GIST: "No child should have to endure abuse, neglect or worse at the hands of their parents. For that very reason we give children’s aid societies broad powers to investigate and remove children from homes where they’re deemed to be at risk. The courts play an important check on that extraordinary power by ensuring child protection workers have obtained the necessary evidence to intervene, including expert assessments of parents’ ability to care for their children. That is why it’s troubling to learn that a psychologist who completed more than 100 parent capacity reports for Ontario children’s aid societies has been found to be unqualified to perform the work. As reported by the Star’s Jacques Gallant, a recent Ontario Court ruling found psychologist Nicole Walton-Allen lied about her credentials and did not have the necessary expertise to make findings of parenting capacity. The psychologist, who has offices in Hamilton and Etobicoke, “intentionally misrepresented her qualifications” since at least 2009, Ontario Court Justice Penny Jones said in a December decision. In the case, Walton-Allen had given an expert opinion supporting the Halton children’s aid society’s request that a mother’s five children should be placed in its extended care. Walton-Allen testified that she had completed about 100 parenting capacity assessments going back to 1992 — some of which recommended that children be permanently taken from their parents and placed for adoption. According to the College of Psychologists of Ontario, Walton-Allen is authorized to practise only in the area of school psychology. And yet the judge found she has repeatedly presented herself as a clinical psychologist to increase her credibility as a mental health professional in child protection cases. The college says it does not set out specific qualifications or experience necessary to perform a particular type of assessment because the profession is engaged in a wide variety of fields. Fair enough. But one would expect Ontario’s child protection legislation to spell out who should be conducting parent capacity assessments, especially since judges rely on them in their decisions. Apparently it does not. That should change. Queen’s University law professor Nicholas Bala, a leading authority on child and family law, says court-ordered assessments in child protection cases are “among the most challenging forensic assessments that mental health professionals undertake” and can be heavily relied on by the courts. Since 2008, Bala has been calling for the province to set up an independent body to set standards and ensure ongoing training of mental health professionals who conduct these critical assessments and give evidence in court. It’s time for the province to act.The Halton mother, whose two youngest children were returned to her care after the December ruling, filed a complaint against Walton-Allen with the college last fall. In light of Justice Jones’s damning findings, the college should expedite its investigation and proceed to a discipline hearing. The Ontario Association for Children’s Aid Societies, which represents the province’s 50 privately run societies, has instructed its members to stop using Walton-Allen’s services. But it should also make sure all mental health professionals doing this work are properly qualified.  Meanwhile, the province should launch an independent review of Walton-Allen’s child protection cases to see how many decisions were based solely or largely on her opinion. The review should probe systemic issues including how assessors are chosen, what practice guidelines are needed, how much weight a court should place on assessments, and what qualifications are required to do the work As retired Justice Judith Beaman notes, parent capacity assessments are “often the kiss of death for parents.” Beaman led the 2016 commission into the Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk lab scandal, in which improperly tested drug and alcohol hair samples were admitted as evidence in thousands of child protection proceedings. The Walton-Allen case is yet another blow to public confidence in Ontario’s child welfare system."

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