Psychologists are using biased tests to assess Indigenous parents, experts say
Canada’s national psychology association calls the situation “dire.”
Justine looked across the desk at the blond-haired, blue-eyed psychologist assessing her and wondered how this white doctor could possibly understand where she’s coming from as an Indigenous woman and mother.
The psychologist had been contracted by B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development to complete a parenting capacity assessment (PCA) on Justine, whose real name The Discourse is withholding to protect the identities of her four daughters, who are in foster care.
“I was like, well, have you worked with Native people before … have you been to a reserve?” Justine remembers asking. “And she was like, ‘Well, no, I never…’”
The answer didn’t sit well with Justine. “Ultimately it’s going to be up to [her] — and what she thinks of me — whether I get my kids back,” says Justine, whose child-protection trial The Discourse has been following since March 2018.
The results of the psychologist’s PCA could have huge implications for Justine and her family. In child-protection cases, these lengthy assessments help the ministry and the court determine whether parents are sufficiently capable of raising their kids. While the government doesn’t keep statistics on how often PCAs are used in B.C., experts say when they are used, they carry a lot of weight in court.
This has Justine worried. She’s concerned that her parenting abilities are being judged by an assessment tool that’s biased against her and her family. If the psychologists conducting these assessments don’t have a deep understanding of the lasting impacts of the cyclical removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities — first through residential schools, then through the Sixties Scoop — and if they aren’t educated about Indigenous ways of raising children, how can they fairly assess an Indigenous parent?
Her concerns were echoed last month in a new report from Canada’s national psychology organizations, who call the situation “dire.”
“We lack the tools, training, understanding of culture, and appropriate recommendations to consistently provide meaningful helpful psychological assessments to Indigenous Peoples,” the Canadian Psychological Association and the Psychology Foundation of Canada wrote in May 2018.
Their report acknowledges that “assessments that are completed with Indigenous clients are likely to be culturally biased.” In the past, it adds, some PCAs “have been biased toward child apprehension.”
“We lack the tools, training, understanding of culture… to consistently provide meaningful helpful psychological assessments to Indigenous Peoples.”
The Supreme Court of Canada just reached a similar conclusion on June 13, 2018, when it ruled that prisons have been using biased assessment tests on Indigenous inmates for years, resulting in longer, harsher incarcerations. The court called the tests “impugned tools.”
Dr. Peter Choate has been wrestling with the question of culturally biased parenting capacity assessments for years. As a clinical social worker, he completed hundreds of PCAs. As an associate professor of social work at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, he taught others how to conduct them, too. Until he lost faith in the process.
About five years ago, Choate started to wonder: Are PCAs really culturally blind, as he’d always assumed? Could any psychologist, no matter their cultural background or biases, apply standard assessment tools to parents from different cultural communities and expect fair and accurate results? Or are psychologists in Canada using inherently racist methodologies?
When Choate started researching PCAs in 2013, he discovered little had been written about their use on Indigenous parents in Canada — despite the significant over-representation of Indigenous children in Canadian child-welfare systems. So he worked with Indigenous colleagues and elders to explore whether PCAs could be fairly applied to Indigenous families.
His conclusion: “There is no proper way” to do PCAs on Indigenous parents, he recently told The Discourse.
Like Canada’s national psychological organizations, he’s calling for urgent change. In the meantime, Indigenous parents like Justine are under pressure to undergo assessments that don’t reflect their worldviews, administered by people who don’t speak their language. “I felt like I was being tested and it’s like they have a whole answer key and I’m not allowed to study for it,” Justine says. “You just have to keep guessing and trying until you figure it out.”
With four daughters living in three different temporary foster homes and the ministry pushing to have them permanently removed from her care, Justine knew if she didn’t “figure it out,” it could mean losing her kids for good.
Inside an assessment
“The first day was more or less me just explaining my story and my concerns about the care of my children,” Justine says. “I felt heard.”
But something shifted on the second day of her parenting capacity assessment.
“She had me going on a computer,” Justine says, identifying “numbers, shapes and colours.” After that, she filled out a questionnaire, answering questions about what it was like for her growing up — Was her family life “good”? Who had she lived with?
