WHAT IS A CUSTODY/ACCESS ASSESSMENT?
A custody and access assessment is generally conducted by a professional social worker or psychologist with advanced training in the area of child custody matters. Some professionals have additional expertise or training in areas such as working with high conflict parents, parental alienation or parental estrangement, special needs assessments, child protection, and other specified areas of focus. All assessors should have training in conducting assessments, understanding children’s ages and stages of development, attachment, mediation, and have an understanding of the impact of family violence in custody matters.
The purpose of the assessment is to provide to the court, and the family, with an independent and professional opinion along with observations of a family’s situation. The assessment will also speak to the views and needs of the children, and make recommendations for custody and access arrangements, as well as any specific parenting arrangements deemed appropriate.
What kinds of custody assessments are available?
In Ontario, there are two ways to obtain a custody and access assessment:
1. The Office of the Children’s Lawyer
Custody/access assessors (known as clinicians) are social workers provided by the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL) to complete an assessment for the court. In general, a judge must make an order requesting the involvement of the Office of the Children’s Lawyer under s. 112 of the Courts of Justice Act. The Office of the Children’s Lawyer must agree to accept the file, as a judge cannot simply order their involvement. For this type of an assessment, there must be an active court case and a judges order is required. There is no cost to the parties for assessments from the Office of the Children’s Lawyer. It should be noted that that the OCL does not accept every case that is referred to them.
2. Private Assessments
In these types of assessments, a judge can order the parents to participate in a private assessment, or parents can seek out an assessment without court involvement. These assessments are made under s. 30 of the Children’s Law Reform Act, and the parents are responsible for payment. Private assessments can be comprehensive in addressing the custody of the children, access arrangements, recommendations regarding therapeutic services, and any other issue that may arise. They can also be focused to reflect a specific issue and recommendations when parents have resolved most other areas but remain stuck on some final details. Parenting assessments can also be done strictly with children to provide the court information about the child’s views and wishes (sometimes referred to as “Voice of the Child” reports.”
Private assessment or an OCL report?
There are lots of reasons for choosing a private assessment over requesting the involvement of the Office of the Children’s Lawyer. First, the OCL is not obligated to accept referrals and referrals can be declined for a variety of reasons. Additionally, the OCL (like all government run agencies), is often subject to the whims of the current provincial government and may simply lack the funding to provide services at various times. Many parents continue to want an assessment after the file has been refused by the OCL.
On other occasions, parents want to be able to have some control over timelines or where the assessor is located (as many OCL clinicians only work out of town and may have multiple files that limit their availability). When a matter is referred to the OCL, the parents have no choice in who conducts their assessment. This is not the case with private assessments where parents are encouraged to ask questions about the clinician’s background, understanding of their unique circumstances, and ensure that they are a good match for the clinician’s area of expertise.
Finally, it can take many months to have a clinician assigned through the Office of the Children’s Lawyer. In general, private assessments can be started and completed in the same time that a family is waiting to hear back from the OCL. It is not unusual for a year or more to pass between the time the judge requests involvement from the OCL until the report is filed with the court. Private assessments take anywhere from three to six months to be completed, depending on the complexity of the situation. At our office, our clinicians generally do not work on more than one to two private assessments at a time, ensuring that our attention remains on your family until we complete our work.
What’s involved in a custody/access assessment?
The Referral Process
Most families are referred by a lawyer, the courts, or a therapist who has been working with one or both of the parents or the children. Parents are also able to self-refer without needing a professional referral, which can greatly streamline the process and allows the assessment process to begin quickly.
Once contact has been made with our office, you’ll speak directly with a clinician/ assessor to determine if we’re a good match for your specific situation. We don’t work with everyone and neither should you. We’ll ask lots of questions about your current circumstances, your children and their needs, what arrangements are currently in place, if there’s any history of violence between the parents, and what you’re hoping to get out of the process.
If we both agree that we’re a good match to work together, we’ll set up a meeting with each parent separately to begin the process of assessment. If either of us feel we’re not a good fit, we’ll do our best to make recommendations for other assessors nearby. We want you to be comfortable and we want to be sure that our skills are a match for your family.
At this time, most assessments are being conducted virtually because of Covid-19.
A s. 30 assessment, either in person or virtually, involves a number of steps that we follow in most investigations:
- A contract will be signed regarding our work together outlining what we’ll be doing, the cost of services, and steps that will be taken. If there are specific issues to be addressed, this will be outlined at this time.
- Full payment is required in advance and placed in a trust account to be utilized to cover the costs of the assessment.
- Individual interviews with each parent/caregiver (several will be conducted throughout the process). In interviews we’ll explore each caregiver’s personal history, the relationship between the parents, and each parent’s parenting plan, as well as the parents’ views of and relationship with the children.
- Each caregiver will sign authorizations to exchange information with any and all services providers or collaterals that can provide information about the children and your family. (Police and child welfare records are mandatory in all investigations.)
- The assessor will interview collaterals (Usually by phone, although some professionals require in office interviews on a fee for service basis. If this situation arises, we will speak with you prior to proceeding with the interview to obtain consent for payment or to determine if this interview is necessary.)
