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The Importance of Ethics in Forensic Psychology

Updated on March 4, 2015

You have analyzed and ethics complaint via three documents—an evaluation, the complaint, and the ethics board's decision. But would you be able to identify the ethical problems? And more importantly, would you understand how to avoid committing them in the first place?

What does this case illustrate about the importance of ethics in forensic psychology?
What problems did this psychologist's poor ethical thinking cause for the family involved?
Would you have been able to read the evaluation and spot the ethical problems? Did you catch any? Did you miss some? Explain.
What could the psychologist have done differently that would have made this an ethical evaluation?

This case illustrates the importance of ethics in forensic psychology by showing the different types of unethical behavior a forensic psychologist could engage in. The unethical behavior displayed in this case serves to highlight the types of behavior a forensic psychologist should avoid at all costs. The psychologist's poor ethical thinking caused the family involved to suffer more than necessary during the custody arrangements. The forensic psychologist did not inform the mother of the risks and benefits of the services to be provided. This led the mother to be evaluated without her informed consent on what could happen as a result of the assessment. The lack of ethical thinking may have also caused difficulty for the child because the child was suddenly moved from living with her mother most of the time to living with her father due to the assessment of a biased forensic psychologist.

When I read the parenting evaluation I noticed a few things that I thought were ethical problems. The one thing that stuck out to me the most was when Dr. Gallager claimed that the mother was a flight risk because of her happy memory of visiting her relatives in Europe. To me this seemed very odd because there were little to no facts involved that would actually indicate that the mother was a risk of “international child abduction”. I found it even stranger that the doctor recommended her passport should be confiscated when the mother had no prior history of attempting to flee with her child. I also found it unethical to have a section where the husband responded to his wife’s allegations and not have a corresponding section for the wife to respond to her husband’s allegations. I missed the ethical problems that came from having a forensic psychologist that did not accept the wife’s MaineCare do the evaluation and use the wife’s inability to pay the evaluator’s fees against her.

There are many things the forensic psychologist could have done differently that would have made this an ethical evaluation. First off when the psychologist was informed that the wife was a MaineCare recipient the psychologist should have either referred the wife to an evaluator that accepted MaineCare or if the husband was going to pay all of the fees the wife’s inability to pay should not have been noted against her. There should also have been a section for the wife to respond to the husband’s allegations. The psychologist should have refrained from making recommendations based on little to no factual evidence, like claiming the mother was a risk of “international child abduction”. The forensic psychologist should have either remained objective or referred the couple to a different evaluator who would not have discriminated against the wife or the husband. The psychologist should also have refrained from diagnosing the mother without psychometric evidence to substantiate the diagnosis.

After reading the parenting evaluation, the ethics complaint, and the ethics decision I was left wondering if the forensic psychologist had a dual relationship of some sort with the husband that led to the psychologist being biased against the mother. I would also be curious to know if the board’s decision on the case affected the family at all. Was the family ever re-evaluated by a different forensic psychologist? Did the child stay with the father or was custody given back to the mother because of the board’s ruling? Was the forensic psychologist’s recommendation ever reviewed from the standpoint of whether the child was best off with the mother or the father?