“Then she called me into her office and she sat me at her desk and … she had me play with blocks,” Justine says. “She showed me a picture. She says make this picture. First she started me off with four blocks … [then] she bumped it up to nine blocks.”
Justine says the psychologist used a stopwatch to time her. “The pieces had to be flush.”
After that, they moved on to vocabulary.
“It was really easy words, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve been to school, so I’m not on the top of my vocabulary,” she says. “I was like, what does vocabulary have to do with me parenting my children?”
“Sometimes the perception is that the [ministry] wants a PCA to put that final nail in the coffin of their case,” says lawyer Corinne Feenie.
Feenie’s been representing B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development in child-protection cases for 30 years. She says in her practice, PCAs are sometimes used when the parent has done all the self-improvement work that they’ve been asked to do, but social workers are still concerned for the children.
“They’ve gone to the parenting courses, they’ve worked with the family [preservation] worker … and yet … we still keep seeing problems or hearing concerns,” she explains. “And we think, well, we’ve been doing this for a year and a half, what’s the problem here?”
Feenie thinks PCAs are quite rare, but her law firm doesn’t keep statistics on how often they’re used in the cases they handle. The ministry ”does not actively collect data on the number of PCAs” conducted either, but anecdotal reports suggest they’re “seldom used,” says spokesperson Shawn Larabee.
Feenie suggests one reason PCAs aren’t commonly used is that they’re costly — in the neighbourhood of $10,000, according to multiple sources. These assessments require time and expertise to gather background information on a family, observe the parent and child together, interview the child and others close to the family, administer psychometrics — such as the personality tests that Justine had to complete — and write a report.
When PCAs are used, both the court and the ministry give these complex and costly assessments “quite a bit” of weight in child-protection trials, Feenie told The Discourse.
An Ontario family law judge agrees. Psychologists who conduct PCAs “wield substantial power to influence the outcome of the lives of children,” Carole Curtis wrote in her 2008 paper, Limits of Parenting Capacity Assessments in Child Protection Cases.
“I was like, what does vocabulary have to do with me parenting my children?”
Curtis says it’s important to consider not only the power assessors have in these cases, but also the lack of power that parents have to respond.
“The playing field is hardly level,” she wrote, explaining that “parents rarely can afford to hire a subsequent assessor to respond to a damaging report” and legal aid plans don’t usually cover such assessments, or at least not fully.
Justine says she only agreed to the ministry’s request for a PCA on the condition that she’d get some say in who was assessing her. But her request wasn’t honoured, she says. “They never let me choose.”
Asked whether she would have preferred an Indigenous assessor, Justine doesn’t hesitate.
“Yes, I would have,” she says. “Because I feel that they are more familiar with our cultural ways, with the way we do things, the way our homes are run.”
Two months after she was assessed, Justine sat in court in March 2018 as a lawyer described the results of her PCA.
“The Parenting Capacity Assessment is … going to show you that the trauma of [Justine’s] upbringing has created two characteristics of a borderline personality disorder, and that’s a personality whose characteristics are often denial and deflection of real issues,” argued Susie Gray, the ministry’s lawyer. “She cannot parent these children. She cannot meet their needs. And the Parenting Capacity Assessment is very thorough with that analysis.”
Are there any Indigenous psychologists doing PCAs?
In their May 2018 report, Canada’s national psychology organizations found there are “very few” members of their profession “delivering assessments within Indigenous communities.”
The Discourse asked B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development how many Indigenous psychologists are conducting PCAs in the province.
“As is true throughout the public service, we cannot (and should not) compel staff or contractors to disclose their racial or ethnic heritage — though they may choose to self-identify,” replied spokesperson Shawn Larabee in an email.
In B.C., Feenie’s been asking around for an Indigenous psychologist who could do a PCA on an Indigenous mother who specifically requested an Indigenous assessor.
Feenie says she reached out to the ministry and the Attorney General’s legal services office and several Indigenous psychologists and counsellors “to determine whether they had a willingness to do assessments” or if they knew any Indigenous psychologists doing PCAs in B.C.
“I assess Spanish people, refugees … people who are Chinese. And I’m not Chinese and I’m not Spanish. So why would it be different, you know?”
She “came up with nothing,” she says.
Feenie sees this dearth as a problem — “more than anything for the sense of fairness from the parents.”
