NICOLA BERKOVIC, The Australian.
A Family Court-appointed psychologist has been referred to a tribunal for possible professional misconduct six years after a judge found his personal “animosity” towards a father had coloured his report into the care of a young boy, who later became suicidal.
The case raises questions about the oversight of court-appointed experts — long a source of concern for many family law litigants — and highlights the way the court process can drive families further apart.
The Australian has not named the psychologist because the Family Law Act prevents the naming of witnesses, making it difficult to scrutinise the conduct of those who are criticised.
In his report, the Perth-based psychologist labelled the father’s personality style “psychopathic”, although the father had no history of violence, mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse, and three other psychologists rejected this characterisation.
The judge later found it was “glaringly obvious” the report had been coloured by “animosity”. But by then, the damage was done.
The father has not seen his son since 2013, when the court granted permission for the mother to move with the boy to Europe.
He told The Australian it was difficult to describe what it was like to lose a child in such circumstances, and harder to live with the idea his son had lost half his family. He had been informed his son, now 15, had attempted suicide in Europe in 2014 and spent three months in a hospital.
“I find myself sharing thoughts with my absent, distant son every day,” he said. “I have a place where I share memories in private with him, in a diary, in the hope that I might one day be able to share them with him.”
The parents had been engaged in a tug-of-love in the Family Court of Western Australia over the boy’s care. The mother had read about “psychopathy” on the internet before meeting the psychologist and decided the father fitted the bill. The father had wanted the court to appoint a different single expert witness, but the judge went with the mother’s choice. The psychologist was paid about $25,000 for his report and testimony.
From the start, the men did not — in the words of the judge — “hit it off”. In her judgment, Justice Jane Crisford said she gave little weight to the psychologist’s report when she made her decision. But 11 months later, she found there was no longer any “meaningful relationship” between the boy and his father. The report was published in May 2012 with instructions that a Family Court counsellor be present when it was read in case the father became homicidal or suicidal.
Before that point, the parents had been sharing the care of the boy, then nine, on a week-about basis, and both had “a generally close and loving relationship with their son”, the judge said.
The mother’s response to the report was immediate. She ended their shared-care arrangement and obtained orders the father was not to see him other than under supervision.
After the proceedings ended, three other psychologists who had been involved in the case took the highly unusual step of signing a joint statement that said they rejected the allegation the father was “in any way psychopathic”. They said they “strongly disagreed” with the report and had seen evidence the boy’s relationship with his father before this point had been “good, healthy and strong”.
The father said it was “utterly disgraceful” it had taken so long for authorities to investigate his concerns. The psychologist’s website still advertises his services as a family law forensic expert.
“Surely there should be some agency that properly monitors their conduct and performance, not one that takes six years, when children’s lives are at stake,” the father said.
He first raised his concerns with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency in 2012, before the report was published.
It was not until March 2 of this year that the Psychology Board of Australia, which investigates complaints to AHPRA about psychologists, referred the psychologist to WA’s State Administrative Tribunal because it reasonably believed he had behaved in a way that constituted professional misconduct.
A spokeswoman for AHPRA said the psychology board took such concerns “seriously” but it generally put them on hold until court proceedings were finalised. As the matter was before the tribunal it could not comment further.
The father said the process had been shrouded in secrecy, and he had never been interviewed by anyone investigating his concerns.