Sample Parenting Evaluation

Sample Ethics Complaint

Sample Ethics Decision

Parenting Evaluation Summary and Recommendations

Mother and HUSBAND were unhappy in their marriage and their estrangement and arguments increased. Their arguments increased as HUSBAND became tired of being a caretaker and did not want to leave CHILD alone with Mother. Mother ,having been abused as a CHILD and young teenager, tends to see the world through the lens of expecting to be abused. Mother saw herself as a victim. She expected HUSBAND to carry the load of financial support for the family as well as doing all the cooking and getting CHILD ready for school and bed. HUSBAND got increasingly tired of Mother‟s many illnesses and inability to work in the home or outside of the home. HUSBAND grew more and more frustrated with the lack of joy in the home.
In fact, HUSBAND has been a submissive to a fault. He was a caretaker until his frustration grew and he was no longer submissive. HUSBAND had increasing concerns about Mother‟s mental health, and CHILD‟s safety, but continued to try to help Mother. He “never wanted to take CHILD‟s mother away from her.” Now, he is more concerned about CHILD‟s safety, angry about false allegations against him, and wants full legal and physical custody of CHILD. He is afraid that Mother will commit a murder or suicide, or abduct CHILD.
At first, during the initial separation, the couple shared CHILD rearing; but later, as the process of the divorce proceeded, Mother has manipulated the system in hopes of preventing HUSBAND from seeing or parenting CHILD. While she complained that all he does is play with her and does not engage in other parenting behavior; she left out the fact that when the couple was together, HUSBAND provided most of the CHILD care.
Mother has launched a campaign to eliminate HUSBAND from CHILD‟s life, by accusing him of physical and sexual abuse, calling the police on a Friday night after he brought CHILD to a scheduled assessment session that was arranged in advance and announced to Mother. She charged the guardian ad litem with violating the PFA, which was wholly untrue. She accused HUSBAND of sexual abuse. She presented information to the pediatrician in such a way that the pediatrician had no choice but to file a suspected CHILD abuse case with DHHS and recommend further evaluation at the Spurwink Child Abuse Program. Since then, after investigation, DHHS has closed the case and is not having any involvement.
Mother has serious physical and mental health symptoms, and personality problems. That is not to say she cannot contribute to CHILD‟s life, but her actions toward HUSBAND do not take into account CHILD‟s best interests. Mother‟s mental health problems have created circumstances in which she neglects CHILD-such as not providing supervision and letting her use thumbs tacks or nails with her dolls and write on her arm. She does not engage with her, unnecessarily puts her in timeouts, limits her social contacts, and projects problems onto CHILD from her own abusive background, not CHILD‟s. She coached her about this evaluation and told her not to tell anyone about the time-outs. Mother projects problems onto CHILD.
It is too big of a job for CHILD to be responsible for her mother‟s survival. CHILD should be able to focus on matters that most 5 and almost 6-year-olds deal with, having to do with learning to tie her shoes, learning to play with other kids and take turns, and sleep in her own bed.
Mother‟s false allegations of physical and sexual abuse against HUSBAND are considered crimes in some states for which she could be prosecuted. She maliciously misused the legal system. She set up HUSBAND to be taken from the family home so she could stay, she threatened to call the police and prevent him from seeing CHILD. She obtained an Order of Protection against HUSBAND. She misused the Bath City Police by calling them to report that the Order had been violated by Sally Willers, GAL and HUSBAND because HUSBAND had taken CHILD from school to this appointment, something that had been scheduled in advance and Mother was told that it would happen. She called the police to prevent a regular scheduled visit between CHILD and HUSBAND; she placed that call at a time when the guardian would not have been available-but she did not even try to contact her. Mother attempted to circumvent the evaluation process of the GAL and this evaluator by making those calls after business hours.

