Plano Family Law attorney, Thomas Greenwald interviews Laurel Clement on the differences between a therapeutic mental health professional and a forensic mental health professional, and which would be best when needing one for a family law matter.

Laurel Arnold Clement has been Licensed by the State of Texas as an attorney since 1989. She has been licensed by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors since 1998. In all cases, her goal is to advocate for her client while seeking a resolution that is both low conflict and cost effective.

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Transcript

Tom: 
This is the “Family Law Advisor Podcast.” I’m Tom Greenwald. I’m a partner with a family law firm of GoransonBain Ausley, a board-certified family law. I have been practicing family law exclusively for more than 27 years. The purpose of this podcast is to share information about family law to assist anyone that may be going through a family law dispute, or simply provide listeners with a better understanding of family law. My guest today is Laurel Clennon [SP]. Laurel is a licensed attorney. She’s been practicing law for 30 years, and she is also a licensed professional counselor, and has been licensed for the last 20 years. Laurel is with me today to talk about mental health professionals, and their role as therapists, and also, their role as forensic experts in family law cases. Laurel, welcome to the “Family Law Advisor Podcast.” We are thrilled to have you as a guest today

Laurel:
I’m thrilled to be here, Tom. Thank you so much.

Tom: 
Thank you. Let’s talk for a minute about the difference between a therapeutic mental health professional and a forensic mental health professional. I’ve had cases where we’re involved in family law litigation, and we determined that we need to go hire a mental health professional in a case maybe to have my client evaluated, or maybe to do some assessment of some sort in the case. So, what is the difference between somebody that is a therapeutic mental health professional and someone that is a forensic mental health professional?

Laurel:
Well, there’s a couple of differences. One of the biggest differences is the goal, the purpose for actually having the role. When the person is court-ordered, they’re court-ordered for a specific reason to accomplish a specific goal that may be to make some sort of assessment.

Tom: 
So, a forensic mental health professional has a specific role in the litigation.

Laurel:
That’s correct. And they will look to the court order to see what that specific purpose is.

Tom: 
And then, a therapeutic mental health professional. Typically, how did they get involved with somebody?

Laurel:
Well, generally, a person will approach them and say, “I would like to work on these issues, or this is my personal goal. These are the things I’d like to work on.” And the counselor will work with the person to figure out the best way to work on those issues.

Tom: 
In the relationship with the therapeutic mental health professional, how long does that relationship last? Is it for a finite period of time, or how long does that relationship actually last?

Laurel:
It can last for a short period of time or a long of time. It’s very much of a relational situation where they just decide what works for them.

Tom: 
Have you seen cases where people are involved in a therapeutic relationship with a counselor as a kind of a lifelong relationship?

Laurel:
Absolutely. And it’s nice to know that if the client needs somebody at a crisis period of time, that there’s a counselor there to help them.

Tom: 
So Laurel, if a client is not involved in a family law litigation, but they just want to go and see a therapist for some counseling, what type of information does a therapeutic mental health professional typically rely on in providing services to a client?

Laurel:
Generally, it’s self-report, meaning the client is going to give them information about the issues that they want to work on.

Tom: 
And what I’ve sometimes heard from the other spouse is they say, “Well if my wife goes in and meets with their therapist, and just kind of tells the therapist everything from my wife’s perspective, and maybe it’s not reality, then how can a therapist provide good service or therapy if they’re not getting the full story?”

Laurel:
One thing that therapists do know is that neither the husband nor the wife will actually come in and say exactly what happened. They’ll both have a perspective. And the counselor works with that perspective to help the client work on their personal goals.

Tom: 
So, it sounds like what a therapeutic mental health professional is they kind of work with the client where the client is.

Laurel:
Correct.

Tom: 
And with things from their perspective, and that’s important. And then, you work with that information in providing therapy.

Laurel:
Absolutely.

Tom: 
And then, what about a forensic mental health professional? What type of information do they typically rely on in providing services? Let’s say that someone comes in for a mental health evaluation, what type of information would you anticipate that a forensic mental health professional would rely upon?

Laurel:
They would rely on hopefully a bunch of different information. Meaning they would get information from past counselors, they would get information if there had been inpatient hospital stay, they would get information from a spouse or a collateral, witnesses that can help them give them a fuller picture about who that person is other than just self-report.

Tom: 
And you mentioned before that often if a forensic mental health professional gets involved in a case, the first thing they’re going to do is look at the court order and say, “Okay, what am I being asked to do here?” And typically the court order will say whether or not testing is part of that process. So that’s something else they would do if it was court-ordered.

Laurel:
As psychologists, correct, yeah.

Tom: 
Would they also…have you seen forensic mental health professionals look at text messages, emails, diaries, and that sort of information?

Laurel:
Certainly. They could look at those, for instance, to determine the level of violence, the psychopathy of their particular person.

Tom: 
Once a forensic mental health professional is involved in a case, how can they assist in family law litigation? I mean, why is the information they have important to that process?

Laurel:
They have specialized knowledge that can give the attorneys and the judge information about the spouse, and also can help the judge determine what’s in the best interest of the child. For instance, I talked just a second ago about violent tendencies. That’s something that the court is going to want information about in determining the custody of the child, and what’s in the best interest of the child.

