Monday, September 29, 2014

Upcoming forensic psychology trainings in Australia

I will be traveling to Australia next month to give a series of trainings, seminars and keynote addresses at Bond University on the Gold Coast (where I am a visiting research scholar), in Brisbane, and at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Here are descriptions and dates, in case you are nearby and interested in attending. For further information, click on any of the links below. I look forward to seeing some of you there.

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This half-day training workshop will be offered twice:
A related talk on forensic psychologists and social media will be given at Bond University on Wednesday, Oct. 22.

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This career talk for students and faculty will be held at Bond University in Robina, Tuesday, Oct. 21.

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This keynote talk will be offered twice:

Monday, September 15, 2014

Forensic psychology: Is it the career for me?

I get many emails and phone calls from students interested in pursuing forensic psychology as a career. There is surprisingly little information available online to answer these students' questions. So, by popular demand, I have revised my 2007 overview in order to provide more current guidance, especially tailored toward frequently-asked student questions. You may also want to review the comments sections of my original essay, which is posted at each of my two professional blogs (HERE and HERE).

First off, what is a forensic psychologist?

Forensic psychologists are most commonly licensed psychologists who specialize in applying psychological knowledge to legal matters, both in the criminal and civil arenas. They hold graduate degrees in psychology, most often a PhD or a PsyD.

Forensic psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology. It has its own professional organizations, training programs, and research journals. Forensic psychologists are found in academia, public service, and the private sector.

Forensic psychologists assist in a wide variety of legal matters, including:
  • mental state examinations of criminal defendants (insanity, competency to stand trial, etc.) 
  • child custody/family law 
  • violence risk assessment 
  • civil law (personal injury cases) 
  • social science research (e.g., explaining a scholarly topic such as memory research to a jury) 
  • mediation/dispute resolution
  • jury selection 
  • ... and many more

What is the state of the field?

Forensic psychology is a rapidly growing discipline. The last time I checked, the American Psychology-Law Society had about 3,000 members, and it continues to grow. Its exponential growth is driven by a couple of factors. Many clinical psychologists have turned to forensic work to escape the confines of managed care. And students are attracted by our culture's obsession with all things criminal (as well as fictional depictions such as in the TV show Criminal Minds).

The growth of forensic psychology is not without controversy. Some accuse forensic psychologists of being hired guns who can be paid to parrot a certain opinion. Recent court decisions are causing increasing scientific scrutiny of psychological evidence. This in turn is leading to the development of increasingly rigorous training programs, instruments, and procedures that will allow us to withstand such adversarial scrutiny.

In the long run, well-trained forensic psychologists will likely fare well in the increasingly skeptical and demanding marketplace of the future.

What skills must a forensic psychologist have?

Forensic psychologists are psychological scientists. We compare data from multiple sources in order to test alternative hypotheses. The emphasis is on written reports and court testimony that are scientifically valid and can withstand scrutiny in the adversarial environment of the courtroom. A good forensic psychology combines a strong science background with solid investigatory skills.

Becoming a successful forensic psychologist requires, at minimum, the following:

  • solid clinical psychology training and experience 
  • firm grounding in scientific theory and empirical research (understanding of scientific validity, research design, statistics, and testing) 
  • critical thinking skills 
  • thorough knowledge of social and cultural issues 
  • legal knowledge (including mental health law, case law, and courtroom procedures) 
  • excellent writing skills 
  • strong oral presentation skills 
  • ability to maintain one's composure under stress

Can I pursue forensic psychology as an undergraduate major?

I get a lot of queries from high school students who have searched high and low for forensic psychology undergraduate programs, and come up empty. That is because forensic psychology is only rarely offered as an undergraduate major. The specialization process begins much later – in graduate school or beyond.

High school students interested in forensic psychology may choose to major in psychology in college. However, even this is not a requirement. Some professionals and educators even advocate that you major in something other than psychology, in order to get a more well-rounded education.  (I myself majored in journalism, and worked in that field before deciding to become a psychologist. I didn't take one single psychology course in college.)

