The Use of Narrative and Persuasion in the Child Forensic Psychiatric Report and Testimony

By Steinberg, Annie; Fromm, Laurentine | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Use of Narrative and Persuasion in the Child Forensic Psychiatric Report and Testimony


Steinberg, Annie, Fromm, Laurentine, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


Narrative is a fundamental means of making sense of experience. As child forensic psychiatrists attempt to convey evidence and opinions via report writing and testimony, they need to bear in mind an obligation to ensure that their efforts are as well received as feasible under the circumstances. This article discusses how narrative can serve functions that include humanizing individuals in the courtroom, giving voice to a young child, explaining interpersonal situations, and gathering and evaluating existing data.

KEY WORDS: Forensic psychiatry, narrative theory, persuasion, report writing, testimony.

"You are the master of what you don't say and the slave of what you do."

- FRANCISCO FRANCO

In every culture and across the developmental life cycle, narrative is a fundamental means of making sense of experience. Narrative provides coherence and organizes life events; it gives shape and meaning to life experience. The importance of gathering, organizing, and synthesizing data has particular potency when the evaluation involves a child, who may not otherwise have a voice in the courtroom, and for whom the evaluation may affect the entire developmental trajectory (and the life of his/her family as well).

While all forensic psychiatrists strive for objectivity and precision in communicating findings in a report, it is inevitable that every report has subjective elements, and perhaps there is no place where the forensic expert must struggle as hard to maintain objectivity as in a case involving a vulnerable child. One child forensic textbook author admonishes its readers to maintain awareness of one's personal viewpoint so that bias can be minimized, "Recognize that you choose which words to use to describe the interviewee, which behaviors to highlight, which elements of the history to cite, and which sequence to follow in presenting the information" (Sattler, 1998, p. 293).

A rich article authored by Ezra Griffith and colleagues (2010) addressed two practice elements as core competencies in forensic psychiatry, the writing of forensic psychiatric reports and the oral presentation of written findings. It was noted that both forms of presentation demand the ability to "present ideas in a forum that anticipates critical analysis, disagreement and even verbal confrontation or cross-examination. Under such scrutiny, both forms of presentation should be seen therefore as acts of performance, requiring a degree of artistry and cogent argumentativeness." The authors emphasize the importance of writing, "to protect against the corruption of translation [from psychiatry into law], unintended bias of language, and unhelpful ambiguity" (p. 32). They review what is necessary in the creation of a persuasive and relevant product in forensic work, and how the use of language and testimony, in addition to concepts of voice, portraiture, narrative ethics, and rhetoric, are essential in grasping the report's performative dimensions.

A previous article focused on the related aspect of intention, proposing that the use of narrative involves compassion for the subject of the evaluation (Griffith, 2005). The pragmatics of this attunement to the narrative structure of the forensic report is particularly germane in child cases that powerfully evoke compassion in the countertransference, as well as other emotions and unconscious desires, for example, when the case involves a baby or very young child, when the child is in a juvenile facility or foster home that is less than optimal, when there are physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse allegations, when the child has been irrevocably injured, when there is a high degree of conflict about the child's custodial arrangement, when there is consideration of termination of parental rights, and so on.

In "Man's Search for Meaning," Victor Frankl (1969) observes that all people seek a life that is as "meaningful as possible." This is particularly so when a person, child or adult, has suffered a traumatic event. …

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