ALLEGATIONS OF CHILD ABUSE IN THE CONTEXT OF PARENTAL SEPARATION: A DISCUSSION PAPER
The discussion in Chapter 5.0 indicates there are a number of issues related to child abuse allegations in the context of parental separation. In developing strategies to deal with these issues, it is important to recognize that some problems are inherent in this type of case (e.g., cases will continue to be time consuming to investigate due to their complexity and cases will continue to be expensive to process). The only way to address these issues is to reduce the incidence of false and unfounded allegations.
Some issues, primarily those dealing with education and training needs, can be addressed now. All professionals working with cases involving allegations of abuse, including child welfare workers, police, psychologists, lawyers and judges, need educational materials or training in dealing with high conflict separations, particularly with the special challenges that arise when allegations of abuse are made. This education should be ongoing and updated as new research information is available. Further, parents should be provided with information about the dynamics of parental separation and its effects on children. General information about abuse should be provided as part of "parenting after separation" education programs, with more detailed information given to individual parents as appropriate.
There are also some issues that we do not yet have enough information about (particularly Canadian information) to make informed policy decisions. These issues require research and study before appropriate responses can be formulated. Issues such as whether stronger legal remedies for dealing with false allegations are required cannot be properly addressed without undertaking further research.
Table 3 presents a summary of the issues discussed in Chapter 5.0, together with a suggested strategy for dealing with them. These strategies are discussed in more detail in the next section.
Several issues could be addressed by conducting a number of specific research studies, and following up on current research.
Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect
The lack of information regarding the incidence of allegations of child abuse should be addressed by conducting secondary analyses of the data from the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS). Analyses of these
data would indicate the incidence of abuse allegations when parents have separated, as well as the portion of these cases that involve intentionally false allegations. Questions contained in the CIS include,
"Is there an ongoing child
custody dispute at this time?" and
"If unfounded, was report a malicious referral?" The CIS could also provide national information on the source of the allegation, the identity of the alleged perpetrator, and duration of
the abuse (i.e., single incident, under six months, over six months). Data were ready for analysis upon completion of the contract with Health Canada, March 31, 2000. If data on these issues are not analyzed as part of the final
report for Health Canada, the Department of Justice Canada should consider funding secondary analyses of the data.
|Incidence of false and unfounded allegations of child abus.||Conduct research study to inform professionals and for policy development.|
|Need for education and training for professionals.||Resources and educational materials.|
|Length of time required to investigate cases involving allegations of child abuse.||More resources.|
|Availability of protocols for investigating these case.||Develop protocols.|
|Unfounded allegations: misunderstanding, fabrication or mental disturbance.||Need thorough assessment by trained professionals.|
|Children making false allegations.||Need thorough assessment by trained professionals.|
|Effect of unfounded allegations on family law decisions.||Conduct research study.|
|Dealing with uncertain outcome.||Improve mechanisms for supervised access and support for children; legal representation for children.|
|Children's evidence.||Education and training.|
|Role of assessors and experts.||Need thorough assessment by trained professionals.|
|Are stronger legal remedies required?||Conduct research study to inform policy development.|
|Would stronger legal remedies discourage legitimate reports?||Conduct research study to inform policy development.|
|Balancing the protection of the child with the rights of the parent.||Improve mechanisms for supervised access.|
|Social Service Issues|
|Role of therapists and counsellors.||Education and training.|
|Are the resources for supervised access adequate?||Conduct needs assessment study.|
|Should supervised access workers provide assessment and treatment services?||Conduct needs assessment study.|
|Increased costs to process cases involving allegations of abuse.||More resources.|
|Educational and Training Issues|
|Dynamics and characteristics of founded and false allegations of child abuse.||Education and training. Conduct research.|
|Lack of training for professionals involved in investigating cases of alleged abuse.||Education and training.|
Issues regarding the nature, outcome and processing of cases would best be addressed by a detailed tracking study of custody and access cases in Canada that involve allegations of child abuse. A tracking study could examine the following issues:
- when the allegation is first made;
- whether an allegation is founded, undetermined, intentionally false, or false due to an honest mistake or mental disturbance;
- whether access rights of non-custodial parents are being denied during investigations;
- what access supervision services are being utilized; whether false allegations of child abuse are being made repeatedly in the same case;
- whether children are being coerced or manipulated by custodial parents to make accusations against non-custodial parents;
- the length of time needed to resolve these cases; and
- the extent to which there are multiple proceedings (i.e., criminal, family law, and child protection) involving the same situation.
This type of research must focus not only on cases resolved by a trial, but also on the cases that are discontinued or settled, either because it becomes clear that the allegation is unfounded or because it is clear that the abuse occurred and the perpetrator does not seek a trial. A tracking study based on case files with a two-year follow-up would capture the majority of cases.
Issues regarding balancing the protection of the child with the rights of the parent could be addressed by conducting the following types of studies.
Needs Assessment Study
A national study on the types of supervised access services available could be conducted to determine what kinds of programs and services are available in Canada and whether any program gaps exist. Practices from some of the better programs could be assessed and information about them disseminated.
The issue of whether supervised access services should provide assessment or treatment services also needs further investigation and could be explored in a needs assessment study. While most professionals agree that more assessment and treatment services are needed, it is unclear whether supervised access centres should be providing these services. Supervised access centres and programs are seen as a necessary short-term solution to maintaining contact between parent and child, but they work best when they complement other services. It has been suggested that rather than providing assessment or therapeutic services, access centres should provide referrals to needed services.
Issues of inconsistencies in investigative processes and lack of knowledge among parents and professionals in cases involving allegations of child abuse could be addressed by developing education and training programs.
It was clear from both the literature review and the limited interviews with key informants that any allegation of child abuse must be treated seriously and assessed accordingly, regardless of whether it occurs during a custody and access dispute. There is a clear need for applied child development and psychological research to help police, child protection workers, assessors and other mental health professionals more effectively distinguish founded from false allegations. Judges and lawyers also need more educational materials and programs dealing with these extremely challenging cases. Information from researchers must be incorporated into training and educational materials that are available for professionals in Canada.
There is also a need to educate parents on issues of child abuse, as well as the effects of divorce on children. The findings of this study indicate that most cases involving unfounded allegations of abuse are due to honest mistakes and poor communication rather than deliberate lies or manipulation. Educating parents who have separated about the effects of parental separation on children, and training with the objective of improving communication, should help to reduce the number of unfounded allegations and help children cope better with their situations.
The literature from other jurisdictions suggests that there is a need for more resources to deal with cases where there is a legitimate concern about the risk of harm to children. The supervised access services that do exist in Canada need stable funding, since the services are too expensive for many families. Centres need trained supervisors and suitable space, and families require "after hours" supervision (i.e., evenings and weekends).
Further, there appears to be a need for standardization of supervised access and court-defined expectations. In terms of standards for supervised access centres, information from other jurisdictions suggests that centres should promote the safety and welfare of children, and of vulnerable parents during supervised exchange and visits; facilitate child/parent and child/sibling interaction while contact is taking place; and, where appropriate, work towards the independent management of contact by the parties. Standards should also specify the type and structure of services, administrative functions, staff and required qualifications, intake, operational procedures, safety and security measures, confidentiality, reports, and whether to provide reports of the observations of the child during the visit to the court.
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