While Feenie says she believes that all psychologists, regardless of their race, have the ability to “manage biases and to make the process fair,” she recognizes that “if you haven’t lived the experience, there’s a certain aspect of it that is just a theoretical thing.”
Across the country in Ontario, Dr. Ed Connors says it’s “optimal” but “not necessary” for Indigenous parents to be assessed by Indigenous psychologists. Connors is of Mohawk ancestry and comes from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory.
“Learning to be culturally-safe in a practice with Indigenous clients is a specific skill set. It’s not something that you acquire, even by birth,” he notes. “We can have people who are of Indigenous ancestry who also may not practice in culturally safe ways with Indigenous clients.”
Dr. Nicole Aube, a psychologist who is not Indigenous, acknowledges that it would “be nice” if there were more Indigenous people conducting these assessments, but what matters most, she says, is that the assessor is well trained. Aube says she conducts about five or six PCAs a year, all over B.C.
“I assess Spanish people, refugees … people who are Chinese. And I’m not Chinese and I’m not Spanish,” she told The Discourse. “So why would it be different, you know?”
“Doesn’t matter if the child is blue, navy, orange, yellow,” she continues. “What’s important is you get a qualified professional who will take the best interests of the child. That’s all.”
When asked if she thinks the experiences of Indigenous families warrant particular consideration — given the connection many Indigenous people see between their over-representation in today’s child-welfare system and Canada’s former residential school system — Aube says, “Yes and no.”
“There are some links. But not necessarily. It’s not because the grandma was in residential school that these parents…” She trailed off. “There are many reasons.”
One size doesn’t fit all
Canada’s national psychology organizations say part of the cultural bias consistently creeping into their profession’s assessments of Indigenous people comes from the use of standardized testing that’s out of step with Indigenous realities — and puts Indigenous parents at a disadvantage.
“Western assessments often centre on standardized quantitative tools, grounded in Western theory, normed on non-Indigenous populations and yield categories that do not resonate with Indigenous world-views,” the Canadian Psychological Association and the Psychology Foundation wrote in their May 2018 report.
After five years studying PCAs, Choate agrees. These assessments aren’t developed with Indigenous families in mind, he told The Discourse in a recent interview; they’re based on American or Euro-centric family models.
“It is the settler culture that defines and determines who is good enough while Aboriginal communities lack voice,” he wrote in a 2017 paper with Gabrielle Lindstrom, a Blackfoot scholar and a member of the Kainai First Nation of southern Alberta.
“PCAs done on Aboriginal peoples using Euro-centric models of family and assessment should be discontinued.”
In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report, the national psychology organizations are calling for sweeping changes to standard psychological practice — and they make specific reference to assessments of Indigenous people.
Assessments should be “collaborative, individualized, and community based,” they wrote in their recommendations. Psychologists should “consider working with Elders, community members, traditional healers, and the family unit as part of assessment,” and they should “avoid framing an individual in a Western diagnostic context.”
Feenie says lawyers can also help make PCAs “a fairer process” for Indigenous parents by asking psychologists to adapt their ways.
For example, she says, assessments could be expected to be conducted in the parent’s home community, instead of putting the onus on the parent to travel to the psychologist’s office. And lawyers can seek assessors who are open to meeting with Elders from the community and having a band representative sit with the parent during the PCA, she adds.
But Choate argues that courts shouldn’t be relying on PCAs in child-protection cases concerning Indigenous parents. Assessment tools that don’t value Indigenous culture or traditional parenting and communal child-raising models, and that fail to consider the impacts of intergenerational trauma, are “scientifically flawed,” he wrote with Lindstrom in their 2017 paper.
“PCAs done on Aboriginal peoples using Euro-centric models of family and assessment should be discontinued,” they concluded.
Instead, governments should work with Indigenous people to develop different ways to assess parents, or a new approach altogether, they said.
As a society, we should be empowering Indigenous people to lead the way forward, Choate says, over the phone.
“We, the dominant society, don’t have the solution,” he says. “The First Nations are the ones that are going to have to create the solution.”
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This piece was edited by Robin Perelle, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jonathan von Ofenheim. The Discourse’s executive editor is Rachel Nixon.