Mother filed a false allegation of sexual abuse against HUSBAND. It should be noted that it wasn‟t until all her other maneuvers to prevent visitation were failing that she added a new charge. It should also be noted that she never mentioned her concerns or asked about CHILD hood sexuality during the multiple interviews. In fact, she did not mention her concerns to this evaluator or the guardian. She was devious in the manner in which she essentially forced a mandated CHILD abuse reported to file a complaint with DHHS. The pediatrician followed protocol by referring the matter to Spurwink‟s Child Abuse Program; however, Mother was not at all bothered by the fact such a referral could entail having her five year old daughter submit to yet another evaluation, with the added chance of having a physical examination of her genital area.
Mother tried to outsmart the professionals, control this evaluation and the flow of information in hopes of maintaining custody of CHILD, live in the family house, collect CHILD support, work two days a week, and eliminate HUSBAND from CHILD‟s life. Mother had a pattern of not working or finishing school. She filed bankruptcy to cancel medical bills, made no contribution to family fiancés while married, and did not contribute to this evaluation.
Mother has launched a campaign to garner community support for being a victim of domestic violence, instead of taking responsibility for being the perpetrator of lies, someone who does not want to be autonomous, and who cannot collaborate on her daughter‟s behalf. She is not a candidate for co-parenting. She lacks empathy for her CHILD and the CHILD ‟s father. She cannot support her daughter‟s relationship with the father. She has attempted suicide twice in the past and could become desperate again when her allegations are determined to be false and she is charged with a crime or loses full legal and physical custody of CHILD.
CHILD is a smart little girl who has an above average vocabulary but is currently somewhat insecure and immature. Her mother reported that she is currently unable to sleep in her own bed, has night terrors, and sleeps with her mother; however, the father reported that when he took her to visit her grandmother that she did sleep in her own bed and he stayed with her until she fell asleep. He added that she had been used to going to bed at 9 o‟clock with her mother and that he is expecting her to go to be at 8 o‟clock. In the past, her mother has slept near her with a pair of scissors.
Both parents reported that CHILD is spirited and has had some tantrums, thrown things, and used profanity. On the parent rating scales, Mother reported more difficulties with CHILD than HUSBAND did. When HUSBAND took CHILD to Florida, on Christmas vacation, HUSBAND noted no behavior problems. HUSBAND has been the primary caretaker for meal preparation. clothing and getting CHILD ready for school and bedtime.
CHILD attends kindergarten and is the only kindergartener among four other classmates who are first graders. She does especially like one classmate, Zach, the teacher‟s son. It did not appear that she has play dates after school in the neighborhood or elsewhere. CHILD has had some behavior difficulties in school.

CHILD‟s therapist reported aggressive and sadistic play; however, he had no contact with CHILD‟s father, little contact with her mother and limited developmental or family history.
Mother‟s therapist was treating her for two and a half years for generalized anxiety and was not aware of her other difficulties. The therapist saw both Mother and HUSBAND together and there was no mention at that time of any domestic violence, sexual abuse of Mother or CHILD. There was a note that Mother‟s excessive cleaning rituals was irritating and frustrating to HUSBAND and that the couple would discuss it at the next meeting; however, subsequent couple‟s visits were cancelled. It would appear that whenever Mother was confronted, she would withdraw, retreat, and externalize blame.
HUSBAND was a caretaker to a fault. His level of awareness grew to the point that he was no longer submissive. He was frustrated about Mother‟s lack of contribution to the family financially, sexually, and emotionally. He was tired of her litany of illnesses and demands to come home early, cancel his cello lessons, and withdraw from the family. He was afraid to leave CHILD alone with Mother. As he made more complains and demands, Mother viewed him as abusive and controlling.

1. As a result of parent interviews, CHILD interviews, parent-CHILD observations, psychological tests and record review, it is recommended that HUSBAND B have temporary full legal and physical custody of CHILD, immediately; with modifications as the parents are able to collaborate, communicate, and co-parent, which is not possible at this time.
2. It is recommended that the Guardian ad litem remain in place until this CHILD is fully stable.
3. HUSBAND had a “long talk” with CHILD‟s teacher. Together they decided that there could be some benefits to having CHILD stay at her present school to finish the kindergarten year. HUSBAND has decided to pay tuition in lieu of CHILD support. Mother will not be cleaning the school. CHILD‟s teacher will be able to monitor CHILD‟s progress and HUSBAND feels that she will be able to keep CHILD safe. Additionally, the teacher will provide after school daycare, permitting HUSBAND to work. It is recommended that HUSBAND enroll CHILD in the Brunswick Public School for first grade so that she has the opportunity to have a full curriculum and a variety of social opportunities.
4. Given that CHILD had several ear infections as a young CHILD and that she is easily distracted by environmental sounds, it may be useful to have an audiological examination.

