling was or is to be recommended, hence, a PCA would have nothing to recommend to "reduce risk." Service recommendations by MCFD for Ayn only certaintly do not justify removal. MCFD, by leaving two children in Derek's care, his parenting capacity has already been assessed as acceptable.

    Having a PCA done at this time would gut MCFD's justification for retaining Ayn. This is why such an assessment would help speed Ayn's return AND provide justification for Derek's position that this young girl would be affected with short sporatic visits. This expert report may well condemn MCFD on this point, and mention also their renegged offer to return Ayn within a four-month period. MCFD would have no legal leg to stand on if such a report made this recommendation.

    MCFD can use a PCA as a formality in closing a case and withdrawing from proceedings if done after a protection hearing has concluded. The Baynes fall into this cateogory. They were not allowed to have a copy of their PCA or leave the MCFD office in order to review it at their leisure (not even their lawyer could have it.)

    Parents who know a removal is wrong and can prove it, benefit from a psychologist they can trust that can validate their position. Courts cannot ignore an expert report since these assessments carry so much weight.

    MCFD who try to force a PCA on parents with their pet psychologist usually have little evidence to convict a parent of abuse or neglect on a level that would see a CCO (continuing care order) succeed. In such cases, the process can be rigged by MCFD by allowing a fair psychologist to see only information MCFD provides. Tests can be weighted by having foster parents fill out reports. If teachers were part of the reporting / intake, they can also be enlisted to fill out assessments on the children in favour of the Ministry. MCFD can "suggest" to the psychologist a lengthy course of counselling if a return is seen as inevitable.

    In short, parents risk entering a minefield if MCFD is insisting on a PCA and they force a psychologist on them. Parents benefit if they initiate the PCA and pay someone they trust and has a proven track record of providing fair assessments.


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