Forensic psychology is a postdoctoral specialization. That means that a student first obtains a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) in clinical psychology, and then pursues a postdoctoral specialization in forensics. 

Must I earn a doctoral degree to become a forensic psychologist?

With the meteoric rise in popularity of forensic psychology, for-profit educational institutions are rushing to cash in. Distance-learning options have sprouted up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. So too, terminal master's programs are an increasingly popular option – requiring only one or two years of postgraduate education in lieu of the traditional four or more.

Master's level degrees may ultimately be a case of false advertising. Master's level clinicians will probably have trouble competing in a field dominated by professionals with more advanced degrees. As I wrote in a 2009 essay that was critical of this trend, "Would you trust a 'master's level dentist' to pull your tooth? Or a 'bachelor's level attorney' to defend you in court?" I predict that, at least in the near term, these clinicians will be restricted to lower-level occupations in the prison-industrial complex.

A growing number of graduate schools are also bucking the postdoctoral tradition by adding forensic tracks, so that students can begin their forensic specialization during graduate school.

A few programs also offer dual, or joint, graduate degrees in psychology and law. Finally, some law schools offer a scaled-down, one-year Master of Legal Studies degree. Having a dual degree may make one more competitive, but for most practitioners it is not realistic or cost-effective.

Despite the field's rapid growth, there is still no universal consensus as to what training models and curricula are adequate in order to prepare students for real-world forensic practice. With that in mind, David DeMatteo of Drexel University and colleagues have proposed a set of core competencies for doctoral-level forensic psychology training curricula. At minimum, they say, students should get training and experience in the traditional areas of substantive psychology and research methodology, along with specialized advanced training in:

  • Legal knowledge 
  • Integrative law-psychology knowledge 
  • Ethics and professional issues in forensic psychology 
  • Clinical forensic psychology

Alas, in reviewing the curricula for the roughly 35 doctoral or joint-degree programs with training in forensic psychology, DeMatteo and his colleagues found only three programs that included all four components. For example, only about 40% offered courses falling under "legal knowledge." More alarmingly, only three programs reported offering courses specifically addressing ethical and professional issues in forensic psychology.

After my graduate degree, what's next?

Once an aspiring forensic psychologist obtains his or her graduate degree, it is time for the real training to begin. You must obtain a minimum number of hours of postdoctoral training before you can apply for a license to practice independently. (The exact training requirements vary by state.)

There are still only a handful of formal postdoctoral fellowship programs in the United States. These rigorous programs are aimed at training future leaders in the field. They are quite small and selective, typically accepting only one to two candidates per year.

The American Psychology-Law Society's resource directory of these postdoctoral fellowship programs is HERE

What tips do you have for trainees?

Becoming successful in this field is not easy. However, for those with the energy, stamina and critical thinking skills, it can be a rewarding occupation. A few tips:

  • Apply for forensic-related internships, such as at forensic hospitals, correctional facilities, and community mental health settings. 
  • Tailor your doctoral dissertation to a psychology-law topic in your area of professional interests. 
  • Become a student member of the American Psychology-Law Society, an interdisciplinary organization devoted to scholarship, practice, and public service in psychology and law. 
  • Stay current by regularly browsing the leading journals in the field, among them Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
  • Last but not least, take time to experience life. Study abroad, volunteer in your local community, do anything to broaden the life experiences that you will bring to the field.

What about criminal profiling?

One of students’ biggest misconceptions about forensic psychology is that we do criminal profiling. This mythology comes directly from movies and TV shows such as Silence of the Lambs (among my least favorite movies ever!), Criminal Minds, and The Profiler.

In reality, most law enforcement agencies do not regularly use criminal profiling methods. When they do, they typically employ profilers with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement rather than in psychology. Perhaps more importantly, many scholars dispute that profiling even qualifies as a valid scientific method meriting inclusion in the behavioral sciences.

So, if your primary interest is in criminal profiling, the field of forensic psychology may not be for you.

Can I have an interview?

Some teachers – at the high school, college and even graduate levels – assign their students to conduct interviews with practitioners. I can't tell you how annoying it is to be constantly interrupted by students calling and emailing to request one-on-one interviews. If I granted all of these requests, I wouldn't have time to do anything else!

