May 30, 2011

Should social workers do juvenile competency evaluations?

California Judicial Council soliciting input through June 20 on forensic qualifications

Photo credit: Richard Ross
As many of you may know, California just enacted a cutting-edge law (W&I 709) requiring that developmental immaturity must be considered in determining a juvenile's competency to stand trial. Now, the state's Judicial Council is tasked with developing new Rules of Court (5.645) to help implement the law, including guidelines about who qualifies as an expert in juvenile competency proceedings.

The Council has issued a specific call for comments on whether the court should expand the list of accepted experts from psychologists and psychiatrists only, to include other professionals such as social workers.

The deadline to submit a written comment is June 20. Comments may be submitted via email, mail or fax.(Be sure to follow the instructions, available HERE.)

Currently, five California superior courts have adopted protocols regarding juvenile competency matters (available HERE). The Superior Courts of San Diego and Sacramento counties require the appointment of a psychologist or psychiatrist, while San Francisco County appoints a psychologist, and the Los Angeles and Santa Clara courts use an expert panel.

My thoughts

My concern with expanding the eligible professions is that, although there are many fine social workers in the field, their education and training does not prepare them to perform state-of-the-science assessments in this complex area. Social work programs do not provide the education and training in psychometric testing, statistics or differential diagnosis that is routine in psychology graduate programs. As I wrote in my formal comment to the Judicial Council:

Often, competency becomes an issue with children due to complex constellations of underlying deficits, such as neurological insults, neurodevelopmental impairments, psychiatric disturbances, intellectual or other cognitive limitations, and learning disabilities. In such cases, ferreting out what is going on requires the proper selection, administration, and interpretation of an ever-changing array of psychological tests and measures….

Because social work programs do not offer the extensive training in differential diagnosis that is standard in psychology and psychiatry training programs, social workers as a rule are not equipped to adequately sort through complex differential diagnostic issues and assess their functional impact on a juvenile’s competency to stand trial.

The other aspect of the proposal about which I expressed reservations was section (v), which would require evaluators to "be familiar with … treatment, training and programs for the attainment of competency available to children and adolescents in California."

In my opinion, this goes beyond the bounds of a typical forensic psychology evaluation, and may lead to unintended negative consequences. As I wrote to the Council:
In practice, this could require an evaluator to take on the onerous burden of ferreting out the available services in each jurisdiction in which he or she practices. The task of locating appropriate services for incompetent minors properly belongs to local probation officers, child welfare workers, regional centers, and others, not forensic evaluators….
Well-qualified evaluators are already reluctant to conduct court-ordered evaluations due to the pittance that most counties pay. Mandating additional burdens that do not exist for other types of forensic work could inadvertently contribute to poor practice by leaving only shoddy "drive-by" evaluators willing to take on these complex and time-consuming cases.

I encourage interested professionals to submit comments right away, as the deadline is looming. In the near future, the Council plans to seek public comment on other aspects of this new law, and I will try to provide you with advance notice on this blog.

1 comment:

4nSick said...

In a similar, but unrelated matter--the Psychology dept. at the CA prison that I work at are currently debating the difference between a psychologist and a social worker- both in terms of actual education/qualifications and in terms of actual role definitions at the prison. In my experience, social workers at the prison do the EXACT job that I do as a psychologist with LESS pay. All of this has been brought up as a subject of debate due to a push from management to "re-structure" the mental health program. They are considering assigning very specific duties /functions to specific team members instead of having people doing multiple duties. Of course this leads to questions about who is BEST qualified to do what. Do you have any thoughts about the state's use of social workers and psychologists in the prisons?