6. Apr, 2016

A Critique of the Psychological Assessment of Indigenous Parenting

A Critique of the Psychological Assessment of Indigenous Parenting

Parenting capacity assessments provide an objective professional opinion on a parent’s ability to provide care and protection to their children, representing a synthesis of information and a convergence of findings regarding the care, development, health and safety of a child (Department for Child Protection and Family Support [CPFS], 2016). They are critical in determining cases of child welfare in Indigenous families where children are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care (Ralph, 2015). However, parenting capacity is deemed to be a relative construct—reduced to pragmatic, functional definitions of parenting on which there is no consensus (CPFS, 2016) and hence it has no valid measure. Further, due to the paucity of culturally appropriate research into Aboriginal child-caregiver bonding (Yeo, 2003) at the heart of parenting, and of the non-consideration of cultural practices inherent in child rearing, the validity of parenting capacity assessments for Indigenous parents is theoretically (i.e., construct validity) and culturally contentious. This paper aims to critique the assumption that the psychological assessment of parenting capacity of Indigenous peoples, is valid. It is proposed that these assessments be founded upon a psychology of justice.

A Review of Parenting Capacity Assessment

Parenting is a task of socialisation of children that requires warmth, control, and stimulation in their behaviour towards children, and adaptability (i.e. parents need to be perceptive, responsive and flexible in addressing their child’s needs) (NSW Department of Community Services [DCS], 2005). Conley (2003) differentiates parenting ability and capacity. A parent must not only have the ability, but the capacity to parent “in a ‘good enough’ manner long-term” (Conley, 2003, p. 16). In Western Australia the construct is measured in terms of the skills parents require to meet the wellbeing needs of their children throughout their development, and can be influenced by social-economic factors, access to housing and cultural child rearing practices (CPFS, 2016). It is noted that in stepping out of the personal and qualitative domains of parenting to operationalise the construct, impoverishes it. For example, in the casework manual it is stipulated that a parent be critically appraised without the bias of optimism, with care not to attribute perceptions of cultural differences regarding the social norms and practices within families, and without the conviction that parents naturally love their children (CPFS, 2016). In this example, since a parent without the capacity to love a child could be deemed to have the capacity to parent, it is contended that the intrinsic capacity to parent eludes these mere functional definitions.

Parenting capacity assessments identify areas of parental strengths and weaknesses and are multi-faceted, depending on the needs of children and families, ranging from problem-focused evaluations to forensic interviews (DCS, 2005). Although there are no practical or agreed tools for assessing the adequacy of parenting (Cousins, 2004), some assessment criteria have been identified e.g., the quality of reciprocal emotional attachments, criteria of a good parent, evidence-based expectations of present and future parenting behaviors, and social support network (Abraham, Bonsu, & Fazzari, 2009). The Toronto Parenting Capacity Assessment Project identifies domains that focus on context, on the child, on the parent-child interrelationship, on the parent, and on the overall parenting profile (Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Toronto, n.d.). In the UK those domains are basic care, ensuring safety, emotional warmth, stimulation, guidance and boundaries, and stability (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 2014). Other domains emphasise practicalities such as stable housing, the parent themselves in their ability to manage emotions or manage substance abuse etc., and parent-child interactions including warmth, bonding and attachment (Tustin, 2013).

What emerges from the literature is definitional unclarity. One remarkable confound is that there is a “lack of any consensus in the literature on a definition of ‘parenting’ on which to build a definition of ‘parenting capacity’” (DCS, 2005, p. 13). Azar, Lauretti, and Loding (1998) claim that assessment depends on the models of parenting that frame the questions of fitness or dysfunction, and the validity of assessment methods. Azar et al. (1998) critique various models of assessment such as developmental models based on parenting standards drawn from narrow population studies, child abuse models where parenting is assessed in terms of ways it may fail, dimensional approaches such as warmth/hostility and control (without assessing cultural differences in the expression of affect or ethnocentric values), typological models that delineate categories of narrow-band socialisation practices (e.g., parent-child interactions observed in narrow clinical settings), and systems based assessment frameworks that evaluate behaviour control, problem solving, affective involvement etc. They conclude that the models are heavily rooted in the values of dominant, middle-class, Anglo-American culture (Azar et al., 1998) and not those of Indigenous peoples. Perhaps, rather they merely reflect the values of post-enlightenment individualism.  