Instead, I hope this essay serves as my contribution. For more on me, feel free to browse my professional website -- which has additional resources -- or read my professional profile in Cengage Learning's 2012 Forensic Science textbook.

Further resources

The original version of this essay, "What's it take to become a forensic psychologist," was posted on my In the News blog on Sept. 19, 2007, and on my Psychology Today blog, Witness, on Oct. 27, 2010. Click on those links to browse additional Q&A in their Comments sections.

The American Psychology-Law Society's 2014-2015 guide to graduate training programs in forensic psychology and legal psychology is available HERE.

Should forensic psychologists have minimal training? (my 2009 essay on master's level training programs)

"Educational and training models in forensic psychology," by David DeMatteo, Geoffrey Marczyk, Daniel Krauss and Jeffrey Burl, Training and Education in Professional Psychology, Vol 3(3), Aug 2009, 184-191. doi: 10.1037/a0014582

"Raising the bar: The case for doctoral training in forensic psychology," by Carl B. Clements and Emily E. Wakeman, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Vol. 7 Number 2, 2007

"The time is now: The emerging need for master's-level training in forensic psychology," by Matt Zaitchik, Garrett Berman, Don Whitworth and Judith Platania, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Vol. 7 Number 2, 2007

The Minority Affairs Committee of AP-LS has created a dedicated YouTube channel with about a dozen innovative videos on various aspects of psychology-law and education in the field

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

Thursday, September 4, 2014

More studies finding bias in PCL-R measurement of psychopathy

I've been reporting for quite some time about problems with the reliability and validity of the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), a popular instrument for measuring psychopathy in forensic settings. It is a critical issue in forensic psychology, because of the massively prejudicial nature of the term "psychopath." Once a judge or jury hears that term, pretty much everything else sounds like "blah blah blah."

Now, the journal Law and Human Behavior has published two new studies -- one from the U.S. and the other from Sweden -- adding to the ever-more-persuasive line of research on PCL-R rater bias. It's high time for a critical examination of whether the PCL-R belongs in court, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon because of its efficacy for obtaining desired results. At the bottom of each abstract, I've provided contact information so that you can request the full articles from the authors.

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Field Reliability of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised Among Life Sentenced Prisoners in Sweden

Joakim Sturup, John F. Edens, Karolina Sörman, Daniel Karlberg, Björn Fredriksson and Marianne Kristiansson Law and Human Behavior 2014, Vol. 38, No. 4, 315-324

ABSTRACT: Although typically described as reliable and valid, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) has come under some criticism by researchers in the last half-decade due to evidence of poor interrater reliability and adversarial allegiance being reported in applied settings in North America. This study examines the field reliability of the PCL-R using a naturalistic test–retest design among a sample of Swedish life sentenced prisoners (N 27) who had repeatedly been assessed as part of their application to receive a reduced prison term. The prisoners, who were assessed by a team of forensic evaluators retained by an independent government authority, had spent on average 14 years in prison with a mean time from Assessment 1 to Assessment 2 of 2.33 years. The overall reliability of the PCL-R (ICCA1) was .70 for the total score and .62 and .76 for Factor 1 and 2 scores, respectively. Facet 1–3 scores ranged from .54 to .60, whereas Facet 4 was much higher (.90). Reliability of individual items was quite variable, ranging from .23 to .80. In terms of potential causes of unreliability, both high and low PCL-R scores at the initial assessment tended to regress toward the mean at the time of the second evaluation. Our results are in line with previous research demonstrating concerns regarding the reliability of the PCL-R within judicial settings, even among independent evaluation teams not retained by a particular side in a case. Collectively, these findings question whether the interpersonal (Facet 1) and affective (Facet 2) features tapped by the PCL-R are reliable enough to justify their use in legal proceedings.