Tom: 
What about a therapeutic mental health professional? If somebody finds themselves meeting with a therapist and a counselor, and there’s no family law litigation pending, and suddenly they find themselves in the midst of family law litigation, can the therapeutic mental health professional also be involved in family law litigation?

Laurel:
They can be. They have by statute a very restricted role with respect to their testimony. They cannot give recommendations about access or possession to the court based on just a therapeutic role. And what that means is, for instance, if the counselor has been seeing the child, the counselor by statute cannot say, “Well, I do think that the child should be with the mother, or I don’t think that the child should see the father, or I think that the mother only, should have supervised visitation.” Those are the things that the therapeutic mental health professionals are not allowed to testify to.

Tom: 
I’ve had clients complain to me and they say, “Gosh, I’ve been seeing this therapist for five years and the therapist knows me really, really well. You know, why can’t this therapist come to court and testify about…make a recommendation about whether or not I should have the children?” Why can’t they do that?

Laurel:
Well, I think we kinda hit on it a little bit earlier and that is self-report because the therapist only gets the information from the client. And the goal there is to help the client reach their goals. The therapist is not aware of what happens at dad’s house, or what happens at this school, or whether the children are fed every night. They only know the relationship they have with the mother.

Tom: 
So, the reason they can’t is they have limited information, and the information they may be relying on may not be completely 100% accurate.

Laurel:
Absolutely. It’s going to be at the perspective of the mother, which is not always going to be accurate.

Tom: 
If someone is looking for the assistance of a therapeutic mental health professional, you know, there are a lot of places…you can go online, and oh, I forget what the website is.

Laurel:
“Psychology Today.”

Tom: 
“Psychology Today” and you look for recommendations for a therapist. What suggestions would you have as someone that is a licensed professional counselor? What suggestions would you have for people that are looking for a good therapist, a good match? How do they go about finding the right person for them?

Laurel:
Well, first of all, I would recommend that people talk with their friends and neighbors and other people who have sought out therapists in their area and find one that perhaps they’ve been happy with, satisfied with. I think “Psychology Today” has a great set up. You can just pull up “Psychology Today” in the city that you’re interested in, and then it’ll show a bunch of different therapists that are available. The good thing about that is they give an outline of their practice and so you can find generally therapists who are able to work on your particular area or issue, and you can look at their picture, you can see if you’re comfortable with their office setting if they have pictures of that, and also, the distance to your residence.

Tom: 
And I guess like anything else, you could go in and talk, and meet with several different mental health professionals if you wanted to, till you find somebody that you’re comfortable with.

Laurel:
Sure. You could do that or just talk to them over the phone, see what you think of them.

Tom: 
What types of questions would you suggest someone were to ask? What are the two or three most important questions someone might want to ask if they’re looking for a therapeutic mental health professional to work with?

Laurel:
Well, I think the place to start would be their education and experience. Have they been trained in the clinical setting, and how long have they received training for that? Also, you might want to ask about professional organizations that they belong to, peer counseling, or peer review groups that they participate in.

Tom: 
Because it sounds like what we talked about earlier, we talked about the LCDC and LPC social workers, that all mental health professionals are not created equal. So, you want to find somebody that kind of aligns in their education, their experience with your needs. Is that a fair statement?

Laurel:
Exactly.

Tom: 
Would you suggest that same approach to finding a forensic mental health professional?

Laurel:
No. Really, your friends and neighbors are not going to know about a forensic professional. And really, your attorney is the best person to ask about that.

Tom: 
And why is that? Because what I’ve found in my practice, for instance, there are a lot of mental health professionals that will not get involved in family law litigation. Has that been your experience?

Laurel:
Absolutely.

Tom: 
And so, it’s important that you don’t start a relationship with somebody if you anticipate there may be family law litigation in the future. You don’t want to engage with somebody, spend a lot of time and effort working with them, only to find out later that if they have to go to court, they’re going to end the therapeutic relationship.

Laurel: 
Correct.

Tom: 
Have you seen…I’ve had cases where somebody has said to me, “Well, yeah, I’ve been working with this therapist, and the therapist says they won’t come to court.” And we all know that if somebody gets a subpoena, they have to come to court and they have to testify. Right? So, we know that. But the downside is that if you force somebody to come to court and to testify, then Laurel, can that same therapeutic mental health professional then end the relationship on that basis?

Laurel:
Not just on that basis. I think what they could do is say, “We have a relationship based on previous discussions we’ve had. We have a relationship where I explained to you who I was as a therapist, and that’s not a forensic therapist. That’s not somebody that wants to go to court. And it’s seeming like we’re not really meeting each other’s needs, or we’re not continuing our relationship the way we did in the past.”

Tom: 
Well, great. I really want to thank you again for coming in, and talking with me, and participating in the podcast. And I know we’ve just touched the very tip of the iceberg here and there are a lot of other topics that people would like to hear about. So, I think we’ll end for today, but if we invite you back, would you please come back?

Laurel:
Absolutely. I’m thrilled to be here today. Thank you, Tom.

Tom: 
Great. Thanks so much.