Forensic Counseling

Forensic Counseling Definition

Forensic counseling may be defined as the application of counseling values and philosophy to persons involved in the legal process. In order for this to occur, one of four processes must take place. The first is concerned with the counselor’s intellectual comprehension of criminal behavior, including sexual crimes, spousal abuse, behavioral problems indicating an antisocial outlook, and continuous criminal offenses. Second, counselors should be aware of deterrence issues and have the ability to diagnose various disorders; moreover, the counselor should be very familiar with the factors that are likely to precipitate illegal behavior. Third, a counselor should be familiar with assessment instruments used in diagnosis and should be able to establish a personalized treatment plan for the offender. Last, the counselor should know how to initiate a counseling intervention that has a primary goal of eradicating the client’s problematic behavior.

Custody Evaluations

Family courts frequently use forensic counselors. For instance, when former spouses contest a judge’s ruling regarding custody, an investigation may be ordered to determine the best custodial situation for the child (this is commonly called a custody evaluation). While not obligatory, a custody evaluation is prepared when parents have difficulty reaching an equitable arrangement. A first-class custody evaluation will have the following:

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  • A bare minimum of one (though it is usually more) separate interview each with the mother and father, with a total of three hours with each
  • A minimum of one interview with the child or children with the parents absent
  • An interview with the child’s preschool, elementary, or high school teachers as well as any other adults that have a connection with the child
  • For young children, observation of any contact between the child and the parents
  • A criminal background check on each parent

Divorce Counseling

During divorce proceedings, judges often request counseling for couples and their children before agreeing to the attorney’s writ of divorcement. Divorce adjustment therapy can aid adults and children during this difficult transition. Children often react to divorce with sadness or resentment or conduct themselves in an inappropriate fashion; consequently, impairment in academic performance occurs. In addition, regression takes place in younger children, and both mother and father report that their child’s behavior is what they would expect from a younger child. Any of these symptoms reflects a child experiencing a disturbance, and if the child receives no help, his or her symptoms could grow worse. Mental health counseling aids children and adolescents to come to terms with the changes resulting from the divorce and minimize its influence. An effective counselor assists parents to formulate the best method for managing their children.

Children are not the only individuals needing counseling—their parents need to be taught how to manage themselves throughout the divorce. This is especially true for the individual not seeking the divorce but needing to accept his or her spouse’s demand for the legal termination of their marriage. Common symptoms include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and hypersomnia. The primary goal of therapy in this situation is to help the individual come to terms with the impending demise of his or her marriage.

Many states have the requirement that mediation must be included within the divorce process to ease the disturbed relationship existing between the spouses. Divorce mediation is designed to help the couple find an equitable conciliation regarding both monetary issues and custody for their child or children. After the divorce is finalized, mediation is used to promote cooperation, but the focus is placed on the mother’s and father’s duties as parents; the specific intent is to capitalize on the child’s likelihood for emotional and psychological growth.

Anger Management

Forensic counselors conduct anger management workshops in a variety of settings and are frequent consultants in family and criminal courts. Showing one’s anger or losing one’s temper is not, in itself, a problem; on the other hand, when an individual acts in an aggressive manner toward someone else, a problem is created. Anger management counseling is common in child maltreatment and family violence cases. If a parent loses his or her control with a son or daughter on a regular basis, the parent may be forced to undergo anger management counseling, or he or she may not be allowed to see the child. After an incident has occurred, the person responsible for the violence will usually enter counseling (the judge requires it) to admit his or her blame regarding any violent acts as well as to learn how to control the anger. Many assaults arise due to a parent’s lack of impulse control, and the individual thus charged or found guilty can gain insight and control techniques during psychotherapy. When the counseling is ordered by the judge, the sessions are often overseen by probation officers in order to make sure the perpetrator complies with all rules and regulations.

In anger management training, the counselor attempts to understand what occurs in an individual when that individual loses control due to anger, and the counselor teaches different techniques for the individual to use when angry. These lessons might include, for instance, how to relax by using deep breathing or how to manage anxiety on a daily basis. Techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy are also used so the client can gain mastery over his or her anger. If needed, the forensic counselor can send the client to a psychiatrist in order to have medication prescribed.

Counseling Victims

Being the victim of a crime can be a life-threatening event, and many victims find it difficult to come to terms with their injuries. Wounds causing physical disfigurement or those that are physically disabling can cause long-lasting psychic disturbances. In addition, these disturbances can take place even if no substantial injury occurred, for example, when an individual witnesses someone experiencing a criminal assault or an individual barely escapes from being seriously hurt. When an individual experiences such events, he or she may develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but could also develop major depression, phobias (specific to an act or situation), the fear of being outside (agoraphobia), generalized anxiety disorder, even a psychotic break with reality.

