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Using assessments in forensic psychology

18 March 2010

± minute read

    Using assessments in forensic psychology
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Author: Renate Scherrer

It is widely accepted that psychometric assessments provide professionals with an objective and scientific basis for evaluating people as well as diagnosing and predicting behaviour. In this light, many organisations rely on assessments as an important part of their talent management, selection and development solutions. When it comes to the area of forensic psychology, where psychological evaluation is used to assist the Court in making crucial decisions, assessments are often seen as a key component providing invaluable input. According to the American Board of Forensic Psychology, the field of forensic psychology is where science and the profession of psychology are applied to legal issues. This statement places a big responsibility on the shoulders of psychologists (or expert witnesses) in terms of knowledge, ethics, professionalism and much more. It is therefore no surprise that one of the most prevalent causes of disciplinary action against psychologists is because of improper psychodiagnostic evaluations. Assessments may typically be used in the evaluation process to highlight areas for further investigation or as confirmation for interview hypotheses, and mostly as part of one of the following:

  • Custody
  • Competency to stand trial
  • Mitigation or aggravation at sentencing
  • Dangerousness/ risk
  • 3rd party evaluations:
  • loss of functioning, emotional suffering

In South Africa, few tests are available that have been specifically designed and standardised for local use, therefore a practice of using westernised tests ‘with caution’ has arisen. This adds to the complexity of evaluations and recommendations even more because the psychologist also has to account for possible anomalies relating to norm groups, inconsistency in results, language issues and many more. The Court tolerates this to a certain extent, but is very strict about variables that are within control of the professional, such as:

  • Being honest about the limitations, strengths and statistical characteristics of the assessments
  • Being competent and having in-depth and applicable knowledge
  • Using valid, reliable and appropriate assessments and for the intended purposes only
  • Using only genuine translations and adhering to copyright
  • Ensuring that the most recent version of the assessment is used
  • Ensuring that only appropriately qualified professionals are involved in the assessment process
  • Adhering to standardised assessment procedures and the test manual instructions
  • Utilising authentic scoring protocols and/or scoring programmes
  • Viewing test results only as an adjunct to the process
  • Making accurate and appropriate interpretations
  • Interpreting results from assessments standardised for clinical populations (eg MCMI-III, MMPI-2) with caution in a forensic context and not taking computerised interpretations literally (Underwager & Wakefield, 1993)
  • Integrating assessment results with interview conclusions in conjunction with sound professional judgment when interpreting data
  • Presenting conclusions based on empirical research that can be adequately defended (Underwager & Wakefield, 1993)

When recommendations in forensic reports are not based on adequate data, the psychologist is not only acting incompetently, but also unethically. In many cases, the professional may be competent and even make good recommendations, but his/her expert testimony could be discredited by a skilled opposing attorney due to something (seemingly) trivial – eg using an unofficial translation / scoring program for one of the assessments or using version 2 instead of version 3 of the MCMI. These acts do not only damage the psychologist’s reputation, but also that of the profession of Psychology. Forensic work is not an easy way to make quick money. It requires a focus on careful evaluation and responsible reporting. Never forget that the conclusions made can, and will, affect the lives of others.

Underwager, R., Wakefield, H. (1993). Misuse of Psychological Tests in Forensic Settings: Some Horrible Examples American Journal of Forensic Psychology Vol 11, No 1 (55-57)

Please share your opinions with us and comment below or send me an email at: renate@jvrafrica.co.za

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