Thursday, April 26, 2012

What If A Teen Victim of Child Sex Assault Says It Was Consensual?

In Golden, Colorado yesterday, a girl who had a sexual relationship with her former high school basketball coach reluctantly testified against him in a Child Sex Assault trial. She was under the age of 18 at the time of the relationship, but she testified that she consented to the relationship and presumably enjoyed it and was not harmed by it.

In Colorado, consent cannot be used as a defense for a child sex assault charge, though. The argument is that children are too young to be able to fully understand the decision to consent to a sexual relationship with an adult. But, is that really the case?

What psychologists know from years of research is that kids make poor decisions. They cannot think through the complexities of difficult situations and weigh the pros and cons of their potential actions in the same way adults can.

What we also know from research is that kids who are 15 years old make the same quality of decisions as 18 year-olds do. That is not to say that 18 year-olds make good decisions--it just means that the average 15 year-old has about the same decision-making ability as the average 18 year-old does. And, we typically grant 18 year-olds a wide range of decision-making rights, including whether or not to legally consent to a relationship with a much older adult.

In Colorado, this magical age of 15 and the decision-making abilities it comes with are codified into the child sex assault laws. For kids under the age of 15, it is considered child sex assault if the perpetrator is 5 years older than the victim. For kids ages 15 to 18, the allowable age difference is 10 years.

However, the bigger picture with regard to not allowing consent as a defense in a child sex assault case, regardless of the age of the child, is the potential harm that is caused by this type of a sexual relationship. It may be that this girl from Golden was not harmed by the relationship with her former basketball coach. Maybe it was good for her. Or, maybe she does not yet understand the harm it has caused her. There are likely to be kids who are not harmed by having sexual relationships with adults, but those kids are in the extreme minority. The vast majority of children who have a relationship with an adult, even if it is "consensual," suffer a great deal of harm. Trauma, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, future relationship problems, sexual dysfunction--these are but a few of the common problems victims of child sex assault face, even when these victims think they have consented to the relationship.

I feel for the girl who was forced to testify against her former basketball coach, a man she deeply cared for and who she thought treated her well. She does not feel harmed by this sexual relationship, and I assume she does not want to see her former "boyfriend" suffer for no reason. But, this guy is toast. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of evidence against him, and he has no real legal defense for his actions. It is likely he will spend time in prison and years on parole afterward. He will be a registered sex offender, and he will never get another chance to potentially ruin a child's life again.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Convicts Forget To Turn Off The Water When They Are Released From Prison

An interesting tidbit about prison inmates: They never need to turn on or off a water faucet.

This is probably something we all experience a few times a week. At work, at school, at the local neighborhood restaurant--automatic water faucets are everywhere. But, imagine if you only had access to an automatic water faucet. Every time you wash your hands, the water magically turns on for you. When you walk away, it turns off. Every time. For years.

In my unscientific polling, I have discovered that one problem former convicts have when they are reintegrating into society after long prison terms is that they consistently forget to turn the water off when they are done. They walk away from the kitchen sink or the bathroom with the water still running full blast. Apparently, it drives their family members crazy.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Competency Evaluations to Be Completed Sooner in Colorado

The State of Colorado recently settled a lawsuit regarding the length of time it takes to complete competency to stand trial evaluations. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued the state was violating the due process rights of individuals with mental illness because they were being held in custody for too long without having their cases move through the court system.

A little background information: Individuals have a number of legal rights under the US Constitution when they are charged with a crime. The US Supreme Court has made it very clear that an individual must be competent to understand those rights in order to receive a fair trial. If there is any question regarding competency, a person's case is essentially frozen in time until he/she undergoes a competency evaluation and the court determines if the person is competent or not. If found competent, the case starts back up like normal. If found incompetent, the person is usually treated for whatever condition is causing the incompetency (usually a cognitive problem or psychosis), and then the case starts up again when the person is "restored" to competency.

The plaintiffs in the Colorado lawsuit argued that individuals with mental illness were being denied due process for too long while they waited in jail or at the state mental health hospital in Pueblo for a competency evaluation. If you think about it, this argument makes sense. Imagine you have been charged with a felony and are in jail with no chance of getting bonded out. Your attorney is afraid you might not be competent to understand your rights and face trial, so the judge orders an evaluation. At that point, your case essentially stops until the evaluation is completed and the judge can make a ruling. But, you wait in jail for two months before you are evaluated. So, you are held in jail, almost as though you were guilty, without being able to contest it. You haven't entered a plea, you haven't had the chance to work with your attorney, you may not have had an opportunity to see the evidence against you, and you have not gone to trial. You are just stuck in jail. My guess is that you would not be too happy about that situation.

Due to the settlement, Colorado is now required to complete competency evaluations within 24 days of the court order for individuals in the state hospital and within 30 days for those in jail. I checked with a source at the state hospital in Pueblo, and he seemed confident that they would be able to work within those guidelines. As far as I can tell, this time frame does not apply to individuals who are free on bond--it only applies to individuals who are at the state hospital or in a county jail.

Here is a link to the Denver Post article about the lawsuit settlement: Colorado Settles Lawsuite Over Inmates' Mental Health Evaluations

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Do Lawyers Look For In An Expert Witness?

Sigmund Freud, bearded expert

I recently posted a question on my Facebook page asking if people would trust a male psychologist more if he had a beard. That got me thinking about whether or not there was any research on that topic. A quick review of the literature revealed that no one has examined the beard question in a scientific way. However, many studies have confirmed that people in the courtroom (jurors, judges, and attorneys) considered "professional attire" to be important in their determination of the credibility of an expert witness. "Professional attire" was not specifically defined, but I assume that means a conservative suit and tie for men and a suit for women. It seems that the best rule of thumb would be to dress like an attorney.

In my literature search, I also found a dissertation completed in 2005 by Alison Browne, who surveyed attorneys on what they were looking for in good expert witnesses. She asked specifically about psychologists as expert witnesses.

Browne found that attorneys ranked the following qualities as most important (in order of importance):

1. Good demeanor and appearance on the stand
2. Personal attributes of the witness
3. Knowing the case well and being prepared
4. Appearing objective and honest
5. Being able to work well with the attorney
6. Good communication skills

Through her analysis of the data, Browne discovered the following qualities she determined to be most important (in order of importance):

1. Knowing the case well and being prepared
2. Appearing objective and honest
3. Having good integrity and a good reputation
4. Good demeanor and appearance on the stand
5. Good communication skills

I find it fascinating that "good communication skills" are important, but not as important as a number of other qualities. It seems that the data strongly supports "being prepared" as one of the most important qualities a psychologist as expert witness can bring to the courtroom. Being objective, prepared, working well with the attorney, and having integrity all seem to be just as (if not more) important than having good communication skills. And, apparently, attorneys may place a little too much emphasis on the appearance of the witness--although appearance is important, the data seem to show that there are many other qualities that are more important than what the expert witness looks like.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Browne, A. S. (2005). Psychologists as expert witnesses: Effective qualities from the attorney perspective. Retrieved from ProQuest, UMI Number: 3168789.


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