Parents condemn B.C. psychologist's choice to retire rather than face hearing for role in custody cases

A little more than a year ago, a Toronto man signed a court order in B.C. surrendering all parental rights to his two children.

He agreed to sign it after a long and painful custody battle with his ex, which included a psychological assessment by Vancouver's Dr. Allan Posthuma.

Posthuma wrote that it was too dangerous for the children to live with their father because of a risk he could be violent. He recommended that a judge grant the mother sole guardianship of the children and be allowed to move them out of the province.

"This report ruined me," the father said in a recent interview.

He denies ever being violent with his children or their mother. He said he never would have given up his kids if it weren't for Posthuma's assessment, but felt "completely, physically, emotionally spent" by the expensive legal process.

CBC is not naming him in order to protect the privacy of his children.

It wasn't until 10 months after he signed the court order that the father received an investigation report from the College of Psychologists of B.C., outlining numerous ways that Posthuma's assessment allegedly "fell below minimum expected standards."

The report is written by the college's inquiry committee, which investigates complaints against B.C. psychologists. It does not have the power to make findings of fact or decide discipline, but can recommend that the investigation proceed to a disciplinary hearing, which is what happened in Posthuma's case.

In the report provided to the father, the inquiry committee described dozens of alleged "gaps and deficiencies" in Posthuma's work, including that he had completely omitted or only partially addressed things like the family's legal history and the children's attitudes toward their parents. The report suggests Posthuma didn't clearly differentiate between his opinions and the objective information gathered during his assessment.

The college's report also suggests that someone like this father "may be in a vulnerable position" as a result of an unfavourable psychological assessment and "may feel pressure" to agree to terms he or she otherwise wouldn't.

The father isn't alone. His case was one of five the college investigated involving Posthuma's assessments in child custody and parenting capacity disputes.

Ben Nelms/CBC

CBC has obtained four of those investigation reports and spoken to three complainants about their experiences. Two of those parents lost most or all access to their children, as Posthuma had recommended.

The third has full custody of her child, but only because a judge chose to ignore Posthuma's advice to grant sole guardianship to her ex, who has a documented history of domestic violence.

Among numerous other claims, college officials allege Posthuma neglected to gather enough information to support his opinions, gave opinions on a stepmother's appropriateness as a caregiver without actually interviewing the stepmother, allowed an unlicensed colleague to perform an assessment without the family's consent, and provided a recommendation for a child he hadn't interviewed.

In a written statement, Posthuma's lawyer, Michael Schalke, warned that the parents who spoke with CBC may be opening themselves up to defamation lawsuits.

Schalke alleged the parents "are seeking to use the media to further a high-conflict agenda, by unfairly attacking Dr. Posthuma, with false or inaccurate statements, during his retirement."

Until now, none of this information was available to the public.

When Posthuma retired at the beginning of this year after more than four decades as a psychologist, the college closed five investigations into his work, cancelled a citation against him and closed the door to any possible discipline.

In doing so, the college also closed the door for at least one parent to use the findings of the investigations in court to try to see her children more often.

The only public record of what happened was a short notice posted on the college website, saying that Posthuma had agreed to consult with a colleague about his work, but did not admit to breaching any professional standards.

That's despite allegations from the college that Posthuma failed to meet at least 17 standards of its Code of Conduct, along with one section of the Family Law Act, according to the reports reviewed by CBC News. Those allegations have not been proven.

'What value is this?'

For the parents at the centre of these family court battles, there's some satisfaction in having their concerns about Posthuma echoed by someone in a position of power.

But without a formal finding of wrongdoing, they've been unable to use the information gathered by college investigators to secure more access to their kids.

"What value is this?" one mother asked. "Who benefits from it? It's not the children. It's not the families who were harmed. The only person who benefits from the resolution was Dr. Posthuma."

AllanPosthuma.com

The three parents who spoke with CBC for this story believe they've been let down by a justice system that puts too much stock in the opinions of expert witnesses, and let down again by a regulatory system that fails to put the public interest first when health professionals are accused of wrongdoing.

More than anything, they wish the college had gone ahead with a disciplinary hearing for Posthuma, which would have made the allegations a matter of public record.

Posthuma 'satisfied' with record

Before his retirement, Posthuma had been in private practice in Vancouver since 1977. He charged as much as $13,500 for a child custody and access report, according to his website, which is no longer active.

