HOW YOUR ASSESSMENT WILL WORK
BEFORE THE ASSESSMENT BEGINS
When will I be seen?
You may want to get the assessment started as soon as possible. Unfortunately this isn't always possible. When the Court agrees to a psychologist assessment they set a deadline for it to be completed. Sometimes this could be 3 or 4 months away. We typically have at least two or three other pieces of work ongoing at any one time, and appointments normally take place within the 4-6 weeks before the deadline.
How do I make an appointment?
The easiest way is to make an appointment online. You can do this yourself or ask your solicitor, social worker or advocate to do it for you. Appointments go straight into our diary, and you can choose between a video meeting or a face-to-face appointment. This is the quickest and most reliable way of making an appointment and we would recommend using it whenever you can. All we ask is that you try to make your appointment a maximum of eight weeks and a minimum of four weeks before the deadline. This helps with managing workloads.
Should I prepare for the assessment?
There is no need to prepare. The interview is about you and your child / children, and we are interested in your views of things - there is no right or wrong. If you wish to make some notes so that you don't forget to mention key things then please do.
Where will you see me?
Whilst special measures remain in place due to COVID-19 we expect to see everyone at either a Local Authority building or a solicitors' office. We will try to arrange interviews with children at their schools where possible.
Video or face to face?
We have used video interviews since the COVID-19 outbreak and expect to continue this for the next few months where it is possible to do so. We have found video work to be effective in many cases, as long as the person involved has a good-enough device and internet connection and access to a system like Zoom, Skype, Facetime or WhatsApp video.
Video does not work well with younger children, those with behaviour problems, or with people who might be made more anxious by it. If video interviews are not possible for any reason we will arrange a face to face meeting using a social distancing policy. You can view that policy here.
What about missed appointments?
Life can be complicated, particularly if you are in the middle of complex, stressful and upsetting Court proceedings. It may not always be possible make an appointment, but please let your solicitor know as soon as possible if that is the case. If appointments are missed it often affects the timing of the report, and may mean that you have less time to reply and make your own statements.
THE ASSESSMENT MEETING
What do you know about me already?
When the Court orders a psychology assessment, the Lead Solicitor sends a folder of reports and other documents so that the psychologist can read about what has happened and what everything thinks about the case. There will often be reports from social workers; guardians; schools; and support workers. Sometimes there might also be reports from the past, for example if there has been social work involvement with your older children. You can ask for certain reports, letters etc to be included, and this should be done via your solicitor,
Although we read all of these documents by the end of the assessment, we normally meet with everyone at least once before we do. This lets us form our own impression of a person rather than being to affected by other people's ideas and views. We believe this gives people a chance for a fresh start, and it is normally a popular approach particularly where people feel that they have made changes over time but are still judged by their past.
What happens to the information I give you?
Normally, when you meet a psychologist (e.g. if your GP has referred you to one because you are anxious or depressed) they will keep your meetings confidential. This means that they will not share information with others unless they judge that there are safety issues that are more important, e.g. if someone is planning on harming themselves or someone else. You and your well-being are the main focus of that type of work.
In Court assessments, this is not the case. Everything that you say will form part of the assessment, and because the psychologist's job is to help the Court make a decision rather than the person that they meet, they cannot normally offer to keep information private. There are some exceptions to this; for example, it may be that including certain information in a Court report could place someone in danger, or have a serious effect on a child. In these cases we would talk through the issues and try to come to a compromise position.
Can I bring someone with me?
Assessments of adults take place individually, so you cannot ask someone else who is directly involved in the Court case to sit in. You can bring a friend or advocate if it would help you on the day. Although we work hard to make assessments as friendly and helpful as possible, we know that people are normally anxious about them. It would be worth checking with your solicitor before you commit to bringing someone along so they can advise whether they are too involved in your case.
Will you take notes?
The psychologist will take notes during your meetings with them. Dr Bird uses an iPad to type notes and these are then transferred to a computer. The original notes are retained until the case has been completed and then deleted. If you say something that the psychologist thinks is important they will write it down and it may appear in their report.
Do you record interviews?
Dr Bird uses a note taking app that also makes an audio recording of the interview. This allows him to check his notes when he would like more detail about a particular section, or to include quotes where it seems particularly helpful. These recordings are not for the Court - no-one else will hear them, and they are deleted once the report has been completed. You can still opt not to allow a recording to be made, and you can discuss this at the start of your appointment.
What is a 'Cognitive' or 'Mental Capacity' assessment?
Sometimes people are asked to take part in a 'cognitive assessment' or a 'mental capacity assessment'. These are confusing terms, and many people do not understand exactly what each means. A cognitive assessment is one that tries to get a better idea of a person's strengths and weaknesses on things like their memory; understanding and use of language; how quickly they can process information; and how good they are at solving visual problems. Normally these are requested when there are worries that a person's case might be affected because they do not always understand or remember important information, or if they are struggling to get their points across.
Mental Capacity assessments overlap with cognitive assessments. They look at whether a person has issues that stop them from understanding information; remembered it; thinking it through; and communicating their thoughts about it to others. If there are problems in any one of these areas it may have a negative effect on the person's case. Some of these issues are picked up in a cognitive assessment, and this is almost always part of a mental capacity assessment. Mental capacity can also be affected by mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Some people might have physical health problems or short-term difficulties that change their functioning such as a head injury or trauma. If a person is assessed as not having mental capacity, they can then receive help from the Official Solicitor (also known as a Litigation Friend). Their job is it to make decisions for people who do not have the mental capacity to represent themselves or instruct a solicitor in family proceedings. Even if they have mental capacity but still struggle in certain areas, they can access support e.g. from an advocate trained in helping people with communication difficulties.
Do you use questionnaires?
You may be asked to complete a questionnaire as part of your assessment, either online before your first meeting or within the meeting itself. These are used to gain a picture of how a person views the world; whether they appear to have mental health issues; and how their personalities might affect the way that they parent their children and relate to other adults. There are no 'rights' and 'wrongs' in these questionnaires. The most important thing is to be open and honest throughout, even about your more negative qualities. Everyone has flaws, and the questionnaires can normally pick up when someone is putting themselves forward in an overly positive way.
What about interviews?
The main part of the assessment will almost always be an interview. This will cover different issues depending on you situation and what the Court has asked the psychologist to do. Normally we will cover:
Your views on the situation with your child / children
Your life history including your own childhood and later relationships
Any mental health, substance misuse or legal difficulties
Your views on your child or children's needs, personalities and strengths
Will my family be observed?
Sometimes the Court asks a psychologist to see a parent or parents together with their children. Depending on your situation this could be at your home or at a contact centre.
What goes into the report?
There are two types of information that go into a psychologist report for the Court:
Evidence includes the information that you give in your interviews and your answers to the questionnaires. It also includes information from professional reports, and anything that you have written to support your case. Opinion is what the psychologist thinks about all of that information, based on their experience and knowledge. The Court gives the psychologist a list of questions to answer, and this is where you will find the psychologists' opinion when you read the report.
Sometimes the psychologist's opinion may be different from your own viewpoint, and sometimes it will be the same. More often than not it will be somewhere in between. The psychologists' job is to listen and weigh up what is said, and then look at all other sources of information to try and work out what they think is going on.
Can I show you any documents?
No. The Court decides what the psychologist sees and does not see. If there is a document that you really want to be considered you should talk to your solicitor to see if it can be included in the Court-approved bundle of documents.