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What Exactly Does a Forensic Psychologist Do?

Breaking down this important but often misunderstood role.

Key points

  • Forensic psychology involves a range of services, including evaluations in criminal, civil, or family court and court-involved psychotherapies.
  • It employs a multi-method approach to data collection consisting of record review, interviewing, collateral contacts, and psychological testing.
  • Forensic psychologists assist courts by giving opinions grounded in sufficient data collection and address legally relevant factors.
Getty Images: CarlaNichiata
Source: Getty Images: CarlaNichiata

by Dr. Erik Dranoff, Ph.D.

When I tell laypeople that I am a forensic psychologist, they often picture me working with law enforcement in a criminal profiling case. As the conversation progresses, they learn that forensic psychology involves using psychological principles and research in many different areas of law. They are surprised to learn that forensic psychologists have a strong foundation in clinical, counseling, or school psychology where they developed specialized skills to assist the court in a legal case. Forensic psychologists conduct a wide range of services, including evaluations in criminal, civil, or family court as well as court-involved psychotherapies.

During one’s work as a forensic psychologist, one can conduct evaluations in a wide range of contexts, including sentencing mitigation in criminal cases, psychological damages in personal injury cases, and child abuse in family court cases. Regardless of the case, the forensic psychologist employs a multi-method approach to data collection consisting of record review, interviewing, collateral contacts, and neuropsychological/psychological testing. By collecting information from multiple sources, the professional is able to increase the validity and reliability of the information that they rely upon.

When a forensic psychologist has been appointed by the court to give an opinion about the psychological functioning of an individual or family, it is not sufficient to simply conduct an interview and administer testing. The professional will use a multi-method approach to data collection so they can corroborate the information provided in the interviews or obtained from the psychological testing. For this reason, the forensic psychologist will also review legal, educational, and mental health records as well as conduct collateral interviews with others who know the person well or other professionals involved in the situation. After obtaining information from a wide range of sources, the professional can develop a greater understanding of the individual so an opinion can be provided to the court.

Prior to accepting an appointment by the court or being retained by an attorney, a forensic psychologist will make sure that they have specialized knowledge to address the psychological questions facing the court. After conducting the evaluation and drafting a written report, the professional can be called to discuss their opinion in direct testimony and defend their statements in a cross-examination. During the testimony, the judge will listen attentively to the testimony and will make a determination about whether the professional has provided a credible opinion. By giving a well-reasoned opinion that is grounded in sufficient data collection and addresses legally relevant factors, the forensic psychologist will assist the court in their decision-making about the psychological issues in the case.

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