Request a copy from the author. 
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Evaluator Differences in Psychopathy Checklist-Revised Factor and Facet Scores 

Marcus T. Boccaccini, Daniel C. Murrie, Katrina A. Rufino and Brett O. Gardner Law and Human Behavior 2014, Vol. 38, No. 4, 337-345

ABSTRACT: Recent research suggests that the reliability of some measures used in forensic assessments—such as Hare’s (2003) Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R)—tends to be weaker when applied in the field, as compared with formal research studies. Specifically, some of the score variability in the field is attributable to evaluators themselves, rather than the offenders they evaluate. We studied evaluator differences in PCL-R scoring among 558 offenders (14 evaluators) and found evidence of large evaluator differences in scoring for each PCL-R factor and facet, even after controlling for offenders’ self-reported antisocial traits. There was less evidence of evaluator differences when we limited analyses to the 11 evaluators who reported having completed a PCL-R training workshop. Findings provide indirect but positive support for the benefits of PCL-R training, but also suggest that evaluator differences may be evident to some extent in many field settings, even among trained evaluators.

Request from author.

More of my coverage of the PCL-R is available HERE. An NPR series on the controversy -- including an essay by me -- is HERE.

Hat tip: Brian Abbott

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Patience is no virtue on MSOP injustice

A federal judge seems willing to give the state more time. There's scant evidence it will be used well.

Guest essay by D. J. Tice, Minnesota Star Tribune*

For many years, critics of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program have worried that this state may be guilty of cruel injustices.

They’ve worried that Minnesota’s sweeping, inconsistent system for dumping sex offenders who have completed prison sentences into so-called “treatment centers” may be imposing retroactive life sentences on some “clients” who pose no serious threat to the public, while giving them no effective treatment.

As of this summer, this is no longer a worry.

Now it’s a fact.

It took experts appointed by a federal court about two months to find what Minnesota officialdom has been unable to find in two decades — people buried alive in MSOP who have no earthly business there and should be released or transferred to another program.

And they’ve barely begun to look.

Unfortunately, a combination of legal complexities and deference toward state officials has caused even U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank to let injustice continue awhile longer. Earlier this month,Frank declined to release or transfer the MSOP inmates his experts had asked him to liberate. Instead, he ordered an expedited trial of class-action claims that the entire MSOP program is unconstitutional.

About 20 states have “civil commitment” programs like Minnesota’s. Most were enacted in the crime-plagued early 1990s out of legitimate fears that some habitual sex offenders are too dangerous to be released. But many of the other states with such programs regularly review clients’ cases and have developed less-restrictive forms of supervision for offenders who are less dangerous or are making progress in treatment.

In Minnesota, attempts to contain or reform MSOP have repeatedly become politicized. The result is that the state boasts the largest per-capita population of committed offenders in the nation (nearly 700, costing about $120,000 a year each), in a program offering nothing but prison-like incarceration and no serious path toward success in treatment and release. Just two clients have emerged in the program’s whole history.

Only last winter, Gov. Mark Dayton released a letter to his Department of Human Services, which runs MSOP, noting that he likes the program just fine the way it is and ordering the department to abandon its efforts to move some clients toward release. He cited “gamesmanship” by his political opponents as the reason.

Judge Frank seems rather less sanguine about MSOP. In February, as part of the class-action suit challenging the program’s constitutionality, he put four experts to work examining MSOP — including a sample of individual client files. They quickly brought forward two cases they wanted the judge to see right away.

One involves 24-year-old Eric Terhaar, who has been in MSOP for five years on the basis of offenses committed before he was 15. Insisting that a juvenile record of this kind should be viewed differently than adult sex crimes, the court experts unanimously insisted that “there is little evidence to suggest that Mr. Terhaar is a dangerous sexual offender … .” He should be “unconditionally discharged,” they said.

The other case brought to the judge is that of Rhonda Bailey, 48, locked inside MSOP since 1993 as the program’s only woman. Suffering an “intellectual disability,” a deeply troubled victim of abuse and trauma since childhood, Bailey, the judge wrote, is being “housed on the St. Peter campus of MSOP as the only female on a unit of all male high risk sexual offenders.”

The court’s experts, unanimously, have “exceptionally grave concerns” about Bailey’s “current housing and treatment scenario.” They declare her situation “unprecedented in contemporary sexual offender treatment and management … .”

