December 9, 2007

Another forensic psychology sex scandal

A psychologist in North Dakota who conducted sex offender evaluations for the state has resigned over a self-admitted child pornography compulsion. Joseph Belanger had run the state's Sexually Dangerous Individual (SDI) civil commitment program. In that capacity, he evaluated sex offenders and testified in court that they were sexually dangerous and should remain hospitalized.

It was unknown what triggered the investigation against Dr. Belanger, but Homeland Security officials recently seized his home computer, according to the Forum newspaper in Fargo, ND.

Dr. Belanger, who worked for the state hospital for more than 20 years, was reportedly a protege of Dennis Doren, a prominent psychologist for the state in sex offender civil commitment proceedings (I've mentioned Doren previously here and here).

Belanger is at least the second forensic psychologist this year to be tarnished by accusations of sexual deviancy.

In July, prominent forensic psychologist Stuart Greenberg killed himself after being arrested on suspicion of voyeurism; he had allegedly secretly videotaped a woman in his office bathroom. Greenberg was known for his expertise in child custody evaluations, but he was also a consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle in sex abuse cases.

A commonality in these cases in that both men allegedly used modern technology to further their deviant interests - Greenberg using a concealed video camera and Belanger using the Internet.

While reporting on this news, I hasten to point out that two men out of the countless forensic psychologists in the United States certainly doesn't represent a pattern. Rather, the similar scandals cropping up in other professions suggest that such cases may be more a sign of the times than a reflection on any particular line of work.

What is relevant to the field, however, is that the revelations will likely cause scrutiny of cases in which the two men were involved as expert psychologists. This scrutiny is already occurring in Greenberg's case, with parents protesting unfavorable child custody court decisions that were based in part upon his opinions. In King County (Seattle), the presiding judge anticipated a flurry of legal challenges to cases in which Greenberg was a court-appointed evaluator. Although Greenberg's arrest would not be sufficient to reopen a case, a parent could argue bias if Greenberg's custody recommendations hinged on a parent's sexuality. I would anticipate similar challenges by civilly committed sex offenders evaluated or treated by Belanger in North Dakota.

As evidenced by the numerous venomous posts at the websites of Washington newspapers that covered the Greenberg case as well as websites devoted to parental rights in custody cases, these scandals also provide ready ammunition to critics of forensic psychology and expert witnesses more generally.