Parenting Capacity

Parenting Capacity Assessments (PCAs) or Parenting Capacity Evaluations (PCEs) are a thorough and comprehensive evaluation of a parent’s risk for neglect and/or abuse. It combines specific and extensive interviewing, psychological testing, records review, and other data as necessary into a concise and complete evaluation.

Family law courts and child protection agencies routinely use a PCA or PCE to make informed decisions about safe and responsible childcare. Childcare cases often become very complex and involve what are termed “invasive risk elements,” such as cognitive limitations, mental illness, and addictions, and require a unique approach to the assessment.

Based on the PCA or PCE, the court can make recommendations for visitation, treatment, and placement. In most cases, the judge orders the assessment after deciding what information he or she needs about the parents. In many cases, child welfare agencies recommend that parents to be assessed for parenting capacity. The court requests an objective assessment of the needs of the children and each parent’s ability to meet those needs. Instructions are given to the assessor concerning the matters at issue in custody, access or both.

Parenting ability is not the same as parenting capacity. Parenting ability refers to the child caretaker’s current parenting strengths and weaknesses; parenting capacity refers to the caretaker’s potential for parenting in future, that is, his or her potential for improvement in parenting ability. Parenting capacity, then, includes the concept and assessment of parenting ability. Therefore, parenting capacity is the ability to be what is termed “a good enough parent” on a long-term basis. Hence, it is different from parenting ability, where he or she may be able to parent for a short period of time in specific circumstances but not have the capacity to parent effectively long term.

At different points of time, parenting capacity varies depending on the circumstances facing parents and their children. Competent parenting demands adaptability to the changing circumstances of the child.   The assessment describes patterns of parent’s functioning in adult and child rearing roles. An effort is made to explain the reasons for the problematic behavior leading to the child protection concerns. The assessment also identifies the functioning of child, his or her needs and risks in relation to the parent’s deficits. An important goal is to provide directions for intervention to meet the best interests of children.  Parenting capacity is not seen as fixed but as undergoing constant change.

The recommendation of assessor, therefore, is not determinative. It is one more piece of puzzle. The judge weights the assessor’s report with all the other evidence. The “best interests of the child” remains the primary concern of psychologists regardless of the specific role they play, or the specific interests of the adult parties, who usually contract and pay for the assessment. The goal is to come up with the plan/recommendations for the care of children involved.

Divorce requires a restructuring of parental rights and responsibilities but when parents cannot reach such an agreement, the parents’ lawyers, or the court, may ask psychologists to undertake assessments regarding children’s custody and access arrangements. Thus, child custody and access assessment is an investigation to determine the best parenting arrangements for children when there is a disagreement on the issues pertaining to the custody and access. The assessment of parenting is a core child protection task, both in context of assessing parents’ capacity to protect children from risk and enhance their developmental experiences as well as in the decisions about removing and/or restoring children to the care of their parents.

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