Archive: March 2007

“Girls (and Boys) Gone Narcissistic” 3/29/07

Most of the students on the college campus where I teach part-time appear to have returned from Spring Break intact, but given the video from various Spring Break locales shown on the major networks, many seem to have missed my recent discussion with Bill O’Reilly about Antonella Barba, the former American Idol contestant whose revealing online photos threatened to end her Idol dreams prematurely.  One “expert” told Fox News that the willingness of college students to engage in degrading behavior, especially on camera, is rooted in a lack of self-esteem.  I disagree.  I think it’s rooted in an excess of self-esteem.  A recent study of over 16,000 American college students backs me up, showing that today’s college students are significantly more narcissistic than their counterparts of 20 years ago.  Remember Narcissus, the namesake of “narcissism”?  He’s the character in ancient Greek mythology who sees his reflection in the water and falls in love with it.  To put it simply, as narcissism increases, shame decreases, and many of the Spring Break escapades captured by television cameras over the past two weeks have been about as narcissistic and shameless as they come.

So how did we get here?  As with most cultural phenomena, it’s probably a combination of things, but the “unconditional-self-esteem” movement in the 1980’s and 90’s is definitely in play.  Decrying how they were “pushed” to achieve by members of the Greatest Generation (for you college students, that’s the World War II generation), guilt-ridden, overly-permissive, absentee Baby-Boomer parents, reinforced by well-meaning but misguided Baby-Boomer “experts” and educators, taught kids to feel good about themselves regardless of what they were doing or how well they were doing it.  (As Dr. Laura Schlesinger once asked, ever wonder how the Greatest Generation became that without any feel-good programs like “self-esteem” training?  But I digress.)  I know it’s a little unusual in the age of instant-message English, but consider the true meanings of the words “respect” and “esteem.”  To “respect” someone means to recognize that person’s worth as a human being, but to “esteem” someone means to hold that person in high regard relative to others, like an “esteemed” professor.  Kids (and adults) should respect themselves unconditionally, but esteem (for the self and others) should have to be earned.  Schoolchildren in the 80’s and 90’s weren’t taught that important distinction, so fast-forward 20 years, and it’s game-on in Florida – we now have college students shamelessly esteeming themselves while behaving like complete drunken fools in front of the whole country.

Of course we don’t want kids hating themselves and developing mood or body-image disorders, but teaching them to tune out the part of their brains that feels shame isn’t good for them either.  An adolescent therapy patient who was failing classes and experimenting with drugs once reacted to my criticism of her behavior by screaming, “Stop it, you’re making me feel bad!” to which I replied, “It’s about time!”  The capacity to feel appropriate shame is an important asset because it alerts us when we’re going off track.  For young adults who grew up shameless, our celebrity-idolizing, personal-web-page-obsessed culture only nurtures their narcissism, and they’re likely to experience problems both in their careers and in their relationships.  Careers suffer when recent college graduates feel justified in asking for raises after three weeks on the job.  Relationships suffer when the participants are unable to recognize, let alone acknowledge, their own faults.  Things ended badly for old Narcissus, so here’s my call for today’s young adults to look up from the Facebook-YouTube reflecting pool and get a realistic grip on where you fit in the world (hint:  it’s not at the center, even if your mom and teachers said it was).

Marked Man Maintains Mental Mitigation Mockery 3/8/07

Now that John Couey has been convicted by a Florida jury of the capital murder of Jessica Lunsford, the case proceeds to the sentencing phase, where his lawyers will argue that he should be spared the death penalty because he’s mentally retarded, mentally ill, or both.  After hearing expert testimony and hearing from Jessica’s family, the jury will recommend either life in prison without parole or death.  The judge in the case ultimately will impose the sentence and isn’t required to follow the jury’s recommendation but is likely to do so.  In the meantime, Couey is likely to be on “suicide watch” in jail, which is an interesting irony if you think about it.

Let me first just say that this case illustrates a couple of points I’ve made in past posts.  First, I haven’t examined the man, but by all accounts, Couey’s actions exemplify “evil” as I’ve defined it here previously.  This was truly one of the most horrific crimes I’ve ever heard of — he kidnapped the little girl, then nine years old, from her bed in the middle of the night, sexually assaulted her repeatedly, and then buried her alive.  The jury found that, regardless of any adverse mental conditions he may have, Couey knew what he was doing and did it intentionally.  That’s evil, plain and simple.  About the only thing that could add to the outrage of this is that he had a record of sexual offenses against children and was still allowed back on the street, which brings me to my second point.  As I’ve explained here previously, guys like Couey cannot be rehabilitated in my opinion.  The only good to come out of this case has been “Jessica’s Law,” enacted since her murder by some 20 states, requiring stiff mandatory minimum sentences (generally 25 years) for first convictions of sexual assaults on children, but it’s not enough — it should be every state, and it should be a mandatory life sentence.

