The Responsible Use of Attachment Assessments for Court

A guest post for The Transparency Project

This was a guest post for The Transparency Project by Rebecca Carr-Hopkins and Tracy Rydin-Orwin (ICI trainers) and Andrea Landini (Director, Family ReIations Institute) in response to a post (When Expert Evidence Goes Wrong-the lessons to be learned) on the case of Re C [2018] EWFC B9, where a psychologist’s evidence was based on a clinical tool she was not qualified to use:

‘We appreciate greatly The Transparency Project’s discussion of the appropriate use of assessments in forensic settings. Much harm can be done when assessments are not valid for the type of court application or has been written by a professional who is not authorised to use a particular type of assessment.

Many people attend training on the Dynamic-Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM) assessments of attachment, but only a few study this model sufficiently to become authorised to use the assessments in court. When insufficiently skilled professionals use these assessments, they risk misusing them and harming children and families.

Those professionals who are authorised to use the DMM methods for assessing attachment receive a certificate defining their competence, with limits on culture and a date through which the authorisation is valid. Lawyers and judges should always ask for a current valid certificate. Failure to do so can result in problems like those reported in this case – in which both the child and the professional were harmed by misuse of assessment.

Training in assessing attachment with the DMM model is delivered internationally by trainers who are accredited by the Family Relations Institute. The Infant CARE-Index (ICI) is the simplest of the DMM measures. It assesses mother-infant interaction from birth to 15 months based on a 3-minute video-recorded play interaction. Notably, the ICI is a screening tool, not a diagnostic tool. By itself it is not suitable for court use. Instead, low scores require further evidence of risk and should be interpreted in the context of that evidence. In all cases, the ICI requires a video-recording of the interaction. The video must be available as evidence that other professionals can request to view and evaluate.

Because Dr. Rees did not have a certificate authorising her use of the ICI, simply asking for the certificate would have clarified that she was beyond her competence. If Dr. Rees had provided a video, other experts could have evaluated it, including authorised experts who possess the required certificate. Providing the assessment, describing the process of deriving the interpretation of the assessment, and including published evidence of the applicability of the assessment reflects the transparency required by the IASA Family Attachment Court Protocol. Much of this information is freely down-loadable by anyone, on the IASA website.

Situations like this case are painful, but they create an opportunity to improve practice. FRI course attendees need to behave more responsibly, and court authorities (from social workers to lawyers and judges) need to evaluate witness competence more thoroughly, by asking for (1) evidence of competence on each assessment that a professional witness offers and (2) evidence of the child’s or parents’ response to the assessment. FRI will be using the lessons from this case to supplement its future training for course attendees.

Reference: Patricia McKinsey Crittenden, Steve Farnfield, Andrea Landini, Ben Grey, (2013) “Assessing attachment for family court decision making”, Journal of Forensic Practice, Vol. 15 Issue: 4, pp.237-248, https://doi.org/10.1108/JFP-08-2012-0002

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