Counseling Adolescents

When dealing with adolescents, the counselor should remember that illegal actions might be caused by inadequate parenting or from growing up in a highly dysfunctional household. Assessing delinquency is a vital element in the juvenile justice system, because the primary emphasis is on rehabilitation, not punishment. A teen offender might need counseling, educational support, or treatment for an alcohol or drug addiction. If the teen is placed on probation, any therapeutic treatment often decreases the odds of recidivism. This is one reason why adolescents placed on probation must be competently evaluated, and tracking improvement in treatment is essential.

A treatment evaluation procedure contains an appraisal of all indictments as well as a complete examination of any past illegal behavior. For adolescents, the forensic counselor should obtain a copy of academic reports, including records of daily attendance and any data regarding school assessment or classifications. The counselor should see the juvenile in order to evaluate his or her emotional state as well as to identify the presence of any mental problems. If ordered by the judge, the counselor should assess the juvenile’s personality using reliable and valid instruments in order to discover any problems, for example, psychopathy, dysthymia, or bipolar disorder. If feasible, it may be that the juvenile’s family needs interviewing as well, primarily so the counselor can see family dynamics at work.

A complete psychological assessment will detail, in plain language, the test-taker’s results. In addition, the forensic counselor will supply information regarding any logical findings that link the client’s known emotional difficulties to his or her criminal behavior. The counselor will give precise detail regarding counseling and will offer prospects concerning whether the individual is likely to recidivate in the future. This is accomplished by showing the client’s odds of committing crimes again, whether or not the client has had therapy.

Counseling Adults

Mental health professionals have many opportunities to furnish important data to the courts regarding adult felons. For instance, in cases involving child maltreatment, an assessment of the accused may discover emotional conflicts serving as the foundation for the crime(s), and thus the information gathered can be used to devise a workable treatment plan. If a child is a key witness in a criminal prosecution, counselors may need to testify as to whether the child’s testimony is reliable. In cases involving family violence, individuals violating court orders may be assessed to determine their impulsivity as well as any future possibility for criminal behavior.

Many illegal actions are connected to mental and emotional problems that can be successfully treated. In essence, if more criminals received proper therapy, recidivism would likely decline at an enviable rate. However, within many prisons, forensic counseling has been discarded due to increasing costs and the relative incidence of failure. Many courts have stated unequivocally that prisons (both state and federal) and local jails have the ethical responsibility to offer counseling to prisoners, and if the therapy is not provided, the institution could be held liable. Once a prisoner has been released, he or she can be required to receive counseling privately (at community mental health centers with a reduced rate) as a prerequisite for probation or parole, with the cost being borne by the parolee or probationer.

Child Maltreatment

Once an individual has been accused of child maltreatment, he or she will be examined by a host of professionals to gauge whether or not the charge has merit. Counselors are often directed to assess both children and adults to see if a history of ill-treatment exists and to gauge the individual, family, and community factors that might have led to abuse. This helps to identify a scenario in which abuse might have taken place and to devise therapeutic goals that mitigate the effects of any identified maltreatment. Suggestions might entail the removal of a child from his or her parents’ home, the removal of a parent or guardian from the home, restricted visitation rights, abrogation of all visitation, modification or complete alteration of parental custody agreements, psychotherapy for the victim and/or the abuser, and preparation for an eventual family reunion.

When child maltreatment cases are investigated, a forensic counselor is often asked to interview all implicated parties. Various assessment instruments may be used to gauge these individuals’ mental ability and to determine whether any disorders or problems are present as well as to establish the existence (or nonexistence) of any potential maltreatment risk factors. All information gleaned throughout this process is provided to the court, with the judge ruling on the admissibility of the counselor’s findings.

The majority of child maltreatment cases are tried in family court; however, when the charges are particularly heinous, the case could be moved to criminal court, where the alleged perpetrator will stand trial. Once a case is placed in criminal court, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the alleged abuser is guilty. Counselors may be called upon to clarify, assess, or analyze data written and compiled by others; to certify that the rules and regulations used by the criminal court were adequate to determine whether the conclusions were reliable and valid; or to explain whether the instruments used for assessment performed as stated by the their originators.


  1. Blumenthal, S., & Lavender, T. (2001). Violence and mental disorder: A critical aid to the assessment and management of risk (forensic focus). London: Jessica Kingsley.
  2. Dixon, C. G., & Emener, W. G. (1999). Professional counseling: Transitioning into the next millennium. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  3. Ryan, E. S. (2002). Juvenile forensic counseling. Lancaster, VA: Anchor Communications.

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