Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology focuses on the psychological issues involved in human development across the lifespan. The psychological processes of interest to developmental psychologists include social, personality, cognitive, and neuropsychological development. Some developmental psychologists are interested in understanding developmental processes in young children whereas others work in the area of adolescent or adult development.

Many developmental psychologists are interested in the law and the legal process and a significant body of psychological knowledge with direct relevance to juvenile, family, and elder law issues now exists. Most developmental psychologists interested in the law are employed in colleges and universities where they teach and conduct research. Others are employed by governmental agencies, private foundations, or non-profit organizations. These settings typically involve some combination of advocacy and policy formulation and analysis. Still others work as independent consultants or less frequently, in private practices. On occasion, developmental psychologists may be asked to offer expert opinions in court but typically this testimony will concern general issues related to development and will not focus on assessment of a given individual. Developmental psychologists in the law differ from clinical-forensic psychologists in that the former are more likely to conduct research and formulate and evaluate policy, whereas the latter are more likely to assess and treat people who are involved in the legal system.

Activities of Developmental Psychologists

The range of activities in developmental psychology and law is broad. Traditional areas of inquiry have involved the welfare of children in a variety of legally relevant situations involving child maltreatment, divorce and custody, medical and mental health treatment, child welfare, juvenile delinquency, and education, among others. Rather than assess and treat individual children, however, developmental psychologists may formulate and test theories about the effects of divorce and joint custody on children, the effects of restrictive environments on adolescent development, or long-term effects of physical, sexual, or emotional child abuse on adult functioning.

An important issue in both children’s law and elder law is competence. Trial judges, appellate courts, legislators and policy writers make assumptions about the competence of children, adolescents and older individuals that are amenable to scrutiny by scientific research. For example, a thorny question in many cases involving children and adolescents is the degree to which they should be permitted to make binding decisions on matters involving their own welfare (e.g., to seek guidance counseling, to seek an abortion, to refuse or accept medical treatment, to state which parent they prefer for custody, to choose not to attend school) and the psychological capacities required for these decisions. A question of concern in juvenile and criminal cases involving juvenile offenders is the extent to which they understand the legal proceedings, the Constitutional protections to which they are entitled, and the implications of various resolutions of their cases. A difficult issue in many cases involving elderly individuals is the extent to which they are capable of conducting their own financial and personal affairs a

nd whether a guardian should be appointed to assume these duties. The notions of consent and related capacities–the issues at the heart of all of these examples–have long been of interest to developmental psychologists and a great deal of research now exists on these topics.

Another area of intense interest to developmental psychologists involves children in court–either as witnesses or victims of crime. Here, two concerns typically surface. The first is the child’s right not to be traumatized or abused by the legal system. A significant barrier to prosecuting defendants in child sexual abuse cases is posed by the concern about causing the child further distress. Some states now allow a child’s testimony to be videotaped for later display in the courtroom. Recent research has been undertaken to understand the effects on children of testifying. A second concern focuses on the accuracy of children as witnesses in court. Can children distinguish fact from fantasy? At what age do children understand what it means to tell the truth? Do children make things up? Despite some widely publicized cases involving false accusations, a number of studies suggest that children only rarely make up detailed memories of completely non-existent events. On the other hand, young children can be highly suggestible, especially in response to leading or repetitive questioning. A long history of research on memory development, suggestibility, semantics, and social demand characteristics is relevant to this issue.

Many developmental psychologists are interested in studying the juvenile justice system and, in particular, some of the nontraditional methods for dealing with delinquent adolescents known as diversion programs. Developmental psychologists have also developed, implemented, and evaluated interventions designed to prevent or treat delinquent behavior. Although most states have revised and tightened their juvenile codes in the recent past to emphasize more punitive responses to juvenile crime, meta-analytic research demonstrates that some rehabilitative interventions can reduce recidivism, even among violent youth.

Educational and Training Requirements

Developmental psychologists who work on legally-relevant topics have typically been trained in traditional developmental psychology graduate programs, although some have attended formal psychology and law graduate programs that offer a developmental emphasis. During the course of graduate school they have worked with a faculty member with interests in the law or have developed those interests independently. Some students work with state or local courts, policymakers, or advocacy organizations on research and policy issues. On occasion, they may acquire a law-related interest during post-doctoral training, although such specialized training is not required for employment. There is no internship or licensure requirement.

Developmental psychologists who work in the legal arena may or may not have formal legal training. Although some knowledge of the law will result in more legally sophisticated research and advocacy, formal legal training is certainly not a requirement. In fact, many of these professionals tend to learn about the law by immersing themselves in psychological work that is related to law and legal processes or collaborating with legal or public policy scholars. Employment at colleges and universities and high-level administrative positions in various agencies and organizations require a PhD degree but individuals with masters’ level degrees (MA or MS) can also work in the private and public sectors, although job opportunities may be limited.

Photo courtesy of psychology.pitt.edu

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