Actuarial risk assessment for child abuse and neglect

Actuarial risk assessment for child abuse and neglect

The recent case of Halloran & Halloran [2018] FCCA 2825 (5 October 2018) explored the use of actuarial risk assessment for child abuse and neglect:

      1. At paragraphs 88 to 91 inclusive, Dr A makes an evaluation based on the Ackerman-Schoendorf Custody Evaluation Scales. This information will be reproduced in full because it seems to have influenced Dr A’s concerns about the risk to the children from both parents.
        Ackerman-Schoendorf Custody Evaluation Scales (ASPECT 1992, 1994)


[88] ASPECT is a tool to aid clinical decision-making about parental fitness to exercise parental responsibility and provide a child’s principal residence. It incorporates standardised scales, questionnaires and clinician observations in order to quantify parental characteristics related to effective custodial parenting. In this case the short form was used since the longer form incorporates results from tests (WAIS, Rorschach, MMPI-2) which were not administered. Across three subscales the ASPECT rates child-parent relationships, parenting practices, and the overall psychological well-being of each parent (including ability to provide a suitable home environment and appropriate social support networks), the weighted average scores of which yield a Parental Custody Index or PCI. The PCI was constructed to assess the general appropriateness of the parent’s presentation, emotional and cognitive capacity to provide effective parenting and a suitable home/social environment. A statistically significant difference between PCI scores identifies the parent with the higher score as the more effective parent. When both parents are rated highly effective ASPECT will not assist with decision-making. In this case neither parent is rated effective, but the mother’s score is lower due to substantiated physical child abuse and associated court proceedings.


Actuarial risk assessment for child abuse and neglect


[89] Both parents were actuarially-rated for child maltreatment recidivism risk. Research indicates that actuarially-calculated ratings of recidivism risk for a variety of anti-social behaviour (spousal abuse, child abuse, sexual offences, violent offending) are much more accurate predictors of re-offending that unaided clinical judgement. The South Australian Department of Family and Community Services developed a risk assessment scale in 1995 which was re-validated in 1998 on 674 families confirmed for abuse who were followed up for 12 months (cf. Johnson, Wagner & Wiebush, 2000). (NB. FACS has developed a modified version of this instrument but as there is no validation data available I prefer to use the older instrument).

SA Risk Assessment Scale (1997 version)

Percentage of standardization sample in that range subsequently confirmed for any type of maltreatment

LOW RISK (scores -2 to2)


MEDIUM RISK (scores 3-7)


HIGH RISK (scores 8-10)


VERY HIGH RISK (scores > 11)


[90] Based on case history relating to prior parenting deficits for each parent, as well as concerns which emerged at interview, I rated the father on Neglect/Emotional Abuse scale. I rated the mother on the Physical Abuse Scale (since that is the documented basis for prior notifications/ investigations/ police charges for assaulting [V]) The actuarially-calculated risk of neglect for the father is high. The actuarially calculated risk of physical abuse for the mother is high. The SA instrument includes four discretionary policy overrides, which immediately elevate a parent’s risk to very high. One of these overrides includes assault causing actual bodily harm which requires medical treatment. If applied regarding [V]’s assault in 2013 that places Ms Halloran in the very high-risk group.

[91] The baseline population risk of child maltreatment is not precisely known but is often assumed to be about 5%. As shown above, 27.7% of children restored to parents in the high-risk group were later confirmed for maltreatment in the SA study. Normally protective parents would not entrust their children to a school or child care centre which boasted that only 30-40% of their staff were likely to be dangerous to children. In fact, most parents would probably decline to entrust their children to a service boasting that less than 20% of their staff were likely to harm children whereas at least 80% were safe, competent caregivers. However, many caseworkers and judicial officers in the Children’s Court apparently find these to be tolerable risks for other people’s children, as maltreated children are often restored to parents actuarially-assessed as medium risks, whereas risk levels of high – very high risk are more likely to be deemed intolerable.

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