June 27July 4, 1996
Half of Family Court's so-called psychologists are unlicensed and, in most cases, they ignore recognized testing guidelines when evaluating juvenile offenders and youths at the center of custody disputes.
Does this decades-old system place children in danger?
By Scott Farmelant
Nine days shy of his 12th birthday, the cops busted "Thomas" on a burglary rap. Six months after the court dismissed those charges, the teen clubbed a kid over the head. Probation lasted six months. At age 13, the cops caught Thomas pulling a heist.
Thomas' third strike brought a court-ordered "mental health assessment," better known as an MHA. Judge Kathryn Lewis ordered the test to learn whether Thomas was fit to stand trial. So Thomas went to 1801 Vine St., home of Philadelphia's Family Court, on a frigid winter day, and trudged to the Northeast corner of the building.
Thomas met a clinical psychologist working for the court H. Eduardo Pino. At Pino's request, a calm and pleasant Thomas drew a house, a tree, a person. Thomas read flash cards. Thomas looked at geometric figures and copied them. Pino summed Thomas up after an hour-long session.
"No major emotional disorder ... attentive, pleasant and compliant ... amenable to rehabilitative measures," Pino wrote on the MHA.
Three weeks later, Thomas took another MHA, this time with court psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Shecter. Thomas told Shecter that Dad was long gone, Mom's back gave out a few years back and he lived now with his crack-head sister. Thomas noted his fondness for girlsand a desire to become a big league ballplayer.
"Non-psychotic ... no intent of harm to others or self," concluded Shecter.
Backed by the two reports, Lewis sentenced Thomas to "intensive probation."
Free again, Thomas robbed again. And was arrested again.
This time, Judge Ida Chen ordered Thomas to reform school at St. Gabriel's Hall in Audubon. In the court's eyes, Thomas not yet 14 was just another punk in need of harsh discipline. Based on the two MHAs and a nondescript history in public schools, what else would a judge think?
A month later, Thomas raped a boy. But Thomas, deemed harmless by the court's counselors, would not enter a sex-offender treatment for three years.
It's impossible to say how many cases like Thomas' exist in Philadelphia's Family Court. But one thing is clear. In a system that handled 8,700 delinquency cases in 1995, a system where nearly every judge orders an MHA, children who need help receive suspect treatment.
Though it's not illegal, four of the court's eight psychologists are not licensed by Pennsylvania's Board of Psychology.
Three of the four unlicensed counselors conduct clinical assessments without supervision by a Ph.D.-level psychologist as required by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Only two of the four with licenses have a Ph.D.-level degree as required by the state board and APA guidelines.
Three of every four Family Court MHAs are done on the basis of tests which national experts describe as useful for screening purposes, not as mental health evaluations.
One unlicensed psychologist, a woman who refuses to divulge her credentials, has performed thousands of MHAs in custody cases where parents can't afford qualified evaluators. Those reports factor heavily in custody cases.
Why are MHAs important? The Family Court's role differs from adult court's. Instead of merely doling out punishment, the system is responsible for learning why children commit their crimes. The system is then asked to attempt rehabilitation so juveniles will not graduate to a lifetime of crime. As such, MHAs should reveal the nature of a child's troubles and lead to proper treatment. Former and current family court judges who spoke with City Paper also say they rely on court MHAs when choosing a treatment program or a punishment option.
"I always used [MHAs] when making my decisions," says Judge Ed Rosenberg, a former custody judge in Family Court and now a senior judge in the Court of Common Pleas. "They would give me insights into what I was doing."
"I wouldn't even handle a consent decree without a psychological report," adds retired Family Court Judge Joseph Patrick McCabe, who handled delinquency cases. "The [MHAs] are significant, no question about it. They are extremely important."
While judges use MHAs to help place delinquents, the reports also help dictate the course of rehabilitation. Wherever a delinquent goes, the report follows and stays on a juvenile's permanent record until age 18.
Beyond credentials and testing methods, a City Paper review of MHAs uncovered more troubling facts. Two of the unlicensed employees Barbara Sulik and Gail Sampson-Clemens have issued hundreds of single-page reports that read like carbon-copies. Though both women wrote their reports over the course of several years, the work is indistinguishable from one year to the next or from one case to the next a suspicious practice according to many experts.
The situation isn't new. Yet despite widespread concern among lawyers, social workers and support staff, there is little evidence of change on the horizon. And judging by court reaction to City Paper's request for information, Family Court officials appear content with silence and status quo.
City Paper sought but was denied access to statistics involving the caseloads of court psychologists. The court also refused to provide the recidivism rate of Philadelphia delinquents. When City Paper asked for the educational background of the court's psychologists, the Family Court's administrative justice, Judge Paul Panepinto, rejected the request.
