Youth Services Law

Can a Treating Therapist Be a Reliable Expert Witness?

Posted In Expert Witness

I recently have encountered litigation where a party has designated his or her or a child's therapist as an expert witness. This arrangement is rarely, if ever, a good idea. I understand the temptation to save money by hiring one person to serve two roles. But a therapist who tries to serve as an expert witness faces an ethical conflict that can completely undercut both roles.

The main difficulty is that a forensic witness must be objective, while a therapist's job is to support his or her client. To quote a leading expert, writing in The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations(a book that I highly recommend), 

In a treatment relationship, even one directed by a court or conducted under the aegis of an agency, the therapist's primary loyalty should be clear: it is to the patient or client, rather than to the patient's family, a social agency or a court. . . . The neutrality and objectivity needed from a forensic examiner cannot be expected once the therapeutic alliance has been formed and the mental health professional has made a commitment to helping the client beyond simple protection.

None of the organizations that set standards will go so far as to completely forbid the practice.  But all of them strongly discourage it. (Sources listed after the jump) At the very least, a treating therapist testifying as an expert should be able to quantify the "different responsibilities and tasks required of each role," as well as the "appropriate steps" he or she took "to guard against role conflict" and to "make sure that the client understands the nature and different responsibilities of each role." APSAC Practice Guidelines, Code of Ethics ¶ C2.

Other resources on the issue: 

APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment

Principles of Forensic Mental Health Assessment 

American Psychology-Law Society, Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Practice Parameters for the Forensic Evaluation of Children and Adolescents Who May Have Been Physically or Sexually Abused

APSAC Practice Guidelines

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