Writing for Court: 5 Reasons why you may be losing your credibility
“They told me that I lost custody of my son, because I let him drink coffee.
Now he is in foster care, and they are abusing him.
I want my son, Alex, back. I want him back.”
Alejandro spoke these words in court with tears in his eyes, imploring the judge to carefully look into his case. The judge proceeded to subpoena all records and reports related to the decision to remove Alex from Alejandro.
As mentioned in my previous article on Effective Writing Skills for Court, your reports may be subpoenaed at any time, even when you least expect it. They may also get assigned more significant weight than expected, and therefore, suddenly get subjected to a higher level of scrutiny. You may be losing your credibility without even knowing it.
Below are 5 reasons why:
Unsupported and biased conclusions
Dave, the forensic social worker, who evaluated Alex, concluded that “Alejandro was unfit to be a father, because he allows Alex, a 6-year-old child, to drink coffee when he visits with him. Visitation rights should be suspended and full custody should be granted to Carmen, Alex’s mother.” This conclusion was, indeed, biased and unsupported. Each time you draw a conclusion in a report that cannot be supported by the main sections of your outline, you will be perceived as demonstrating bias, showing a lack of rigor, and you will slowly lose your credibility. The next time you write your conclusion, ask yourself:
“Is this supported by the rest of my report; how well can I justify my conclusion; am I being objective?”
Limited collateral information
Dave met with Alex, his mother, Carmen, but not with anyone else, including Alejandro, the grandparents, his teacher, babysitter, or coach. He collected what Alex and Carmen had to say, and wrote his report, impressions, conclusions, and his recommendations. Dave had not even attempted to contact any of the additional key persons in Alex’s life, in preparation of his report. Neither did he acknowledge any steps taken or any related limitations. He failed to consider the totality of the circumstances; he listened to only one party. His report was biased, and, as a result, his credibility was in question. When you write a report, ask yourself: “Might I have a skewed, one-sided, and biased recount; did I speak with all the necessary parties; do I have enough collateral information, and, if not, did I acknowledge this limitation in my report?”
You should avoid limited attribution at all cost; it is a significant mistake and certainly one of the main reasons why you may lose credibility. In his report, Dave wrote: “Alex’s father, Alejandro, allegedly gives Alex coffee when he wakes up in the morning.” It is unclear who made this claim; when, where, and the surrounding circumstances are all unclear. These types of claims in your reports have a priming effect, and regardless of how strong a case you attempt to make afterwards, they will have a damaging impact on your credibility. Make sure to attribute as meticulously as possible. Use the name, title, date, and the time, if available, and the role of the author. If you are unable to attribute, it is best to omit. Furthermore, related to attribution, discuss your impressions and make sure to support them, as well.
4. Limited rationale for recommendations
Your recommendations follow your impressions and conclusions, which in turn follow the body of your report. This is the first requirement of a sound recommendation. The second requirement is having adequate rationale. The delicate part is that if the main body of your report is lacking, so will be your impressions and conclusions. As previously seen, Dave’s recommendation was to terminate Alejandro’s right to visitation, and grant full custody to Carmen. Dave based his recommendation on his impression that Alejandro was an unfit father; and his impression was based on information reported to him that Alejandro was allowing Alex to drink coffee, information with no attribution or context. Prior to making any recommendations, ask yourself: What’s the rationale; how practical are my recommendations; and, how tailored are they? You will be pleased with the result and will avoid several unwanted collateral consequences.
Several discrepancies were found in Dave’s reports. In the main section of his report, when writing about Carmen, Dave stated, “Carmen periodically uses cocaine and alcohol. She often invited her friends over to the house for drinks, while leaving Alex in his room, alone, watching TV.” Dave’s conclusion and recommendation sections also read: “Alejandro is unfit to be a father, because he allows Alex, a 6-year-old child, to drink coffee when he visits with him. Visitation rights should be suspended and full custody should be granted to Carmen, Alex’s mother.” Very few factors contribute to a loss of credibility as fast as limited consistency does. Limited consistency in your report is likely to invalidate your argument, which lessens your success as an advocate.
“They told me that I lost custody of my son, because I let him drink coffee. Now he is in foster care, and they are abusing him. I want my son, Alex, back. I want him back.” In the midst of Alejandro contesting custody with Carmen, his mother became very ill, making travel to Columbia necessary for a visit. Upon his return, he pleaded with the judge, who then decided to look carefully into the matter. The judge’s decision led to Alex’s return to Alejandro, his father. Alex had been in foster care due to several allegations of child abuse and child endangerment against Carmen.
The judge’s decision to look into the matter did not only result in a positive outcome for Alejandro. It also led to a loss of credibility for Dave, whose report was marked by unsupported and biased conclusions, limited collateral information, limited attribution, limited rationale for recommendations, and limited consistency—all significant faux pas that you ought to avoid. Each time you write your report, make sure to strongly support your conclusions, obtain adequate collateral information, and acknowledge any related limitations. Furthermore, attribute at all times, present sound rationale for your recommendations, and remain consistent throughout. By doing all this, you will protect your credibility and continue to have success in your advocacy endeavors.
For more in this series of articles, check below!
Dr. Sidor is quadruple board certified in psychiatry, with board certification in General adult, Child and adolescent, Addiction, and Forensic, psychiatry. He also has additional training in public psychiatry, in several treatment modalities, in addition to his teaching, supervision, mentorship, coaching, and management, experience. Some of his passions are public speaking, leadership, entrepreneurship, and research, in addition to program development and project management. His overall goal is to empower all health care professionals throughout the United States and globally, towards ensuring the continuity of excellent patient care, while balancing the need to take care of themselves. Dr. Sidor is the main instructor for the SWEET Institute, and he is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is also the past-Medical Director for CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and employment Services), and he speaks and writes fluently in six (4) languages—French, English, Spanish, Creole, and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese and Italian.
MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH FORENSIC SERVICES M.G.L. c. 123, s.15 (a) Report Writing Guidelines.
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