British Columbia

'Not one shred of scientific evidence': Critics say psych reports in custody cases can hurt kids

Critics say the allegations concerning the work of a Vancouver psychologist are not isolated, but are baked right into the system for court-ordered assessments used in child custody battles across North America.

Researchers studying psychological assessments used in family law allege system is inherently flawed

Children are pictured playing at a daycare in Vancouver on Sept. 5, 2019. Some critics argue that psychological evaluations during family legal disputes do not help children and can even hurt them. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When a Vancouver-area mother read a psychologist's recommendations for custody of her young daughter, she started hyperventilating at work.

Dr. Allan Posthuma was recommending the courts grant sole guardianship to her ex, a man with a previous conviction for domestic violence who'd had multiple run-ins with police.

"I was frantic. I was scared that they were going to take her away. I was thinking about all the things that would have happened to her," the mother remembered in a recent interview. CBC is not naming her to protect the privacy of her daughter.

Investigators with the College of Psychologists of B.C. allege that Posthuma failed to properly consider documented issues with violence when he evaluated the family. 

The allegation hasn't been proven, but some critics say this isn't an isolated problem. They argue that the court-ordered psychological assessments used in family legal disputes across North America are inherently flawed and can cause serious harm for children and families.

"To the best of my knowledge, there is not one shred of scientific evidence that child custody evaluations benefit children, and most unfortunately there have been cases where the psychologists' recommendations to the court endorsed parents who later killed their own children," Florida psychologist Dr. Ira Turkat told CBC.

He made it clear that he could not comment on Posthuma's case, but Turkat has been arguing against the use of these evaluations for more than a decade. He outlined his case last year in a piece published in the American Journal of Family Law, pointing out instances in Virginia, Maryland and California where parents have killed their children after courts granted custody or visitation rights in response to psychologists' recommendations.

Child homicides are at the extreme end of potential consequences for a misguided psychological assessment, but critics in B.C. remain deeply concerned about the potential damages.

Family violence not fully addressed

Under the Family Law Act, these custody and access reports are known as Section 211 assessments. They're ordered by judges to help make decisions in contentious family disputes, and can be performed by independent psychologists like Posthuma or family justice counsellors employed by the province.

These assessments are currently under the microscope as part of a federal government-funded research project examining the legal system's response to family violence, according to Haley Hrymak, a research lawyer with Rise Women's Legal Centre.

She told CBC that many psychologists and counsellors don't fully consider the issue of domestic violence when they're making their recommendations. Sometimes, they don't ask any questions about whether anyone in the family has been violent, she said.

"Obviously, the presence of family violence has a major impact on the best interests of the children, but our research suggests that it is not always being captured or addressed," Hrymak said.

Researchers from Rise and the Centre for Response-Based Practice have been poring over Section 211 reports and interviewing women who've been assessed.

Many of the women report that the psychologists and counsellors they've dealt with have been dismissive of their concerns about an ex-partner, even concluding they are not fit to have custody of their children.

One researcher says psychologists who write section 211 assessments often fail to take family violence into account. (DedMityay/Shutterstock)

"These women are frequently sitting down with the report writer and they have genuine fears and concerns about their violent ex-spouse," Hrymak said.

"But instead, the woman may be described as paranoid because of a multiple-choice questionnaire they filled out on a computer."

The research has also raised concerns about the cost of Section 211 assessments, which can be as high as $20,000 or $30,000, Hrymak said. That total doesn't include the expense of undergoing any counselling or follow-up assessments recommended by a psychologist.

"I've spoken with women who have spent over $100,000 simply on this piece of their litigation, and ultimately are in a financial crisis as a result of that," Hrymak said.

She wants to see changes in legislation to make sure discussions of family violence are included in all Section 211 reports, and and to require psychologists to complete training on the subject.

'Custody evaluations may be helpful'

These psychological assessments do have strong defenders.

Dr. Allan Posthuma is one, and he wrote a counterpoint to Turkat's arguments in a 2016 article in the publication Court Review.

Posthuma and his co-author Jonathan Gould agreed that more research is needed on the impact of psychological assessments on families, but said that doesn't necessarily mean they're harmful.

"Since there is no empirical examination of the short- and long-term effects of expert opinions regarding custodial placement and decision making on judicial determinations, it is just as easy to argue that custody evaluations may be helpful," they wrote.

Posthuma's lawyer, Michael Schalke, told CBC that his client is satisfied with his record. He did not respond to a request for comment about suggestions that Section 211 assessments can be harmful.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.