This “unprecedented” achievement isn’t the sort of distinction Minnesota usually boasts of. The experts have a notion that Bailey, while clearly needing treatment and supervision, might do better in “a facility where she can receive care and treatment that is sensitive to both her gender and her clinical presentation.”

Suddenly, the state seems to think so, too. Confronted with the Bailey and Terhaar cases in hearings before Frank this summer, state officials are now apparently scrambling to find an alternative treatment setting for Bailey and to move Terhaar toward provisional release. (It’s also worth noting that lately state courts have been scrutinizing MSOP commitments more rigorously.)

For now, Judge Frank seems willing to be patient while the state’s processes unfold. On Aug. 11, he declined to find continued confinement of Terhaar and Bailey unconstitutional, but said he would revisit the questions if the state’s efforts prove inadequate.

Meanwhile, Frank wants to get on with the trial in the broader class-action case. Last week, he set Feb. 9 as the trial date.

“It is obvious,” Frank wrote in his Aug. 11 order, “that but for this litigation, Terhaar … would likely have languished for years in the prison-like environment of MSOP-Moose Lake without any realistic hope of gaining his freedom. And of course it is of great concern to the Court that this may not be an aberrant case [but] symptomatic of a larger systemic problem. … This concern is heightened by the experts’ opinion about the grossly inadequate — even shocking — treatment of Bailey … .”

There is as yet no explanation, the judge wrote, of “how this troubling state of affairs came about.”

That one’s easy, your honor. It came about because too many judges over too many years have been too patient waiting for Minnesota’s politicians to do the right thing.

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*D. J. Tice is Commentary Editor for the Star Tribune, and is a member of the newspaper's Editorial Board. He has been a writer, editor and publisher in Twin Cities journalism for more than 30 years. A former political editor, he is the author of two books of popular history. This essay originally appeared in the Star Tribune on August 26, 2014 and was reprinted with the written permission of Mr. Tice. 

Previous guest coverage of the Minnesota civil commitment crisis by Minnesota social worker Jon Brandt can be found HERE.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Announcing blogger sabbatical

Dear Blog Subscribers and Readers,

If you have detected a decline in blog frequency of late, it's not your imagination. After more than seven years, I have made the difficult decision to take a sabbatical break from regular blogging in order to direct my energy toward some larger writing projects.

As some of you know, in addition to juggling forensic case work, trainings and teaching with family life, I have also experienced a considerable increase in professional travel. This represents exciting professional growth for me, but I am finding that this schedule makes it hard to pursue more in-depth writing projects along with regular blogging. By carving out this opportunity to write in a different way, I hope to refine my ideas, and return to blogging with the enthusiasm I have felt from such a rewarding pursuit.

I enjoy the connections that blogging has allowed me to forge with mental health professionals, attorneys, criminologists, students, writers, scholars and others around the world. I’ll be back, and in the meantime I hope you continue to share your insights and observations with me through venues such as Twitter.

Feedblitz subscribers

If you receive this blog via a Feedblitz subscription, there is no need to do anything. I may blog occasionally during my sabbatical, as time and/or inspiration permit. I also hope to periodically re-post a few reader favorites. With your Feedblitz subscription, you will be the first to know when I'm back at full throttle.

Paid subscribers

If you are one of my loyal paid subscribers, you may want to temporarily suspend your PayPal payments and just stick with the Feedblitz subscription until I return to more regular posting. I deeply appreciate your ongoing support, but there is no need to donate to the blog when it is not producing.

Australian followers

A special message to my followers in Australia: Keep an eye out for me in October. I will be doing some trainings as well as keynote talks at Bond University in Queensland and at forensic conferences in Brisbane and Sydney, and would love to see and/or meet you. Look for a blog announcement with further details.


The blog archives contain almost a thousand posts on a multitude of topics pertaining to forensic psychology and criminology. The posts will still be there, even while I am away. So if you are doing some research, feel free to search the archives. There are two easy ways to do this. One is to browse by topic on the blog's home page (look down the right column, under the word "labels"). The other is to use the search box, again on the home page, to do a more specific search, for example by a keyword or author. 