5. It is likely that when CHILD‟s environment stabilizes she may not need psychotherapy. Her profile is consistent with an adjustment disorder, and will most likely subside when her environment is stabilized; she learns to sleep in her own bed, have friends, and adjust to her parents being apart. She can have therapy later if the stated symptoms continue. In that case, it is recommended that she have a highly trained CHILD psychologist, preferably a female, to work with her who would also meet with both parents.

6. It is recommended that CHILD and her friend, Zach have play dates.
7. If Chan‟s personal history is accurate and true, it was horrific and one can only assume that she would never want the same things to happen to her daughter. The trouble is that her own fear and projections are creating a scenario in which she will lose CHILD if she continues with the false allegations. She could be at risk for having charges filed against her for making false claims against HUSBAND of serious crimes.
8. It is recommended that Mother have psychiatric treatment with someone who will provide both medication and therapy; as well as do a meta-analysis of her physical and neurological conditions and medications. Mother has attempted suicide twice. It will be important that a safety plan be maintained. Given that her happiest time was when she lived with relatives in Europe, it also presents a risk for international CHILD abduction. One suggestion is to confiscate the passport
9. HUSBAND is a violin maker who teaches the cello; his livelihood is being compromised by Mother‟s refusal to let him collect his belongings from the house. HUSBAND needs his tools and work-related items for building violins. HUSBAND borrowed money from family and took out a loan to pay for this evaluation, the guardian, and legal fees; however, Mother has contributed nothing to this evaluation and little to the guardian and attorney. HUSBAND has family support, Mother does not. HUSBAND works full-time for an understanding, flexible employer; Mother is on disability and works two days a week, and has extensive mental and physical health problems. Mother bankrupted medical bills and tends to avoids responsibility. It is recommended that Mother be required to pay her own legal fees from the profits from the sale of the house.
10. It is recommended that HUSBAND continue with Gino Ring, counselor, to build confidence, become emboldened, and relinquish separation guilt.
11. It is recommended that for the next six months, monthly follow-up visit are arranged to monitor CHILD‟s progress. This could be done by both the guardian and this evaluator, if the guardian thinks that it would be helpful.
Since the change of CHILD custody on December 22, 2006, HUSBAND, at the recommendation of the guardian and evaluator, took CHILD to Florida to see her grandmother and relatives. She was able to go to Sea World, see a live performance of the Lion King, and visit with relatives. HUSBAND reported that CHILD was a good traveler, did not show any violent behavior, “slept like a log”, and did not act out with any inappropriate sexual gestures as Mother had reported.

Once, after her bath, while drying herself off, CHILD said, “I‟m drying my butt hole”; but HUSBAND calmly responded, “Make sure your dry the front too, but I don‟t want to hear about it”. His comments were appropriate to a CHILD who was using „potty talk‟, something that is typical for a four year old, but not for an almost six year old. It should be noted that he did not scold her, lecture her or assume her action meant anything of an inappropriate sexual nature, just a normal CHILD making an inappropriate, immature comment. His judgment was sound with regard to his response.
While traveling, out of necessity, HUSBAND and CHILD shared a bed and HUSBAND reported that CHILD, except for “flailing around” did not have the night terrors that Mother reported. In fact, HUSBAND reported that CHILD was “used to going to bed at 9 o‟clock” and he was getting her used to a new bedtime of 8 o‟clock, which is a much more appropriate bedtime for a five year old. While there, HUSBAND bought a car from either his mother or a relative and drove back to Maine.
When HUSBAND arrived home, he had several messages from Mother‟s friends saying that they had “Christmas presents” for CHILD. One woman, Jill Sawyer, had actually gone to his house looking for CHILD and left a note saying she had been there. Another call came from someone named, Nancy, who, in the past had heard Mother‟s claims and advised Mother “To go get your daughter and run”. There was a third message from one of Mother‟s friends.
It is likely that once CHILD‟s environment is secure, has routines for eating and sleeping, gets enough sleep, and has friends and play mates, she will regain her developmental trajectory.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions about this report. I would be happy to monitor her progress and be of any assistance I can be to the guardian ad litem.

