Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Top forensic psych’s shameful secrets: A cautionary tale

An investigative report on the secret life of a prominent forensic psychologist is generating controversy on professional listservs. Some want to let sleeping dogs lie. Others, including this blogger, believe the sordid tale contains valuable lessons for the field.

Photo credit: Seattle Times
Stuart "Stu" Greenberg was at the pinnacle of a highly successful career when he committed suicide in 2007 after being caught using a secret camera to spy on women – including fellow psychologists -- in his office bathroom.

Greenberg was a respected leader in forensic psychology. Former president of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, he had functioned as a professional gatekeeper in heading the committee that wrote a national certification exam for the field. He was a sought-after speaker who published articles on ethics in peer-reviewed journals. In court, his opinion could decide the fate of a parent seeking custody of her child. Charging $450 an hour, he had amassed an estimated $1.7 million in personal worth and owned at least two houses and a boat.

But in last weekend's Seattle Times, investigative reporters Ken Armstrong and Maureen O'Hagan reveal new details of Greenberg's less savory side. They go so far as to paint the Seattle psychologist as a "toxic force -- a poison coursing through the state's court system," who destroyed lives while building a career based on "hypocrisy and lies."

Previously sealed records dug up by the newspaper -- including a 1990 disciplinary case -- attest to Greenberg's power and "cunning," the reporters write:
His word could determine which parent received custody of a child, or whether a jury believed a claim of sexual assault, or what damages might be awarded for emotional distress…. [The records] show how he played the courts for a fool. He played state regulators for a fool. He played his fellow psychologists for a fool. And were it not for a hidden camera, he might have gotten away with it.
The report describes how Greenberg coerced Washington state's Examining Board of Psychology into sealing public records of a 1990 disciplinary action against him. The case involved alleged misconduct in four separate child custody cases. The Board imposed a three-year ban on his conducting such evaluations. But "within a year of getting his disciplinary history sealed, Greenberg was giving seminars to other psychologists on the ethics of parenting evaluations," the report says.

As an example of the destruction wrought by Greenberg, the reporters interviewed the complainant in one of the four cases. Surgical nurse Cathy Graden said she had no fears of losing custody of her 4-year-old son after her divorce. What she didn't know was that Greenberg and the lawyer for her ex-husband were limited business partners in a speculative investment venture:
The report Greenberg filed in court eviscerated Graden. It said she posed a grave danger to her son; that she was "probably" sexually abusing him; that she was psychologically unstable and possibly paranoid….In court, testifying, Greenberg described Graden as "quasi-psychotic," but said the diagnosis was tricky, because Graden might appear "quite normal." She would likely deny doing anything wrong to her son, Greenberg said, or alternatively, she "might genuinely not remember."

By the time Greenberg finished, Graden, out in the hallway, had been stripped of all defenses -- and without a clue to what had just happened. If she appeared normal -- well, Greenberg said she would. If she denied hurting her son -- that was part of her disorder. If she challenged Greenberg's work or motives -- she was paranoid. At the end of the hearing … the judge ordered the boy turned immediately over to his father, with Graden allowed to visit only if supervised by a therapist.
Graden finally got her son back when he was nine years old, but only because his father was killed in a work accident.

"Inscrutable field with immense power"

The Seattle Times piece is slanted. It castigates the entire field for the alleged criminal and unethical conduct of one individual. As we all know, there are honorable and dishonorable people in all professions. In my locale, the FBI is investigating a group of rogue police who allegedly sold drugs, ran a brothel and took money from a lawyer to make staged arrests of fathers in child custody cases. Yet the media do not paint all law enforcement with that same dirty brush. And some of the supposed misdeeds for which the reporters lambast Greenberg, such as lacking the clairvoyance to know that a priest he evaluated was lying about the extent of his sexual misconduct, are hardly evidence of turpitude. Nowhere is a spokesperson for our field given space to clarify or comment about the implications.

But in calling forensic psychology "an inscrutable field with immense power," the reporters tap into a popular conception with a kernel of truth.

Power is a corrupting force. Just as Greenberg wielded immense power over the fates of parents and children, forensic psychologists today abuse their power and destroy lives when they invent diagnoses to further pretextual goals, present personal opinion and prejudice masked as science, or testify that they know with mathematical certainty that a person will commit a future crime. Such misconduct is common in certain forensic contexts. In fact, its routine nature presents an obstacle to intervention. I know of one colleague whose attempts to complain about psychologists' improper opinions in court were rebuffed by a licensing board on the grounds that the opinions -- while improper -- were not sufficiently unusual.

Greenberg's tale may thus serve as a cautionary one about why the field should not collectively look away when we see colleagues abusing their power. Individually or as a group, it is our ethical duty to intervene when we see colleagues misbehaving -- stepping beyond the bounds of science, engaging in activities that seem biased, or (as in Greenberg's case) mistreating women or others with less social currency. Perhaps if Greenberg's superficial aplomb had not blinded colleagues to his faults, he could have been redeemed and this public tragedy averted.

Professional condemnation of Greenberg's misconduct serves other purposes. It demonstrates respect for the members of the public who were negatively affected, as well as for our own women colleagues who allegedly suffered sexual exploitation and betrayal by a colleague whom they trusted. It may encourage exploration in our professional literature about the existence of corruption, which always creeps into situations involving power and authority, and how this problem might be addressed.

It may also be useful for each of us to reflect personally on the lessons here. Many of us work largely alone. Without professional accountability, it is easy to go astray. The stakes are high, the material troubling, the settings adversarial. In these difficult circumstances, it is incumbent upon all of us to behave honorably and ethically, to avoid even the appearance of bias, to be transparent in explaining the basis of our often-consequential opinions, and to admit the limits of our knowledge.

In other words, to recognize the inherent power imbalances, and to strive for humility and honesty.

A collection of primary documents and news reports on Greenberg's case can be found at The Liz Library. Also at that site are direct quotes from psychologists' (supposedly) internal debates on the case as culled from two professional listservs. (Note that the presentation is biased and misleading; by publishing mainly one side of a vigorous debate, they misrepresent psychologists as overwhelmingly opposed to public airing of this troubling case. But it's still worth checking out.)

2 comments:

  1. Shades of Sir Bernard Spilsbury! Is this a professional hazard?

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I say in the post, misconduct and corruption exists in all professions; behavior like this is especially insidious in occupations that confer power and authority.

    ReplyDelete

 
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