The assessment of Indigenous parenting capacity has received relatively little attention from Australian psychologists, which is particularly concerning given the increasingly disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families coming into contact with child protection and juvenile justice systems. Indigenous children are eight times more likely to be the subject of substantiated child abuse and neglect, and are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care. It is therefore vital that all practitioners working in this field have the cultural competency and sufficient grasp of the issues to be able to provide reliable, culturally-appropriate capacity assessments to support decision making (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2014).
The needs of Indigenous children for a positive, ongoing connection to their Aboriginal culture is an important consideration, and child welfare and family law legislation prescribe that this matter should be considered in any decision making. This becomes a particularly difficult question when the options for the child potentially involve placement with a non-Indigenous parent or carer.
Typical referral scenarios
Sarah is a 22-year-old Aboriginal mother of two children, who spent most of her childhood in state care and became a mother at 16. She has little family support and has only recently left a relationship marked by violence and drug use. Sarah's children are now in state care, with the 12-month protection order about to expire. An opinion is requested as to Sarah's parenting capacity, the nature of the attachment between mother and children, and the prospect of restoring the children to Sarah's care.
Rhonda is the Aboriginal aunt of 14-year-old Jackson, and has been nominated by his family as a possible kinship carer as Jackson is due for release from juvenile detention. Rhonda has six children of her own and a past history of criminal offending and alcohol abuse, but she and her family say this is all in the past and want Jackson released into her care. An opinion is requested as to Rhonda’s ability to parent Jackson given his non-compliant and anti-social behaviour, and whether she might benefit from programs or services in assuming responsibility for Jackson’s care.
Practice and ethical considerations
In most instances the assessment of parenting capacity involves an assessment of family violence, mental health, drug and alcohol issues, and environmental and cultural factors relevant to the welfare of the child – that is, the factors that have brought the child and family to the attention of authorities in the first place.
The interaction between Indigenous families and non-Indigenous systems such as government agencies and the legal system places many Indigenous families at great disadvantage and risks poor outcomes for the family. This is due to the presence of systemic racism and discrimination in such systems, and in many instances a lack of cultural competency in those preparing capacity assessments. The outcomes of such assessments can have a profound impact upon future care arrangements for Indigenous children and their families that can alter their life course.
In order to avoid the ethical and professional pitfalls inherent in this work, it is crucial that psychologists have the necessary degree of cultural competency to engage appropriately with Indigenous people. This includes awareness of Indigenous cultural identity and affiliation, Indigenous parenting and child-rearing practices, and an appreciation of historical and contemporary matters related to the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. Too often capacity assessments are informed almost exclusively by a narrow focus on attachment and bonding that, while important, need to be considered in the broader context of the child's social and cultural background.
Considerations for test selection and interpretation
The use of psychological tests with Indigenous families and children is a highly contentious matter and should be approached with great caution. Test selection must be guided by a thorough understanding of the individual’s socio-cultural context and by awareness that results may be skewed towards under-performance due to inherent cultural bias and the absence of appropriate normative data for Indigenous people.
It is also important to understand the specific referral question to be addressed in assessing parenting capacity. It should, for example, be acknowledged that the purpose of examining an Indigenous parent’s cognitive and intellectual functioning is not to compare performance with a standardised population of non-Indigenous people, but to ascertain whether there is sufficient intellectual or cognitive functioning to perform the basic tasks involved in parenting. In this context it is preferable that any assessment be qualitative rather than quantitative and focus upon the functional capacity of the individual.
The assessment of functional capacity will vary according to each case, but will usually include such matters as literacy and numeracy, educational and employment history, capacity to be organised and information gathering skills, understanding of child development, ability to benefit from relevant programs and services, and the extent to which family and other social support is relied upon.