August 18, 2011

At long last: New forensic specialty guidelines approved

After a 9-year revision process, the American Psychological Association has finally approved new Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. The Guidelines will replace those established in 1991.

The Guidelines are intended for use not only by forensic psychologists, but by any psychologist when engaged in the practice of forensic psychology. Forensic psychology is defined as the application of any specialized psychological knowledge to a legal context, to assist in addressing legal, contractual, and administrative matters. The Guidelines are also meant to provide guidance on professional conduct to the legal system, and other organizations and professions.

Guidelines differ from standards, such as those in the APA’s Ethics Code, in that they are aspirational rather than mandatory. They are intended to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and facilitate a high level of practice by psychologists, rather than being intended to serve as a basis for disciplinary action or civil or criminal liability.

The revision committee, chaired by Randy Otto, included representatives of the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the APA) and the American Academy of Forensic Psychology. 

The Guidelines will be published shortly in the American Psychologist journal. In the meantime, a draft version is available HERE. I encourage all of you to read and learn its contents. Much of it will sound familiar to those with a working knowledge of the APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Although the Guidelines dance around some of the major controversies in our field, there is still plenty to be happy about. By way of whetting your appetite (hopefully), here is a random smattering:
    2.05 Knowledge of the Scientific Foundation for Opinions and Testimony: Forensic practitioners seek to provide opinions and testimony that are sufficiently based upon adequate scientific foundation, and reliable and valid principles and methods that have been applied appropriately to the facts of the case. When providing opinions and testimony that are based on novel or emerging principles and methods, forensic practitioners seek to make known the status and limitations of these principles and methods.
    2.08 Appreciation of Individual and Group Differences: Forensic practitioners strive to understand how factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, socioeconomic status, or other relevant individual and cultural differences may affect and be related to the basis for people’s contact and involvement with the legal system.
    6.03 Communication with Forensic Examinee: Forensic practitioners inform examinees about the nature and purpose of the examination, … including potential consequences of participation or non-participation, if known.
    10.01 Focus on Legally Relevant Factors: Forensic practitioners are encouraged to consider the problems that may arise by using a clinical diagnosis in some forensic contexts, and consider and qualify their opinions and testimony appropriately.
    11.04 Comprehensive and Accurate Presentation of Opinions in Reports and Testimony: Forensic practitioners are encouraged to limit discussion of background information that does not bear directly upon the legal purpose of the examination or consultation. Forensic practitioners avoid offering information that is irrelevant and that does not provide a substantial basis of support for their opinions, except when required by law.
Leonard Rubenstein, a senior scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Public Health of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, writes in a Huffington Post column that the new Guidelines will prevent psychologists from participating in abusive government interrogations as they did at Guantanamo. I think that's a stretch. These guidelines are not enforceable. And, like all such professional guidelines, they will be subject to diverse interpretations.

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