In November 2008, psychologist Nicole Walton-Allen recommended that a child be permanently taken from their parents and placed for adoption. Three months later, a Hamilton judge made it happen.
Later in 2009, she called for another Hamilton child from a different couple to be placed for adoption, finding “it would be in his best interest.” Another judge granted the order.
These are some of more than 100 expert opinions — known as parenting capacity assessments — Walton-Allen testified she has given since 1992. Such reports evaluate whether parents can meet the needs of their children and whether supports are available; they can be heavily relied on by the courts.
Last December, a judge said Walton-Allen had “intentionally misrepresented” her credentials since at least 2009, passing herself off as a clinical psychologist when in reality she is only authorized to practise in school psychology by the College of Psychologists of Ontario.
The judge also found that as a school psychologist, she was unqualified to perform the work.
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The question of how many of her expert opinions led to children being permanently taken away from their parents is now at the heart of calls that the provincial government launch an independent review of all cases in which Walton-Allen submitted a parenting capacity assessment.
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies has said it no longer supports the use of Walton-Allen’s services for such assessments.
“OACAS is currently analyzing this issue and consulting with our membership on the best approach from the perspective of supporting good outcomes for the children, youth and families of Ontario,” Nicole Bonnie, the association’s CEO, told the Star in a statement Wednesday.
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Child protection lawyers have said the December findings against Walton-Allen throw into doubt any parenting capacity assessment she has ever completed. They’re calling on Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith to launch an independent review.
“It is unacceptable that children and families may have been affected by this professional’s misrepresentation of her qualifications,” said a statement from Smith’s ministry to the Star on Wednesday.
“The ministry is working to understand the scope of the work conducted by this individual and determine the potential next steps.”
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The lawyers say the review should be similar to what the previous Liberal government did following the Motherisk scandal. The government appointed retired Court of Appeal justice Susan Lang to lead that probe in the wake of a Toronto Star investigation that found the Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk lab had submitted drug and alcohol hair samples in thousands of child protection cases that did not follow gold-standard test methods.
Lang later found the hair sample tests to be “inadequate and unreliable.”
The Star has reviewed four publicly available court rulings from child protection cases in which Walton-Allen submitted a parenting capacity assessment. In three of the rulings, a judge ruled that the child be placed for adoption, in line with Walton-Allen’s recommendation.
In the fourth, a judge initially did not follow her recommendation to make the child a Crown ward, but later revisited his decision.
The extent to which Walton-Allen’s assessment was the deciding factor in each of these cases is not clear.
A staff member at Walton-Allen’s company, Behaviour Innovations, confirmed the psychologist received the Star’s detailed questions about her work and qualifications. The Star did not receive a response.
She is called a “clinical psychologist” in one ruling, from 2009; in two others, she is called simply “Dr. Walton-Allen”; and in the fourth, she is identified as a psychologist “qualified as an expert in parenting competency of adults who are developmentally delayed.”
Despite having testified that she completed over 100 parenting capacity assessments, only a handful of court decisions relating to them are publicly available — and even, then the identities of the parties are shielded by the standard publication ban imposed by Ontario law in child protection proceedings.
Lawyers have questioned how many cases have ended in a settlement based on a Walton-Allen assessment, and therefore did not result in a public court ruling.
Here are those cases:
Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton vs. J.M. and S.B. — February 2009
In her assessment, Walton-Allen recommended that it was in the best interests of the child — identified only as L.J.B. — to be made a Crown ward, with no access to the parents, for the purpose of adoption. Her opinion supported the application of the children’s aid society in the case.
The mother’s previous three children had also been made Crown wards without access.
Superior Court Justice Thomas Lofchik said it was apparent from the evidence that the parents loved the child, had been diligent in attending access visits “and in my view have made efforts to improve their instrumental care skills of the child.”
“If the parenting skills of the respondents were the only issue I would be inclined to find that there is a triable issue in this matter,” he wrote.
But the judge found the evidence was “overwhelming” that the parents continued to have mental health problems and their lifestyle created a risk of harm to the child.
He noted that Walton-Allen found the mother had the potential to be impulsive and quick-tempered, with a limited ability to control expressions of anger, and needed long-term treatment for her borderline personality disorder.
She found the father also displayed characteristics “that pose significant risk factors to child abuse and neglect” and that a brain injury clinic doctor found he had “ongoing cognitive difficulties.”