- An observation visit between the children and each caregiver will be arranged. (If a child is refusing contact, please let us know during the initial interview.) These are usually fun for children and super awkward for parents. Everyone does make it through! If a parent is having supervised access, we can offer the access in our office or attend at another supervised access location.
- The children are interviewed at our office (as this is a neutral location), or at another location that allows for privacy and comfort for the child. Because of restrictions due to Covid, these interviews may be conducted online.
- Sometimes children are interviewed more than once. We generally do not interview children at school as this is considered a neutral and safe environment for most children.
- The clinician will obtain any and all police reports and child welfare reports and will summarize those involvements in the report. You’ll also be asked about any involvement to share your view of any incidents or investigations that took place.
- A final interview with parents will be held at the end of the investigation to allow the parents to hear what others have shared and to allow them to provide any feedback necessary.
The Final Report
- A meeting with the parents, and their counsel if they have lawyers, will be held either jointly or separately depending upon the situation. (If there is a history of mental health issues by one or both of the caregivers, or if there are any concerns about power and control issues, family violence, or high conflict between the parents, the meeting will be held separately.) In that meeting, often known as disclosure, the outcome of the report and recommendations will be shared. That meeting is an opportunity to mediate an agreement between the parties, and avoid lengthy and drawn out court matters. It is not to debate the outcome of the investigation.
- The report and any settlement will be filed with the court (if there is court involvement) and then be provided to either the lawyers (if counsel are involved) or to the caregivers directly.
- Once the disclosure meeting is over, the file closes at our end.
What is the cost of a custody/access assessment?
In general, custody/access assessments from The Ontario Co-Parenting Centre start at $5000 for a full assessment and final report.
Parents generally share the cost of the assessment; however, it is not uncommon for one partner to pay a greater share depending on income. Occasionally one parent is willing and able to pay for the assessment. Regardless of payment, the assessment will not be biased or influenced based on who paid, who called first, who was interviewed first, who chose us, or any other arbitrary event. We strive to be fair, unbiased, and open about the process.
Given that private assessments are costly, we do our very best to keep costs down. We know this is a stressful, and often expensive, time. To make things easier and to be transparent, we want to break down the cost of custody/access assessments at our office as outlined below:
- We charge a flat rate of $5000 payable in advance, prior to the investigation beginning. The flat rate provides for a 40 hour assessment at the rate of $125/hour. We provide a detailed accounting of expenses half way through the assessment, and again at the end of the process to ensure that we are doing our bests to keep costs down. We accept credit cards, email transfer, or certified check as payment.
- If you are approaching the “40 hour limit”, you’ll be informed in writing and be given an estimate of how many additional hours may be required. The file will be put on hold, until payment for the additional hours is received. You’ll be given information along the way so there are no nasty financial surprises waiting for you at the end.
Additionally, we try really hard to keep the costs down during the assessment process. Some of the ways we do this are as follows:
- We try to limit parent contact to interviews. If parents need to provide updated information, we encourage the use of email to do so. Phone calls and additional meetings are not a good use of time; however, there may be occasions that warrant this. This will be discussed during the process
- We encourage you to cultivate your list of collaterals. If you want us to call all 40 of your character references, we’re probably going to use most of the fee to do that. It’s never a good use of money (and character references are largely ignored by the courts, as well.)
- We’ll ask you to come to our offices in St. Thomas, Ontario for everything but the observation visits, (unless we are working virtually) which are held in your home.
- We’ll consult with you immediately if one of your professional contacts or collaterals is seeking a fee to be interviewed. (This is becoming an increasingly common practice with doctors and counselling professionals.) We will not proceed until you have authorized and provided payment to the professional. If we feel it is absolutely necessary, we’ll discuss that as well.
- We’ll consistently and professionally discuss areas that may be resolved without litigation, or may not need to be explored in the report to save time and money. When parents can agree on things like extra-curricular events, holidays, or access exchanges, we can eliminate many hours of trying to come up with a plan initiated by the clinician.
- We will advise you in advance of any additional expenses as they arise. Some of those expenses can include:
- Fees charged by police or child welfare for reports/photocopying (most agencies charge 10 cents/per page).
- Travel expenses for out of town interviews (we really try to avoid these!) Travel fees and mileage rates are disclosed in the contract and billed prior to disclosure.
- Prior to disclosure, you’ll receive a detailed statement of how the fee has been utilized and any outstanding expenses. The report will be released when all outstanding fees have been paid in full.
What if my assessment is very simple and doesn’t take 40 hours?
If you’re looking for a focused report to address a specific issue, or a report only speaking to the child’s views and wishes, we will discuss this with you ahead of time.
In general a “voice of the child report” does not take much longer than 10 hours to conduct. Focused reports generally take around 20-30 hours. The balance of unused hours will be refunded prior to disclosure. All of this will be detailed in the contract we sign before we begin working with your family. You can learn more about Voice of the Child Reports HERE.
Ready to learn more? Get in touch with us.