MELBOURNE, FLA. — A rare and powerful learning experience for students in Florida Tech’s clinical psychology doctoral program is unfolding outside the courtrooms and jail cells of Brevard County – and its success is helping to alleviate an ongoing judicial challenge.
In Brevard County and across the country, a shortage of psychiatrists is causing delays in the mental health evaluations that are sometimes required to determine if defendants are competent to stand trial.
Julie Costopoulos, associate professor in Florida Tech’s School of Psychology and director of the forensic emphasis area of the clinical psychology doctoral program, heard about the situation and took action.
“I learned that there was a shortage of evaluators here, and in meetings with judges, attorneys, and the Florida Department of Children and Families, we created this opportunity with students,” Costopoulos said.
“This opportunity” is the Court Assessment Team, which Costopoulos directs. The initiative needed, and was granted, approval by the Court Administrator, the chief judge and the offices of the public defender and the state attorney. All worked to support this program, she noted.
For each evaluation – the team has conducted nine since the fall 2020 launch of the program, with three more in the works so far this fall – Costopoulos works closely with two doctoral students. The students get to do parts of the actual evaluation, administering psychological measures to the defendant and asking questions regarding his or her psychiatric diagnoses and treatment. Costopoulos and the students then collaborate on the diagnosis, prognosis and, if so determined, the impact of the mental illness on the legal case, as well as how to best communicate that to members of the court and other non-psychologists.
This hands-on experience is extremely rare in clinical psychology doctoral programs. Costopoulos found that only five out of 243 programs across the country offered opportunities for students to attend court evaluations, though not all allow active participation. Florida Tech’s CAT is the first such experience available at a Florida university.
“I didn’t have an opportunity to learn about how to evaluate mentally ill defendants and write reports for judges until after my doctoral program,” said Costopoulos, who is a licensed psychologist. “I feel it is really important to get students involved, in a safe way, much earlier. They have skills they can contribute, and they learn so much by doing it in partnership with a supervisor.”
Students say participating in the Court Assessment Team, beyond providing invaluable experience, has helped them secure top internships required in the final year of their doctoral program.
“I matched at my number one ranked site as one of their forensic interns,” said Hayley Rodriguez, a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program with an emphasis in forensic psychology. “This hospital is the largest forensic state hospital in the country, and I don’t believe I would have matched here without having gained the experiences I did on CAT team.”
Rodriguez said during the first week of her internship she was asked to complete a competency assessment. “Being a part of CAT team gave me the confidence to do so. I am grateful to have had access to this practicum site and to be able to have learned first-hand how to put forensic psychology into practice.”
Shannon Cantalupo, also a clinical psychology doctoral candidate, was one of the first students to join the Court Assessment Team. “I believe having this training and experience really stood out during my internship interviews, which can be a very competitive process. I was lucky enough to match to my first ranked internship site.”
Another CAT participant, Katelyn Goodall, is a fourth-year student in the clinical psychology doctoral program. She, too, has seen how this experience helps land coveted internships and offers opportunities to develop key skills.
“With this program, we are arguably getting the best training in conducting forensic evaluations and writing integrated reports for the court system which enhances our ability to succeed professionally,” Goodall said.
The 18th Judicial Circuit is already home to one of just three felony mental health courts in Florida. The acceptance, implementation and support of the Court Assessment Team is another example of how the Circuit embraces innovation. The fact that the program is also helping alleviate an ongoing challenge makes it even more valuable.
“We do have a shortage of qualified experts to perform these important evaluations and are very grateful to Dr. Costopoulos for taking on this project,” said Michelle Kennedy, spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial Circuit.