Ethical Problems

1) At best, the informed consent obtained by Dr. Gallager was faulty. The document (Document a) is a standard consent for treatment, not assessment. In fact, the document does not list assessment of any kind. There is no mention of the risks and benefits of the services provided. According to Ms. Stroganof, she initially met with Dr. Gallager under the pretext of participating in an evaluation of her daughter. Ms. Stroganof told me that she was never told that the MCMI-III could possibly be used to remove her child from her custody. Also included in (Document a) are the authorizations to release information. Ms. Stroganof stated that she was confused and remains confused as to the nature of the releases. After reading them myself, I agree that they are confusing and do not clearly delineate the nature of the release nor in some cases the subject of the release (Ms. Stroganof or her daughter).
2) Throughout the report (Document b), Dr. Gallager makes outlandish and overreaching statements about Ms. Stroganof. For example, in her recommendations she states that since Ms. Stroganof recalled a happy memory of visiting her relatives in Europe, she represents a risk of “international child abduction” and thus her passport should be confiscated.
3) Dr. Gallager takes on the role of finder-of-fact throughout her evaluation.
4) Dr. Gallager dedicates seven pages to a section entitled “Sue’s Allegations/ HUSBAND’s Responses” with no corresponding section inversely titled (even though Ms. Stroganof’s husband also made allegations). A number of Ms. Stroganof’s allegations were actually substantiated by her husband (albeit in minimized form), yet Dr. Gallager concludes that Ms. Stroganof’s husband had no problems and that Ms. Stroganof’s allegations of violent behavior were all false and based only on her childhood experiences.
5) According to Ms. Stroganof, financial arrangements were made prior to the evaluation. Ms. Stroganof is disabled by fibromyalgia and works part-time. She was a MaineCare recipient. Dr. Gallager is evidently not a MaineCare provider. Ms. Stroganof informed Dr. Gallager that she had MaineCare, but Dr. Gallager did not refer Ms. Stroganof to a psychologist who could have billed MaineCare for her evaluation. Instead, she made a sliding fee agreement with Ms. Stroganof’s husband to pay for the entire evaluation. The fee arrangement is then used at least three times against Ms. Stroganof in Dr. Gallager’s report, in one place characterizing her as “bankrupting medical care.” Clearly if Dr. Gallager was not satisfied with the payment arrangements that were made in advance, then she should have refused to do the evaluation.
6) Dr. Gallager diagnosed Ms. Stroganof with a rule-out diagnosis of Factitious Disorder and another rule-out for Malingering without speaking to any of Ms. Stroganof’s medical providers. It appears that she made this diagnostic assumption based on the reports of Ms. Stroganof’s husband and other non-medical informants.

