Parental Capacity Assessment (PCA)

Parental Capacity Assessment (PCA)

Caroline Goldsmith Consulting Clinical Psychologist at Waterford Psychology talks about the need for evidence based Parental Capacity Assessment (PCA)

In no other situation is the need for evidenced based practice more of an issue than with Parental Capacity Assessment (PCA). In my 20 plus years as a consulting psychologist I have seen a staggering amount of poorly constructed assessments.  Such assessments are often the difference between a child growing up in their birth family or being fostered or adopted away into another family.  Parental Capacity Assessment (PCA) upon which such life and death decisions are made should be forensically accurate to a point where there can be no room for ambiguity. Every observation or piece of information from which the opinions, conclusions and recommendations are derived should be analysed from an evidence based standpoint with clear rationale. Cut to the reality and the assessments are in practice rife with unfounded opinion, groundless conclusion and shocking recommendations.  Lets take each of those statements in turn;

Unfounded opinion

Opinions or interpretations of information and observations in parental capacity assessments should be based on clear rationale. In practice they are usually not. It is not unusual to observe a file where opinions have come about through a process of the likes, dislikes and ‘feelings’ towards a client from social workers and related professionals whom have been chosen to be involved in the Parental Capacity Assessment (PCA).

Groundless Conclusions

Conclusions are drawn from the information and opinions which have been expressed in the main parts of the report. A conclusion section is supposed to be a shorter pulling together, summarising and concluding of the main report findings. It is no place to put in additional information or afterthoughts which are not contained in the main part of the report. This section is very important because it is likely going to be the most read section and the reader will often assume the report writer has only included information and opinion which is clearly outlined in the main report (which they are unlikely to read). If the conclusions drawn are from new information which has not been included and explored in the main report, the conclusions are as good as groundless not coming from any foundation.

Shocking recommendations

Recommendations follow on from an exploration of the evidence (gained from evidence based analysis of main and collateral sources) in the report body and the solid conclusions drawn from such evidence. However in practice the recommendations usually follow the groundless conclusions gained from unfounded opinion.

Recommendations come in various forms and could be straightforward ones such as;  remove a child from parents, keep a child in a foster placement or adopt a child away from birth parents. Then there are the less clear such as ‘wait and see’ (what we are waiting to see is hardly ever explained) or‘child should remain in current placement as they are ‘stable’ at present’ (completely misses the end goal in favour of short term stability.  Goal of PCA assessment is to determine whether the parents are suitable carers, not if the child is stable where they are) This recommendation is probably the most damaging as it involves the child being away from the family of origin for longer before a decision will be made as to whether they are coming back.

Social workers in an impossible position

The situation is a minefield from the point of view of social workers and related professionals. They are often viewed as horrible wicked people just waiting to snatch your children away.  At first they must act to protect children from harm and then they must make sure no harm comes to them while they are under that protection. Faced with press and media stories of children killed and injured while social services failed to act they are more likely to err on the side of caution when taking a child into care. They then have to justify why they took that child into care and that is the first dilemma. Often a child has been removed on ‘flimsy reasons’ once investigated turn out to be groundless. In the meantime a case file has been generated and the action and expense must be justified. In case files it is easy to spot where the early ‘creative interpretations’ begin and the evidence blurs. A social worker may have removed a child as a ‘precaution’ or in case something may happen however no one can be found at fault for something they ‘might do’. So in the absence of any grounded reasoning the temptation is there to make something up or interpret some other piece of information ‘creatively’ to justify why the child should be in care. The alternative is to say ‘we were wrong and the child should be returned’ which would then open the health service up for a lawsuit for wrongful action. That is why this hardly ever happens. The chances are in Ireland, that if your child is taken in to care you face a long fight to get them back which could be from 2-5 or even more years.

Child protection agency and Children’s charities team up

In the absence of any real evidence against you( once original allegations have been proven groundless) One very popular way to justify why your child should remain care is to show that they are not ‘attached’ to you.  ‘Look. We may not have any evidence against you but it’s clear you are an abuser/a danger because your child is not attached to you’  Parental Capacity Assessments fill this gap nicely.  The local child protection agency in conjunction with children’s charities often team up to do them usually. Having read a score of such assessments I find that they are in the most part done without proper expertise,  lack knowledge of evidence based practice and are staggeringly unfamiliar with current literature and best practice. However the goal of the assessments seems to be more in justifying preconceived opinions than examining all the evidence fairly and in an unbiased manner in order to determine the best interests of the child.

If you have been the subject of such practice I would strongly advise you to seek an independent second opinion which is your right in law.

Caroline Goldsmith is a proponent of best practice laid down by the International Association for the study of Attachment (IASA)

This article was first featured on the Irish Forensic Science Society Website


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