In Australia capacity is equated with functionality due to the belief of an inherent relativity of what constitutes good parenting (Centre for Community Child Health, 2004). In Western Australia there are five areas assessed in parental functioning: The ability to provide a safe environment, regulating impulses and emotions, empathy, appropriate prioritisation, and having insight regarding possible harmful behaviours (CPFS, 2016). Unfortunately, what is intrinsic to parenting is not fully captured by behavioural observation (i.e., the motivations and intentions of parental behaviour) or by psychometric measurement. The evidence—no universal agreement over definitions, distinctions, models, measurement etc., and that relativism and functionality are the defining categories of parenting capacity—argues that no sufficient measure exists.  

Compounding the allegation of invalid measures there are cultural confounds needing consideration prior to assessing the capacity of an Indigenous parent. Ralph (2015) claims that the interaction between Indigenous families and non-Indigenous systems places them at risk of poor outcomes due to a lack of cultural competency in those making the assessment. Bromfield, Higgins, Higgins, and Richardson (2007) argue that standard assessment processes are inappropriate as the current psychological assessment tools are based on Anglo-European middle class living standards and parenting values, second, that Indigenous carers may have unfairly receive a criminal history and are excluded by it, that current assessment tools do not evaluate a carer’s capacity to care for an Indigenous child, and lastly, those tools require culturally inappropriate communication styles.

What is appropriate, however, is overlooked. The strengths of Indigenous parenting derives from their culture and revolve around ideas such as the raising of children being a shared responsibility, fostering interdependence, group cohesion and community loyalty; that children are allowed to freely explore their world, helping them develop skills necessary to negotiate their pathways to adulthood; that elders are important to family functioning and contributing to child rearing; and that Indigenous spirituality passed to the children helps them cope with challenges, and creates identity and cohesion (Lohoar, Butera, &  Kennedy, 2014).

It is important to highlight that collectivist parenting styles are not to be equated with bad parenting. Ralph (2011) claims parenting capacity assessments are often founded on the assessors understanding of bonding perceived through attachment theory that does not account for an Indigenous child’s need for cultural affiliation. Given the inconsistency of what constitutes parental assessment, this suggests a culture of clinical prerogative (as opposed to evidence based practice), and that parenting is often—by default—assessed through culturally inappropriate bonding practices. And given that Yeo (2003) found caregiver sensitivity is expressed differently in Aboriginal child-rearing practices, not representing an injustice to children, but rather a just “web of reciprocity of obligations” (p. 298); that social competence achieved through secure attachment bonding is defined by a framework of social interdependence; and that the locus of secure attachment is both the network of caregivers and acceptance by the community—cultural inappropriateness itself invalidates the assessment of parenting capacity. 

The Psychology of Justice in the Assessment of Parenting

Having critiqued the assessment of parenting capacity (theoretically and culturally), next it is argued that parental capacity is specific to the parent-child bond, as parenting primarily inhabits that interrelationship. Further, it is necessary for that bond to be established in justice. Upon this assumption it is argued that: As justice is intrinsic to charity and that charity transcends justice and completes it (Benedict XVI, 2009), justice is intrinsic to parenting and charity transcends the obligations of parental justice, completing that capacity to parent. Good parenting based on justice, and extended by charity (enduring/consummating quality of justice), becomes good parenting for long enough. This satisfies Conley’s (2003) definition of parenting capacity adopted in New South Wales (DCS, 2006). Additionally, assessments based on the construct of parental justice would logically discriminate between the use of biased and non-biased psychological assessment tools, and carers would not be unjustly discriminated against because of their past, or because of their employing Indigenous parenting, or communication styles—concerns highlighted by Bromfield et al. (2007). These assessments would converge with cultural notions of shared parental responsibility, of freedom, of the importance of child-elder interaction, and identity founded upon a shared spirituality—rightly converging upon the strengths of Indigenous parenting as identified by Lohoar et al. (2014).


There is no consensus on the definition of parenting capacity (DCS, 2005), and no reliable measures exist (Cousins, 2004; Ralph, 2011). As parenting primarily inhabits the interrelationship between child and caregiver, a proposed measure of parenting is the capacity of a parent to give just and due care to their child. This assessment is not invalidated by cultural diversity, and would be appropriate in the assessment of Indigenous parents. Importantly, justice can be measured psychometrically, and although other factors contribute to good parenting (e.g., providing a safe environment), such a test forms a universally valid assessment of what is specific to parenting capacity. The major limitations of this argument are the assumptions that underpin Benedict XVI’s (2009) theological anthropology, and the assumptions of a theistic, teleological order underpinning the human condition. To be validated by empirical evidence, further research is required first into the construct of justice in relation to parenting, as applied to attachment theory, schema theory, and lexical approaches to the traits, virtues, or qualities of parenting. 


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