The judge ordered the child be made a Crown ward without access for the purpose of adoption.
“In reviewing these concerns with respect to the mental health of L.J.B.’s parents, it would appear that there is significant risk that the child would be physically harmed,” the judge wrote.
Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton vs. E.O. and S.H. — December 2009
Here, Walton-Allen again recommended that the child, known as D.H., be made a Crown ward without access for the purpose of adoption, in line with the children’s aid society application.
The order was granted by Superior Court Justice Donald J. Gordon.
Both sides consented that Walton-Allen was qualified to give opinion evidence on the parenting capacity assessment, cognitive functioning and child development. The judge describes her as “a clinical psychologist with extensive experience and academic training.”
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In his ruling, Gordon states: “There is no dispute as to Dr. Walton-Allen’s qualifications. She is well known and respected in her field.”
He concluded that the parents had a genuine desire to raise their child and the potential to acquire parenting skills, but that they were not capable at the time to parent alone.
“I am not persuaded the parents will acquire the minimal parenting skills required within a reasonable time period,” the judge wrote, saying their status was essentially as described in Walton-Allen’s report.
“Despite their best efforts, little has changed in the intervening time period other than with basic skills. They are unable to meet D.H.’s future needs. Accordingly, the only viable option for D.H. is Crown wardship.”
Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton-Wentworth vs. B.D. — March 2002
In this case, Walton-Allen prepared a parenting capacity assessment and also testified in court that, given the child’s age, the inability of the parents to provide proper care, and their general lack of awareness of child developmental issues, she should not be returned to her parents.
After receiving Walton-Allen’s written opinion, the children’s aid society amended its application to ask that the child, known as B.V., be made a Crown ward.
The judge in the case noted that a number of concerns had been raised by the society, including seeing the parents smoking around the child, the mother’s struggles with breastfeeding, the parents’ troubles with holding the baby properly and a reluctance to attend parenting classes recommended by the society.
In Justice Faye McWatt’s ruling, Walton-Allen is referred to as “the doctor.”
“Dr. Walton-Allen concluded by recommending that the child be made a Crown ward with no access by the parents,” McWatt wrote. “I accept her findings.”
Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton v. L.H. — January 2008
In this case, the children’s aid society based its decision to seek Crown wardship partly on a psychiatric assessment of the father, prepared by a psychiatrist, and a parenting capacity assessment of both parents, done by Walton-Allen.
A society worker testified that soon after receiving Walton-Allen’s report the group amended its position to seek Crown wardship of the developmentally delayed child, known as D.M. “Prior to that the society had always taken the position it was prepared to work with the parents with a view to returning the child to them,” Justice Alex Pazaratz wrote in his ruling.
Though saying the child should be made a Crown ward, Walton-Allen recommended that unless an adoptive family was found immediately, “it would be ideal that D.M. continues to have access to her parents, in the context of a treatment foster home placement that would allow for hands-on training and support for (the mother) in her parenting role.”
Walton-Allen is identified in the ruling as a psychologist “qualified as an expert in parenting competency of adults who are developmentally delayed and also with respect to children who are developmentally delayed.”
“Her professional qualifications are impeccable,” Pazaratz wrote. “Her parenting capacity assessment is comprehensive and well-reasoned. Her testimony was impressive, and I found her to be a highly credible and helpful professional witness.”
Despite this, the judge did not initially agree with her assessment.
After considering all the evidence in the case, Pazaratz ordered the child be returned to the mother, who could enlist the father’s help, under the supervision of the society.
“Obviously there are always risks, but I do not accept that the risks are as serious as the society has alleged,” Pazaratz wrote. “Those risks are limited, manageable, and can be ameliorated through supervision — just as the society had been suggesting for almost two years, until it received Dr. Walton-Allen’s parenting capacity assessment.”
The case came back before Pazaratz about 10 months later.
At that time, he found D.M. was still essentially living with a foster family while receiving visits from her biological parents. He also found that there continued to be serious housing problems with respect to the parents’ living accommodations.
Pazaratz ordered that D.M. be made a Crown ward.
He decided to rule later, following a trial, on whether the parents should have access to her. (The Star is unable to confirm the result of that proceeding.)
Jacques Gallant can be reached at email@example.com.
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering legal affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant