A Forensic Evaluator’s Perspective on Juvenile Transfer Evaluations

The transfer evaluation of a child/adolescent to adult court requires a comprehensive psychological assessment. Given juvenile court is rehabilitative while adult court is punitive, a forensic psychologist must synthesize extensive data points including, but not limited, future risk, criminal history, psychological functioning, and amenability to treatment. The following information is necessary clinical information for a comprehensive transfer evaluation.

Cognitive Development: The cognitive functioning of an adolescent is multifaceted. It includes an assessment of the adolescent’s cognitive profile and general intellectual functioning. Cognitive development also refers to the adolescent’s thinking, reasoning, executive functioning (higher-order skills such as planning and organizing), and decision-making abilities.

Psychological and Emotional Functioning: The adolescent’s emotional functioning is a necessary part of the evaluation. Does the juvenile suffer from any diagnosable mental health disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or psychotic disorders among others? The evaluation should also assess the child’s motivations, level of assertiveness, impulsiveness, and externalizing/internalizing behavior.

Maturity and Development: The adolescent’s level of maturity determines if they are a good fit for functioning in juvenile or adult court. For instance, does this 16-year-old appear to have the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old or is she functioning more like an 11-year-old?

Mental Health History: Because of the rehabilitative nature of juvenile court, it is crucial for a lengthy review of the adolescent’s mental health services to be reviewed. For instance, an adolescent who has not had any mental health services could likely benefit from the services provided through the juvenile court system. Conversely, an extensive mental health services history with ongoing criminal behavior could suggest additional services may not be beneficial.

Violence, Aggression, Impulsivity: The onset, frequency, and intensity of aggressive behaviors should be assessed. This includes both violent behaviors as well as aggressive behaviors in the home and community. For example, academic records would reference suspensions or aggression toward peers. Parents could also provide a life history of physical aggression. The role of impulsivity in the child’s functioning also must be considered. A potential diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) could impact the child’s functioning across areas such as school, home, structures social activities, and employment.

Criminal History: The age onset, frequency, and seriousness of charges will be reviewed. The adolescent’s behavior while detained will be also be reviewed to assess understand their ability to comply with instructions and authority figures.

Substance (Ab)Use: A detailed overview of the adolescent’s substance includes age onset, type of drugs, frequency, intensity, additional potential, tolerance, and withdrawal. Information pertaining to substance abuse would be obtained through clinical and collateral interviews, psychological testing, and records review.

Academic Functioning: In addition to formal testing, review of records can reveal the child’s commitment to school, potential learning disorders, absences/tardies, and behaviors. The adolescent’s academic functioning can assist in treatment determinations, such as if they are an appropriate fit for types of treatment (cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, etc.) or treatment settings (residential, inpatient, etc.).

Attachment: The psychologist would assess the adolescent’s attachment, their ability to connect and seek comfort from their caretakers. Attachment develops in early infancy and can take form in many ways: secure, ambivalent anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. The extent to which an adolescent feels connected to, and supported by, a caretaker speaks to the child’s ability to be secure in both themselves and the likelihood they will rely on others close to them.

Family Dynamics, Peer Groups and Social Support: The child’s family constellation is important to conceptualizing their functioning, maturity, sense of responsibility, motivations, and values. For example, the psychologist would be interested if the adolescent comes from a secure and consistent family that has access to resources, if there was single father working three jobs, or if there has been a history of Child Protective Services involvement. Peer groups reveal how the adolescent spends their time and what types of individuals/personalities they associate with in their free time. Is the adolescent the leader of a pack of younger children? Does the adolescent have below average intelligence, is easily persuaded, and wants to join a group of older peers who may be associated with antisocial behaviors? Finally, what is the adolescent’s level of social support? This includes family, mentors, church elders, and coaches. A positive relationship with one caring adult serves as a protective factor.

Guilt, Empathy, Perspective-Taking, and Remorse: Guilt is the extent to which an individual feels responsible, and upset, for their behavior. Empathy is the ability to understand another’s feelings. Perspective-taking is the ability to understand how another thinks or perceives an event or situation. Remorse is deep regret for a wrongdoing. Each of the variables contributes to the risk of future violence and criminal acts. While there are psychological tests assessing these factors, the evaluator often interprets behavioral and qualitative observations from the clinical interview to infer the adolescent’s functioning on these variables.

Amenability to Treatment: Taking all the above-mentioned variables into consideration, the evaluator is tasked with determining what is the adolescent’s amenability to treatment? Some positive factors include past success with therapy, school commitment, and supportive family. Risk factors would include multiple failed attempts of therapy, family criminal behaviors, and significant substance abuse history. These factors vary by individual and the evaluator will synthesize this information and comment on rehabilitation.