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Unraveling Custody/Access Assessments/Evaluations

January 20, 2014

I received the following comments/questions from a reader on my Facebook page. It represents a multitude of misconceptions and false ideas about the role of the custody assessor/evaluator:

Mr. Direnfeld was a councilor for my family and was very helpful but I did find that now I look back on our assessment that was done, you were one sided to the other party who paid.

What happens when you have made the wrong decision and the children that you had said that should be with the other are now being neglected and there is proof?  Will you go back to court with evidence for the other party, as per say what happens when you make the wrong decision and children are being neglected and one of the children are being hurt and emotionally scared of the parent you decided for the children to live with?

In respect to your knowledgeable experience, would you hold yourself accountable? I think these are questions parents need to ask before they agree to an assessment and always get a second opinion before signing.


Clinical-legal services are paid in advance by retainer. This is to mitigate concern of bias towards a payer. With payment received in advance, there is no worry about being paid and hence no bias to the payer. To conclude a bias in this circumstance is only a false or misleading charge which may have been meant to harm the assessor’s reputation and is just unfounded by the nature of the pay structure.

Assessors do not make decisions. Parents and judges make decisions. Even when parents appear to not make decisions, it is their actions alone that bring in the legal system – hence their decision or the judge’s.

Parents do this either through substandard parental behaviour giving cause for concern with regard to the care/wellbeing of their children, or by their choosing to go to court as a means to resolve their differences. Thus parental behaviour alone evokes the legal system wherein the judge may then make the decision on their behalf.

Judges do not go out willy-nilly looking to involve themselves in parents’ lives and neither do assessors. Assessors are either ordered in by a judge after a parent has demonstrated cause for concern or has initiated legal action, or the assessor is invited in by the parents as an aid to the Court.

The role of the assessor is to provide an opinion to the Court by way of recommendations.

Despite who pays for the assessor’s involvement (public services or private – paid by parents), the assessor’s accountability is then to the Court – not the parents. That is not to say the assessor may not be helpful to the parents, but the assessor’s prime obligation is to be an aid to the Court on behalf of the children.

Reports and recommendations represent a snapshot in time on the basis of information available. It remains the prerogative of the Court to conclude differently than an assessor reports or recommends and it also remains the prerogative of the Court to order an update which in turn could give rise to different recommendations on the basis of new information. It is never the assessor’s role to conduct an update unilaterally.

The assessor’s accountability is exercised at trial, when called as a witness and then through the process of examination and cross examination – a very stringent process. Therein both parties either directly or through their respective lawyers, have the opportunity to test the assessor’s credentials, training and experience as well as the assessment processes, conclusions and recommendations. The assessor stands as a witness to hold themselves available for this scrutiny.

The objective of the assessor is less to make their own pronouncements on right or wrong, but to provide a detailed understanding of parental issues and then to chart a path that in view of available information will provide for the best outcome of the children in the given circumstances. They do the best they can and there are no guarantees of being absolutely right. Sometimes they are merely advising of the lesser of two undesirable situations meaning that some issues will likely continue.

After the fact and given issues in some cases will likely continue, it seems easy to finger point to the assessor for poor judgment. However the outcome if an alternate arrangement were enacted will never be known and the fact that poor parenting continues doesn’t mean that a reasonable decision wasn’t still made at the outset. However, circumstances may change and what was acceptable at one moment in time, may not be acceptable at a later moment in time.

If circumstances change or if something is no longer acceptable, then the entire process may be repeated and the situation reviewed anew. This though is never the responsibility of the assessor to initiate, this remains another parental decision.

Courts, judges, family lawyers, assessors, mediators, parenting coordinators are brought in if and only if parenting behaviour is substandard and children are at risk or we are initially invited by the parents or ordered by a Court.

Bottom line, the real question parents need to ask are of themselves – Am I mature or capable enough to resolve conflict peacefully, advancing the needs of my children ahead of my own? Can I put my needs and wants aside, for the good of my children?

If one or other parent cannot do this, then the assessor may become the default course of action. These outcomes reflect parental behaviour and parental choices.

If you should decide to not abdicate responsibility to the will of a third party (judge) or influence of a third party (assessor), but require assistance, then consider parental counseling, mediation or collaborative law as dispute resolution strategies where the parents retain control of the outcome. If you have a noted problem with drugs, alcohol, violence and/or mental health, then please do seek help for yourself so that those issues can be mitigated and then less an intervening issue to resolving your parenting plan.

At the end of the day, all of us who are here to help you resolve your issues, would be pleased to see you resolve them yourselves, peacefully. We do respect that that is the best case scenario.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.


Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. As usual, your comments are thoughtful, thought-provoking and spot on. thanks so much foro sharing your insights with us.

  2. Paul Boers permalink

    Well said Gary, people need to take responsibility for their behaviour, but sadly these days this seems to have been eroded.

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