Now, here are the issues surrounding mental status and the death penalty:

1)  In the 2002 case of Atkins vs. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the execution of mentally retarded convicts unconstitutional (a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment) because they’re assumed to have had impaired judgment when they committed their crimes, lessening their culpability for the offenses.  I’ve worked as an expert in the appeal of a death sentence based on the ruling in Atkins, and the diagnosis of Mental Retardation under those circumstances requires intelligence (I.Q.) testing, an assessment of the convict’s “adaptive functioning” (ability to perform activities of daily living independently), and ruling out malingering (faking).  Generally, each state has a statutory definition of mental retardation, but it usually tracks the clinical definition closely (an I.Q. approximation of 70 or below with at least two major deficits in adaptive functioning and onset before the age of 18), as it does in Florida.  The requirement of onset before age 18 distinguishes developmental retardation from regression due to adult head injury, substance abuse, etc., but it’s yet to be seen whether courts will continue to permit executions when that’s the only distinguishing factor (and some states extend that age to 22).  If expert assessment and testimony establishes that Couey meets those criteria, he can’t be sentenced to death.  (By the way, I don’t necessarily agree with the blanket generalization that anyone who meets the diagnostic criteria for Mental Retardation can’t be fully culpable for a crime.  I’ve evaluated numerous adults with developmental disabilities.  In most cases, and in all of the “Mild Mental Retardation” cases — where the I.Q.’s have been right around 70 — they’ve known what was going on around them, could distinguish right from wrong, and could control their impulses well enough to refrain from committing crimes in my opinion.)

2)  The U.S. Supreme Court has not made a similar ruling prohibiting the execution of convicts who were mentally ill (but not mentally retarded) at the time of their offenses — at least not yet.  However, in 2005, the Court declared the execution of juvenile offenders (under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed) unconstitutional (cruel and unusual punishment again) in the case of Roper vs. Simmons (including a controversial reference by the Court to the laws of other countries).  Similar to Atkins, the Court in Roper opined that the capacity to reason is not fully developed in juvenile offenders and therefore, they should not be considered as culpable or punished as severely as adult offenders.  (By the way, I also disagree with the blanket generalization that anyone who hasn’t reached the age of 18 can’t be fully culpable for a crime.  The defendant in Roper, Christopher Simmons, committed a horrendous pre-meditated murder — assaulted a woman in her home, kidnapped her, tied her up, and threw her off of a bridge into a river — at the age of 17 and reportedly bragged that he’d “get away with it” because he was a juvenile at the time.  In a case like that, I’m totally comfortable giving sentencing discretion to the judge, even to impose the death penalty.)  Some legal scholars and Court-watchers speculate that it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Court extends its rationale in Atkins and Roper to the mentally ill.  This would make it difficult for any state to execute any convict because “mental illness” is such a broad category — the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is almost 950 pages long and includes everything from Attention Deficit Disorder to Depression to Antisocial Personality Disorder (which every psychopath has) to “Frotteurism” (the supposedly overwhelming urge to rub oneself against others — a dentist once tried to use this as a defense after he was caught feeling up sedated women) to Schizophrenia, many of which generally would have no bearing on a person’s decision to commit a crime.  (Plus, as I’ve explained here previously, human beings have to be expected to resist impulses to act in ways that they know are wrong/illegal and to be held accountable if they don’t.  If a jury finds that a defendant knew what he/she was doing and that it was wrong/illegal — as in Couey’s case — I’m not convinced that a lighter punishment is in order simply because he/she also has an illness.)  Nonetheless, if expert assessment and testimony establish that Couey’s mentally ill, his attorneys will argue that the mental illness is a “mitigating factor” that justifies the more “merciful” sentence of life imprisonment (although, as a child molester and murderer, he has a fair chance of getting killed in prison long before he’d ever be executed).  Then, if he still gets a death sentence, his lawyers certainly will try to give the Supreme Court its chance to add a new prohibition on appeal.

3)  There is a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case, Ford vs. Wainwright, that prohibits the execution of any convict who is so mentally ill by the time the death sentence is scheduled to be carried out that he or she could not comprehend what would be happening or why (it’s that “cruel and unusual” thing again).  Couey was adjudged competent to stand trial, so he apparently knows what’s going on and why at this time, but if that were to change between now and his scheduled execution (assuming he gets the death penalty), he couldn’t be executed based on the ruling in Ford.  Assuming he’s not really that insane by then, given the years between sentencing and execution in most death penalty cases (while multiple appeals are heard), he’d have plenty of time to work up a good act, but he’d have to keep it up for the rest of his life because the ruling allows for the execution to proceed if the convict recovers his or her awareness.

My impression of this case:  Regardless of how anyone feels about whether we should have the death penalty in the U.S.A. at all, the defense’s arguments against its imposition on Couey based on his mental status are bogus.  My recommended headline:  “Marked Man Maintains Mental Mitigation Mockery.”

Child custody evaluations 3/1/07

I’ve been asked what’s involved in a child custody evaluation.  It’s actually one of the most multi-faceted and time-consuming procedures that a forensic psychologist performs.  Usually, the evaluator is appointed by the court, and here’s the Reader’s Digest version of what a typical evaluation entails:

1)  Multiple in-depth interviews with each party to the dispute and with any significant others of the parties.

2)  Age-appropriate interviews with the child(ren) and observation of the child(ren) interacting with each party.

3)  Psychological testing of the parties (and sometimes significant others of the parties).

4)  Age-appropriate psychological testing of the child(ren).

5)  Visits to each home in which the child(ren) likely will spend significant time.

6)  Review of records (school records, schoolwork, medical/dental records, counseling records, photographs, etc. of the child(ren) and the parties, plus background records, any police reports, any reports to child protective services, correspondence, case filings, etc. of the parties).

7)  Interviews and/or phone consultations with “collateral contacts,” individuals who have had contact with the child(ren) and/or with the parties and especially individuals who have had opportunities to observe the child(ren) and the parties together over time (court-appointed guardians, teachers, counselors, coaches, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, babysitters, pediatricians, etc.).

All of the above are analyzed in an exhaustive effort to determine what’s in the best interests of the child(ren).  The findings and conclusions are then communicated to the court in a report, which may or may not be followed by in-person testimony.  Ultimately, the court decides what custodial arrangements are best for the children and issues orders to the parties to implement those arrangements.

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