Tweet, tweet!

Finally, if you have a Twitter account, I'd love to see you over on Twitter, where I remain active. Follow me @kfranklinphd

So -- sit back, relax, and stay tuned. I'll be back in a flash.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Innovative international risk assessment service is expanding

Try your hand at answering these questions:

  1. When evaluating Aboriginal offenders, how valid are standard risk assessment protocols? 

  2. Among Canadian men, how well does the Danger Assessment (DA) predict domestic violence? 

  3. For sex offenders in Vermont, what instrument is more accurate than the widely used Static-99 for predicting recidivism? 

  4. In screening U.S. soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, is there a valid tool that would help allocate limited therapeutic resources in order to decrease violence risk? 

  5. Finally, what the heck are the Y-ARAT, the CuRV, the START, and the VIO-SCAN, and what (if anything) are they good for?

With the frenetic pace of risk assessment research and practice developments, you couldn't be faulted for not knowing the correct answers to all of the above questions. Hardly anyone does.

That’s where the Executive Bulletin comes in.

Back in February, I told you about the launch of this service for clinicians, attorneys and researchers who want to stay abreast of developments in the field of risk assessment. The publishers scour more than 80 professional journals and create a one-page summary for each article relevant to violence and sex offending risk assessment among adults and juveniles. Using an appealing, easy-to-read format, each summary highlights the study's clinical implications and relevant legal questions, while minimizing statistical jargon. 

In the months since my announcement, the Bulletin has been gaining traction around the world. It now reaches more than 11,000 practitioners, researchers, and policymakers in the United States, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Spain, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Israel, the Netherlands, Mexico, Lithuania, Norway and Denmark. Among its largest subscribers are the California Department of State Hospitals -- which requires that its forensic evaluators read each monthly issue in order to stay abreast of peer-reviewed research into evidence-based practice -- and the public-policy oriented Council of State Governments in the United States.

The newly rebranded Global Institute of Forensic Research (GIFR), with the ever-energetic forensic psychologist Jay Singh at its helm, is currently rolling out a new features and services, including a new website, a podcast version of the Bulletin for commuters, and expert risk assessment trainings (free to subscribers) that are eligible for continuing education credits from the American Psychological Association and the Canadian Psychological Association.

The service is subscription-based. At $35 per month (and $350 for group subscriptions) it isn’t cheap, but Dr. Singh points out that the alternatives are also costly. It’s both costly and time consuming to stay abreast of important risk-related articles from more than 80 journals, most of them fee-based. Thus, without a synthesizing service such as the Bulletin, practitioners risk falling behind and inadvertently violating relevant standards of practice.

Among my own main concerns if I am going to allow someone else to find and synthesize research for my consumption is the degree of fidelity and expertise that the reviewer brings to bear. Here, the field is fortunate to have someone upon whom we can confidently rely. What I find most valuable about the Bulletin is the level of critical analysis that the expert reviewers bring to bear on each of the 15 or 20 articles they summarize each month. (Indeed, my confidence is why I accepted an invitation a while back to serve on the Institute’s advisory board.)

Singh, an epidemiology professor at Molde University in Norway, has published more than 40 cutting-edge articles on violence prediction (a few of which I have featured in prior blog posts). Formerly a fellow of the Florida Mental Health Institute and a Senior Researcher in Forensic Psychiatry for the Swiss Department of Corrections in Zurich, he has also trained and lectured widely on mental illness and violence, including at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania.

To date, his Institute has conducted exclusive interviews on tips and tricks in forensic assessment with leading practitioners and scholars including Jodi Viljoen, Nicholas Scurich, Annelies Vredeveldt and -- most recently -- Jennifer Lanterman of the University of Nevada at Reno. Next month’s featured expert is Seena Fazel of Oxford University. You can browse the website and find a sample issue HERE.

If you decide to sign up (or, better yet, get your institution to sign up), Singh is offering my blog readers and subscribers a special 10 percent discount. Just click on THIS LINK, and enter the discount code INTHENEWS.

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