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Handbook Cover for Treatise on Internet Sex Crimes

Chapter 10:
Psychological Evaluations


Hiring a Psychological Expert


OVERVIEW

Sexual abuser-specific assessments can be used to inform: sentencing and other legal decisions, treatment planning and progress, release decision making, transition and reentry planning, and supervision and other case management planning.[1] Such assessments can be useful in understanding the nature and extent of a client’s behavior, exploring the criminogenic and other needs for treatment and interventions, estimating short and long-term recidivism risk, identifying specific responsivity factors, and obtaining baseline information about a client to gauge progress against.[2]


[1] Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “ATSA Practice Guidelines for the Assessment, Treatment, and Management of Male Adult Sexual Abusers.” Beaverton: Oregon, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

WHEN TO HIRE AN EXPERT

If a person might have a mental health condition and is facing a sex offense charge, the first step is to hire a neuropsychologist to perform a diagnostic assessment. Then, after hiring a forensic psychologist in whichever field is most appropriate, they will be able to incorporate the neuropsychologist’s risk assessment into their risk assessment. Multiple experts who reach compatible conclusions via separate processes strengthens the assessment.

The earlier an expert is brought in, the more opportunities they will have to observe your client and perform their evaluation over time. This results in more confidence in their opinion, more time to collect records and talk to people, and a fuller report. Hiring an expert even before indictment can be beneficial, even if you only intend to use their findings later in the process, such as during sentencing. However, there needs to be an official criminal record in order for an expert to produce an official opinion. Therefore, keep in mind that presenting an informal mental health opinion while trying to get a client released on bond might reveal a lot of your hand to the opposing counsel before the official report is produced.

For signs to look for in your client that indicate hiring a mental health expert might be beneficial, see Relevant Conditions. In general, the following are indications that there might be a relevant mental health factor to consider:

  • History of special education
  • Limited or no history of dating or relationships
  • Odd social manner when interacting with others, including lack of eye contact, not taking turns when speaking, the repetition of words or phrases back, meandering answers to questions
  • History of psychiatric hospitalizations
  • Medications the client is taking
  • Prematurity
  • Previous head injuries
  • Repetition of grades in school

Note that people might attempt to conceal a mental health disorder or be unaware of it themselves. For these reasons, it might be useful to gather information from collateral sources, such as the person’s family members, school records, and other historical information.

WHAT TYPE OF EXPERT TO HIRE

Psychiatrists vs. Psychologists

Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors that can prescribe medication. A psychiatrist can opine on a client’s medication dosage, the side effects of antipsychotic drugs, and other medication-related matters. Knowledge on medications could be relevant for determining if medication influenced a crime or had an adverse effect that contributed to the crime. For example, if someone is diagnosed with depression and takes depression medication, but they actually have bipolar disorder, the medication could lead to a manic episode during which the person is hypersexual and impulsive. 

Psychologists are qualified to conduct psychological testing and assessment on a person’s mental state and/or mental illness, competency to stand trial, insanity, diminished capacity, sentencing considerations, and treatment. 

Psychologist Specialties

Clinical psychologists: diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional illnesses with behavioral and psychoanalytic therapy. Expert witnesses in clinical psychology can help to perform independent psychological examinations. 

Forensic psychologists: apply clinical psychology principles to legal matters and are trained in forensic assessment instruments (see Assessment Types). Expert witnesses in forensic psychology can help to testify on a person’s competency to stand trial, assess a client’s recidivism risk, and provide treatment recommendations. 

Neuropsychologists: assess, diagnose, and treat psychological disorders and learning disabilities such as autistic spectrum disorder. 

Finding a Psychology Expert Witness

When finding an expert witness best suited for the needs of your case, it is useful to consult the American Psychological Association and other psychological associations. Psychologists may also advertise their services in expert witness directories. You can also consult with an expert witness referral service. 

Psychologist Expert Witness Reports

Forensic psychology reports include contextual information about the client, evaluator, purpose of the evaluation, and the alleged offense. They will indicate sources of information the expert relied upon. They will describe the client’s relevant history, and then conclude with clinical conclusions based on the data. The evaluator will also likely offer their clinical opinion on whether or not the client is competent to stand trial and care and treatment recommendations.[3]


[3] Kaplan, Howard. “The Forensic Psychology Report.” American Bar Association, November 27, 2018. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/publications/teaching-legal-docs/the-forensic-psychology-report/.

ASSESSMENT MATERIALS

When conducting a psychosexual evaluation, multiple sources of information are used, including:[4]

  • Client interviews
  • Interviews with collateral informants (family members, partner/spouse)
  • Official documents (police reports, victim impact statements, criminal legal records, previous assessment and treatment records, pre-sentence or social services investigations)
  • Psychometric testing (intellectual, diagnostic)
  • Instruments designed to measure broad sexual attitudes and interests
  • Psychophysiological measures of sexual arousal, interests, and preferences
  • Strategies to estimate the risk of sexual and/or non sexual recidivism
  • Responsivity factors, such as: age, culture, psychosocial and emotional development, level of adaptive functioning, neuropsychological/cognitive/learning impairments, language/communication barriers, acute psychiatric symptoms, denial, and level of motivation

Experts will also likely seek a range of background information, such as the client’s developmental history, nature and quality of past and current relationships, medical and mental health history, intelligence, cognitive functioning, and level of maturity, and education and employment history. 

Experts should also look into and document clients’ strengths, assets, and protective factors, including: prosocial community supports and influences, structure and support that promote maintaining success (such as limited access to potential victims), healthy, age appropriate, normative, long term intimate and sexual relationships, motivation to change, insight, understanding, and management of risk factors, appropriate problem solving and emotional management skills, and employment, financial, and residential stability.

Compared to a private mental health expert, a court-appointed mental health expert might not have the time or funding necessary to seek out all of the relevant information listed above, so it is useful for attorneys to understand what type of information might be useful for them to collect and provide.


[4] Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “ATSA Practice Guidelines for the Assessment, Treatment, and Management of Male Adult Sexual Abusers.” Beaverton: Oregon, 2014.

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