Forensic psychologists bring psychological science to court
Television shows give the impression that forensics involves allure and excitement while specially trained professionals unravel subtle clues to track down serial killers. But those who are in the field of forensic psychology tell a different story.
Shannon Bader, Ph.D, ABPP, chief of forensic evaluations for the state of New Hampshire, dismissed the notion of “glamour” in relation to forensic psychology; rather she noted that she occasionally gives testimony in court, but spends a significant amount of time reading, interviewing, and writing reports.
Bader said that her religious background, in part, led her to this particular field where prisoners and those with mental illness are considered “the least of these” and are “double stigmatized.” She sought to listen and figure out how to help these individuals.
“I continually see people who have fallen through the cracks. They might have been in foster care or did not receive good mental health treatment early in life,” Bader said. “If something had gone right in the person’s life, would things be different?”
Bader works with adults in criminal court. “If a patient is arrested, I question the person’s capacity to move forward in court. I work with people recently arrested or someone transitioning to the community from prison,” she said. “I don’t change the outcome but provide good information. I give the court a full picture of the person.”
While Bader finds her chosen profession rewarding, she reported that there are some challenges, particularly regarding safety, but also related to personal balance.
“I see a lot of ugly things and have to keep centered so I can function on a daily basis,” Bader said.
Like all psychology niche areas, forensic psychology requires extensive education and experience as well as specialized training.
“You have to have good training. The courts and attorneys expect you to know what you are talking about. You have to have supervision and experience,” Bader said.
The American Academy of Forensic Psychology (AAFP) offers solid in-depth training, according to Bader. “Training alone is not enough, but a good introduction. You still need experience,” she said.
Early in her career, Lisa M. Rocchio, Ph.D, owner of a group practice in Johnston, Rhode Island, had a number of patients who faced civil charges and/or were involved in criminal litigation, which led her into forensic psychology.
“The area of trauma psychology lends itself to legal involvements,” she said. Rocchio is APA council representative for the Rhode Island Psychological Association and treasurer, Division 56, Trauma Psychology.
This work taught Rocchio about the legal system and how it endorses issues related to violence against women and violence in general.
During her first few cases, Rocchio consulted with an experienced colleague and relied on her grounding in psychological assessment and testing. However, she still had to learn specific language, methods, rules of process, and boundaries.
In addition to her role as a forensic psychologist, Rocchio maintains a clinical practice that draws on distinctly different skills. “But each [role] informs my work in the other,” she noted.
Rocchio treats older adolescents and adults in her private practice where she works to establish treatment goals on behalf of the client. She uses a strength-based approach in helping patients make connections between past experience and current difficulties with a focus on improving function.
On the forensic side, Rocchio’s client is the attorney. “My job is to provide answers to psycho-legal questions and be objective. I work for either the plaintiff or the defense.”
Rocchio reviews extensive third-party information, conducts evaluations and gives the court her opinion.
In her clinical practice, Rocchio meets with clients for an hour on a regular basis, but the forensic work involves intensive eight to twelve-hour interviews with the person over a couple of days.
The forensic work gives Rocchio a sense of satisfaction at being able to assist the legal system in terms of understanding complex psychological issues.
“I bring psychological science to the jury, judge, and attorney,” she said.
Forensic work can be draining so it’s important to maintain a balance in your personal life, according to Rocchio.
When you are also juggling a clinical practice, it becomes imperative to “reconnect with things that give you pleasure.” She said, “At its core trauma challenges your sense of hopefulness and meaning in life.”
Psychologists contemplating a career in forensic psychology should be sure to have a firm foundation in psychological assessment, be comfortable with the legal system, the language, different policies and expectations, and be familiar with licensing laws, said Rocchio.
For Shannon Maney, Psy.D, ABPP, licensed psychologist in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, her path to forensic psychology was established by the time she was in high school.
With an interest in both psychology and law, she knew she would pursue this career, even though she wasn’t quite sure all that forensic psychology entailed.
After completing all the necessary schooling and practical experience requirements, Maney fulfilled her dream and now works for the courts, specializing in criminal competencies and responsibility, violence and sex offender risk assessment, malingering, substance abuse and overall risk management.
She also sees patients in her Stoughton, Massachusetts private practice.
Since 2003, Maney has also been an adjunct professor, teaching psychology courses to undergraduates. Her first task is to dispel any myths and misconceptions.
“Some students think forensic psychology is criminal profiling,” she said. “We don’t go to crime scenes.”
Those who are interested in forensic psychology should figure out early on if this career aligns with their vision, said Maney.
Schooling can involve various paths and forensic psychologists must have a doctoral degree and be licensed. Some states have specific requirements as well.
For instance, in Massachusetts, psychologists who want to serve as a public sector forensic psychologist must obtain certification as a Designated Forensic Psychologist (DFP).
Furthermore, forensic psychologists can become board certified in 15 specialty areas by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) after extensive experience and passing an exam.
Maney emphasized that the journey is lengthy with many years of schooling, training, doctoral and fellowship programs.
“There are lots of steps along the way, but in the end it’s worth it,” she said, noting that every day brings new and exciting challenges.
Phyllis Hanlon has been a regular contributor to New England Psychologist since 1999. As an independent journalist, she has also written for a variety of traditional and alternative health magazines and business consumer and trade publications. She also serves as writer/editor for custom publications.