Forensic vs. Clinical Mental Health Assessments in Alleged Child Sexual Abuse Cases

If allegations are to have any substance, they must be able to stand up to the most rigorous lines of questioning.

As a law firm that's honed its craft, defending the falsely accused against an array of unfounded claims, we credit our thorough questioning for helping investigations end up in our client's favor. Sometimes we’ll notice sloppiness with evidence, or it can be proven that someone was coerced into making an accusation.

Also occurring with alarming frequency is how mandated child sexual abuse reports get referred to Child Protective Services by clinical mental health counselors.

While therapists must be forward with this information, they aren’t necessarily equipped to provide an even-handed, objective viewpoint.

An introduction to Forensic Mental Health Counsellors

Throughout this article, I’ll be referencing findings from the research paper: Sarah F. Shelton. Evaluating the Evaluation: Reliance Upon Mental Health Assessments in Cases of Alleged Child Sex Abuse. Child Mental Health Assessments. Spring 2015, 566-585.

It brings up how forensic mental health assessments are a completely different animal than clinical work, specifically during child abuse cases.

Forensic psychological work is uniquely specialized because of how challenging it can be to work with the children depending on their age, cognitive abilities, emotions, and developmental factors. These are all factors that play a distinct role in a child’s ability to be a part of the investigation. Such experts know how to maintain objectivity and focus primarily on the science and facts involved throughout the legal process.

Plus, a forensic mental health evaluator’s value goes beyond meeting the standards of our legal system. These individuals understand the necessary child-specific tactics needed to avoid repeated evaluations.

In other words, they’re supposed to be efficient in getting the relevant answers from a child without causing undue stress.

Clinical Mental Health Professionals Are Unaware of Their Forensic Ignorance

There’s a concerning fact mentioned in the paper we’re reviewing: that those in the legal system and mental health field don’t understand the distinction between forensic and clinical work.

This isn’t to downplay the worth of clinical therapists. They serve their purpose by offering a shoulder to cry on, validation for clients, etc.

However, a therapeutic relationship is not conducive to a forensically reliable assessment. It is often the role of these mental health counselors to accept what their clients say as the truth without questioning anything.

Even if they do have an inkling of a dishonest accusation, a clinical therapist doesn’t necessarily have the forensic skills to prove the falsehood. They’re therefore hamstrung into filing a report.

Relationships built on therapy – by their nature – are entirely subjective.

Alternatively, forensic specialists are only concerned with objectively refuting or supporting a hypothesis. While the bond of a clinician is with their client, forensic experts are bound to the evidence that would be used in the legal system and must uphold all that it stands for.

The paper reads, “Forensic assessment is not a general clinical competency.” Forensic evaluation is “qualitatively different” from therapeutic evaluation. The “therapeutic alliance is one that inherently involves support and advocacy. For someone in the therapist role, to disbelieve a child’s report of abuse damages the therapeutic relationship. Also, therapists in clinical settings are accustomed to accepting their patients’ reports at face value…This is in contrast to forensically trained evaluators who actively seek to prove and disprove competing theories of what happened at every step of the assessment process.”

Problems with Relying on Therapeutic Assessments

In many instances, false child abuse allegations occur because therapists apply memory-recall techniques, such as hypnosis.

These have been proven unreliable – yet they’re still relied upon by clinicians as a therapeutic method to help treat clients. Unfortunately, the legal system pays mind to accusations that have been elicited through these techniques. This oversight has led to many a miscarriage of justice.

The paper reads, “It is important to understand that memories are constructed not reproductive. In other words, people must assemble memories rather than simply recall the equivalent of a mental photograph or video that accurately portrays the reality of a historical moment. Because the process of encoding, storing, and retrieving a memory are separate tasks, each step represents an opportunity for error to intrude.”

Don’t Take a Therapist’s Child Abuse Report to CPS at Face Value

Therapists, even though their heart might be in the right place, tend to jump the gun when it comes to a child making abuse allegations. Their lack of objectivity makes them an unreliable witness. So, you don’t need to take their word at face value. Ensure you bring forth a forensic investigator to give yourself the best chance to clear your name.

Can a Forensic Mental Health Evaluator Be Hired to Help the Falsely Accused?

Yes, forensic psychological assessments can be hired independently. We have a great deal of experience working with psychologists in cases of false sexual abuse accusations.

If you find yourself in this situation, you would do well to find both an attorney and a psychologist who can help you resolve your very serious problem.