Posthuma is quoted as an expert in more than 200 legal rulings available online, the majority of which concern family law matters. These court decisions date all the way back to 1982, and judges frequently accepted Posthuma's recommendations and referred to him as a knowledgeable and experienced witness.

But some judges have been skeptical of his expert opinion.

Three years ago, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Butler rejected Posthuma's recommendations in a child custody case, writing that he "ventured to offer an opinion which goes far beyond his limited foundation of fact and information."

Other judges have described his work as "seriously impaired" or "flawed," and suggested he was "argumentative and evasive" under cross-examination.

Schalke, Posthuma's lawyer, told CBC that "Dr. Posthuma is satisfied with his record in court."

Domestic abuse not documented

College registrar Andrea Kowaz said she was unable to comment on the specifics of the investigations, but noted in a written statement that the complaints raised "serious concerns."

The investigation reports show that the college's inquiry committee believed the allegations were serious enough to warrant a citation against Posthuma. A disciplinary hearing was scheduled for July 2018, but postponed after Posthuma filed a human rights complaint against the college alleging discrimination on the basis of age.

The hearing was cancelled when Posthuma signed a settlement with the college in August 2018, agreeing to retire. He has withdrawn his human rights complaint.

In one of the cases reviewed by CBC, Posthuma recommended that a father be given sole custody of his daughter, despite the fact that he had been accused of slapping the little girl, convicted of assaulting her mother, and had dealt with the RCMP on multiple occasions for allegations of domestic abuse.

The mother in this case told CBC she was beside herself with worry after reading Posthuma's recommendations.

"I was scared every single day that some kind of shoe is going to drop and someone's going to show up at my door and take my child away from me under misguided information," she said.

In its report, the college's inquiry committee says it should have been obvious that family violence was a central concern in the custody dispute. Posthuma's assessment, however, "does not document a prior history of domestic violence and the related court findings."

In the end, a judge discounted Posthuma's recommendation and granted the mother primary custody of her little girl.

No recourse in court

A second mother who spoke with CBC is currently allowed just two hours of contact with her children via Skype every two weeks.

She's fighting for more access, and recently tried to have the college's report submitted as evidence in the ongoing family matter, hoping she could use the findings to counter two assessments prepared by Posthuma.

There is no way to know for sure if she'd be allowed more time with her children if it weren't for Posthuma's assessments. Still, according to the college's report, Posthuma gave some opinions about the mother, her ex and their children without a "sufficient basis" in fact. 

That included assessing the parenting abilities of the ex's new partner without even meeting the woman, which meant it was impossible for Posthuma to rule out the possibility that the stepmother had alienated the children against their mother, according to the report. The college also alleged that Posthuma recommended a parenting plan for a child he hadn't actually assessed.

But at a hearing in B.C. provincial court on March 22, Judge Paul Meyers declined to accept the report, saying that without a disciplinary hearing and an official finding of fact, the report is "not of any importance."

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The mother said she can't understand that decision, and she wishes the college would have proceeded with a disciplinary hearing for Posthuma.

"I've been denied my children. My children have been denied me — their mother," she said.

Kowaz, the college registrar, said she was unable to comment on the judge's decision not to accept the inquiry committee report.

Addressing the parents' frustration about the lack of a disciplinary hearing, she said settlement agreements are often preferable because they take less time and have a more certain outcome.

When a psychologist voluntarily cancels his or her registration, as Posthuma did, "this may better serve the interest of public protection," she said.

Kowaz also acknowledged criticism suggesting the complaint process lacks transparency. She pointed out that health regulation expert Harry Cayton has recommended a complete rewrite of B.C.'s Health Professions Act to address the "secrecy" built into the complaints process.

"For the time being, however, the college must of course continue to comply with the existing provisions of the HPA," Kowaz said.

More complaints under review

As for Posthuma, he "looks forward to spending more time with his family" in retirement, according to his lawyer.

Schalke alleged it's becoming more common for "high-conflict individuals" to file complaints to the college when they're unhappy with an assessment in a child custody or parenting matter.

"Our concern is that in some cases complainants seek to further their personal goals in the family law litigation by making a complaint to the college," Schalke wrote.

CBC has confirmed that the college has received at least two more complaints about Posthuma since his retirement. Kowaz said those will be reviewed and considered in accordance with the law.