7) Dr. Gallager diagnosed Ms. Stroganof with Borderline Personality Disorder with no psychometric evidence to substantiate the diagnosis.
8) In her report, Dr. Gallager states on page 21 in reference to the MCMI-III that “T Scores of 65+ or above are considered clinically significant.” There are no T scores on the MCMI-III. BR scores, particularly with regard to personality pathology, must be at or above 74 to be clinically significant. After she makes her statement about T Scores of 65 or greater, she then lists all of the BR scores on all of the scales and subscales of the MCMI-III that were 65 or greater, thus giving the untrained reader (the court, the GAL, the attorneys) the impression that there were multiple significant elevations on the MCMI-III. This raises concerns about competency to interpret and report the MCMI-III.
9) Dr. Gallager’s evaluation was a key component of the ex parte order (Document c). Dr. Gallager accompanied the GAL and the police officer to serve the ex parte order. In her report, she lists this activity as 6 hours of “crisis intervention.” Ms. Stroganof is a longstanding client of Sweetser Outpatient Services, located a couple of miles from her home. Sweetser offers excellent crisis intervention, but they were not called by Dr. Gallager to provide crisis intervention. According to Ms. Stroganof, Dr. Gallager ridiculed her in her living room after she began weeping, accusing her of “playing the victim”. Even if one could make the remote case that Dr. Gallager’s presence at the serving of the ex parte order was somehow justified by a potential mental health crisis, ethical guidelines from APA division 41 insist that if at all possible, the psychologist must cease providing forensic services once he/she has provided crisis intervention services. Instead, she has continued to be involved in the case. She is currently serving as a consultant to the GAL.
10) To date, Ms. Stroganof has not seen Dr. Gallager’s evaluation of her. Despite repeated requests from Ms. Stroganof and her attorney, no report has been forthcoming. (It has been nearly four months since Ms. Stroganof’s last meeting with Dr. Gallager.) The report continues to be a work in progress. The report was shared with me as part of my gathering of information, but I was instructed by the GAL and by Dr. Gallager to keep the report private. I have not released the report to Ms. Stroganof since I am not the author. I have so far seen two revisions of Dr. Gallager’s report. I do not have Ms. Stroganof’s permission to release her report to Dr. Gallager and have not responded to Dr. Gallager’s requests to discuss Ms. Stroganof’s report. The GAL has apparently released my report to Dr. Gallager. It is notable that some sort of “report” was used in the formulation of the ex parte order terminating Ms. Stroganof’s parental rights.

11) Dr. Gallager states in her report that Ms. Stroganof’s “false” allegations against her husband would be treated as crimes in some states as she misused the legal system. It is unclear what the laws of other states have to do with this evaluation. According to the Sagadahoc County D.A., Ms. Stroganof used the Maine legal system appropriately. In addition, the local police department had probable cause to arrest Ms. Stroganof’s husband for domestic violence. Dr. Gallager apparently did not talk to law enforcement officials in reaching her conclusion that the allegations on the part of Ms. Stroganof were false.

12) Dr. Gallager never consulted with Ms. Stroganof’s long-established psychiatrist in her formulation of a diagnosis, despite a release and a specific request from Ms. Stroganof to do so.
13) Dr. Gallager accuses Ms. Stroganof of making a false report of child abuse. The report was made to DHHS anonymously and Ms. Stroganof maintains that she did not make a report. Ms. Stroganof is accused of slyly forcing a medical provider into making the report that was mandated by law once the medical provider suspected possible child abuse.

In the life of the forensic psychologist, nothing is more important than ethics. The ethical guidelines for psychologists in general, and for forensic psychologists in particular, are meant to protect the public and to insure that all people are treated fairly and responsibly.
Some basic elements of ethics include:
 Competence: The psychologist should be competent to practice the specialty that he/she has chosen in the field of psychology. This includes competent administration of tests, interviews, and other tools for gathering information.
 Self-Determination: All humans have a right to determine their own life and destiny. A psychologist must never make a decision that would impede the freedom of others or the ability of others to make their own decisions about their lives.
 Fiscal Accountability: As soon as a relationship is established, the psychologist works with the client to determine the financial arrangements for the services rendered. This helps to avoid negative repercussions in the future.
 Confidentiality: All people have a right to privacy. There are, however, some exceptions to confidentiality (such as in the case of child abuse reporting or a risk of harm).
 Non-Discrimination: The psychologist is ethically bound to avoid discrimination of all kinds.
 Dual Relationships: Psychologists must avoid engaging in intimate or business relationships (or other dual relationships) with the people they serve. Conflict of interest must be avoided.
When a psychologist fails to act ethically, there can be dire consequences professionally (every state licensing board has a process for lodging a complaint against a psychologist) and poor outcomes for the people victimized by their unethical behavior.


Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2012). Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law. New York, NY: Worth.


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