The requirements for a family consultant are that the family consultant have a degree in either Social Work or Psychology and be eligible for membership of the Australian Association of Social Workers or to be registered as a Psychologist.
Additionally, a family consultant must have a minimum of five years clinical experience working with children and families. Most family consultants have significantly more than five years clinical experience when they commence work with the Court.
A family assessment is undertaken to assist parties and the court decide on parenting arrangements for children. It is an independent, professional appraisal of the family, done from a social science and non-partisan perspective.
A family assessment provides a comprehensive and impartial social science perspective, and has the functional value of contributing to informed and child-centred decisions.
The assessment provides information about the views and needs of children and their relationships with their parents and other significant adults, and of the attitudes and parental capacities of the adults with regard to the children’s needs.
Family assessments should include assessment of any risk factors identified in a matter. Where there are concerns about family violence, a specialised family violence assessment should be included in the assessment and the report.
Family assessments can be reported to help the parties and the court to resolve issues in dispute in any particular case. The reports ordinarily contain the family consultant’s observations and opinions on matters regarded by the parties and the court as relevant. The type of matters a family consultant may be asked to consider might include the following matters:
- whether the children are at risk of being exposed to any physical or psychological harm from being subjected to or exposed to abuse, neglect or family violence:
- any views expressed by the children and any factors (such as maturity and level of understanding) that may affect the weight to be accorded to those views;
- the relationship between the children and each other and with each of their parents and any other relevant person;
- the likely effect of any changes in the children's circumstances, including the likely effect on the children of any separation from either of the parents or any other person with whom the children have been living;
- the capacity of each parent or any other person to provide for the needs of the children, including emotional and intellectual needs;
- the attitude to the children and the responsibilities of parenthood, demonstrated by each of the children's parents (or any other relevant person);
- the effect on the children of any family violence to which they may have been exposed:
- the effect on the children of spending equal time, or substantial and significant time, with each parent having regard to the parent's current and future capacity to:
- implement such an arrangement; and
- communicate with each other and resolve difficulties that might arise.
- the mental state of both parents in so far as it relates to parenting issues;
- the mental state/special needs of the children; and
- any other matter the family consultant considers relevant.
Family reports completed for the Family Court are subject to a quality assurance process where they are read by a Senior Family Constant or Regional Coordinator prior to their release. This enables a check by a highly experienced professional supervisor to ensure that the report meets the requirements of the order for the assessment and is of an appropriate professional quality. This could also enable any errors of process in an assessment to be identified but it cannot alter the expressed opinions of the report writer which is a matter for the Court itself. Family consultants may be, and frequently are, cross examined by parties to proceedings who, depending on the circumstances and the issues, may seek to challenge the observations recorded by family consultants and their conclusions. Additionally, family consultants employed by the Courts are subject to public service supervisory processes in order to monitor their performance and to ensure the quality of their work. Family consultants appointed under the Family Law Act are monitored both in relation to their conduct and performance and the need for their services to ensure that their appointments remain sustainable and relevant. Family consultants work as independent professionals in assessing families and providing expert evidence. Family reports can be prepared and funded privately by the parties in a case. The Court does not have any responsibility for the quality assurance of these reports. If the opinions given by a family consultant go beyond the family consultants accepted area of expertise, their report and opinions can be challenged.
The scope and purpose of the family assessment and who needs to participate should be determined before the assessment commences with the parties given a reasonable opportunity to participate and provide information to the family assessor.
The Children's views
The Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in February 2015 released Australian Standards of Practice for Family Assessments and Reporting: http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/about/policies-and-procedures/asp-family-assessments-reporting