Forensic Evaluations of Adolescents: Psychosocial and Clinical Considerations

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ABSTRACT

The forensic evaluation of an adolescent who has been arrested or is facing adjudication has important ramifications for the youth's present and future welfare. This paper reviews the knowledge base pertinent to forensic evaluations of adolescents, including the legal, social, developmental, and psychological factors underpinning such assessments. It then outlines an approach to assessment that employs a tripartite model of history, interviews and observations, and psychological tests. The manner in which information is reported to decisionmakers is also scrutinized.

While alarm about juvenile delinquency has increased since the 1980s, recent events have amplified the American public's fear of its young. School shootings, such as in Littleton, Colorado, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, have had a profound impact on the perception of child and adolescent crime. While tragic, these are rare events compared with other types of juvenile crime. Nevertheless, these and other tragedies have galvanized citizens and lawmakers, and fueled a movement away from rehabilitation and toward retribution in regard to juvenile delinquents (Grisso, 1996; Howell, 1997). For example, Crosby, Britner, Jodl, and Portwood (1995) reported that most participants in a jury simulation exercise supported the death penalty for 10-year-olds convicted of murder.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals play an important role in evaluating and helping youngsters with conduct problems. Specifically, a forensic evaluation helps decisionmakers in the legal system to understand a youngster, and the treatment options available for that individual. This paper reviews social and psychological issues surrounding the youthful offender, and outlines a clinical procedure for assessing these children and adolescents within judicial and quasi-judicial formats.

Mental health professionals have historically played an important role in the juvenile justice system (Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 1987). The first juvenile court appeared in Chicago in 1899 after the Illinois legislature raised the age of presumed criminal intent from 7 to 17 (Bernard, 1992). This action coincided with late-nineteenth-century ideas about childhood as a transformative stage, with development continuing through the "storm and stress" period of adolescence (Arnett, 1999; Hall, 1904). In 1909, William Healy began the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute in Chicago, where he advocated distinguishing the adolescent delinquent from adult criminals (Santostefano, 1978) and established teams of social workers. This model resulted in the formation of other child guidance clinics, such as the Judge Baker Guidance Center in Boston.

Society's increasing awareness of the harsh living conditions many children experienced also influenced the early juvenile justice movement. Images of children in factories, prisons, and gangs, and homeless on city streets, aroused moral outrage and gave impetus to the progressive era of children's rights (Margolin, 1977). The reformers of the early 1900s, called "child savers" (Rosenheim, 1973), consisted mainly or middle- and upper-class women championing the cause of children. The establishment of the Children's Bureau around 1912 signaled the creation of more formal organizations, in which full-time workers replaced volunteers, and professional standards and institutional mandates were developed.

These societal changes, along with the influence of developmental psychology, helped shape a belief that youth were malleable. The transgressions of children and adolescents did not portend adult criminal behavior, because their nature was deemed changeable. This philosophy naturally engendered a rehabilitation approach that became the central feature of the early juvenile justice system. This marked a transition in thinking about juvenile delinquency, supplanting the retribution approach.

Charged with reforming wayward minors, the juvenile justice system created a category of violations that were based on age, namely status offenses. …