"If you wish to have their resumes, I suggest you write to each of them," wrote Panepinto on June 11.
Given the court's reluctance to open its operations to public scrutiny, some fear Philadelphia's poorest and most vulnerable delinquents will continue to face irreparable harm.
"The problem with the court psychologists is the court sends kids into treatment and doesn't really know anything about them or their underlying problems," says Mingo Stroeber, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents thousands of indigent juvenile delinquents. "This is clearly outrageous. They use screening measures to make diagnoses. Lord only knows how many kids slip away because of these reports. I have no idea. But I can guarantee that hundreds of kids are at risk."
After the rape, St. Gabriel's sent Thomas back to Family Court, saying they could not handle him. Judge Jerome Zaleski then ordered Thomas to the state forestry camp at Loysville where he celebrated his 14th birthday with an attempted rape. The "attentive, pleasant and compliant" youth was now a full-blown predator.
Thomas spent a year at Loysville, then went home to play hoops, attend Audenreid High and orally rape a little girl. Judge Panepinto ordered a second MHA for Thomas.
Back at 1801 Vine, Thomas drew more houses, trees and people, copied more figures and completed sentences for Shoshana Rubinstien Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist who works for the court.
On that day, Thomas stood at the crossroads. Rubinstien'sevaluation could convince Panepinto to give Thomas treatment in a program for juvenile sex-offenders. But Rubinstien's two-page report, which found Thomas had "difficulty in interpersonal relationships ... tends to need attention and may feel rejected by others," made no such suggestion. Rubinstien advised Judge Paul Panepinto to lock Thomas up. Panepinto jailed Thomas.
On the surface, Rubinstien's report seems innocuous. The methods used to reach the recommendation, however, violatethe APA's ethical guidelines.
Steve Ceci, a psychology professor at Cornell University and an APA expert, describes tests like "Projective Drawings" and the "Bender Gestalt" test as "not perfect by any means."
"These tests don't give enough information for an evaluation," Ceci says. "They're tests you would use for screening ... for preliminary decisions."
Yet Rubinstien one of just two court psychologists with a Ph.D. used the basic tests to make an assessment and a recommendation. Family Court data and hundreds of MHAs suggest the practice is routine.
The Crime & Justice Research Institute (CJRI), a think-tank located on the corner of Spring Garden St. and Delaware Ave., has studied the medical branch since January 1994. In that period, Phil Harris and Peter Jones have examined nearly 5,800 MHAs produced by Family Court.
CJRI's data reveals that court psychologists used the simplistic, preliminary Slosson intelligence test in 3,781 cases through March 1996. At the same time, court psychologists used the more in-depth Weschler Intelligence tests, known as the WISC, in 1,063 cases.
Experts like Ceci and Bob Sternberg, a nationally recognized expert in psychology and a professor at Yale, describe the Slosson examination as "short and dirty," a rudimentary procedure useful for non-evaluation purposes. Both label the WISC as the best measure for evaluating juveniles.
CJRI's Jones says research found that Slosson results on MHAs painted a distorted picture of Philadelphia's delinquents. In MHAs that used the Slosson, less than 20 percent of juveniles were deemed "retarded" or "borderline" retarded while 41.3 percent were placed at the level of "average" intelligence. The Slosson results described 13 percent of the kids as "above average" or higher intelligence.
By comparison, WISC results deemed that 50 percent of delinquents in Family Court are either retarded or borderline. So-called "dull" children accounted for 27.8 percent of the cases. With WISC results, less than 20 percent were average and less than 1 percent were above average.
Jones says the results show that the court relies on flawed testing methods.
"There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which test is used, there is no clear selection procedure," Jones says. "But the image of a kid [on the MHAs] is dependent largely upon the type of test they take. And the Slosson seems to inflate a child's intelligence."
The discrepancies between Slosson and WISC results may extend beyond statistics. Experts say results are worthless if tests are not given or supervised by qualified individuals.
"In any test, you must make sure the person who's administering the test is fully qualified," Ceci says. "It's easy to misuse these tests, either to give them incorrectly or to misinterpret the results."
Only Rubinstien and Anthony Zongaro, assistant chief psychologist for the Family Court, have earned Ph.D.s, which the APA says is necessary to properly conduct WISC testing. The remainder Sulik, Sampson-Clemens, Eva Wojciechowski, Kenneth Moberg and Thomas Kenny are not qualified.
(Due to Panepinto's refusal to provide the psychologists' resumes, it is unclear what qualifications the five have earned. Moberg and Kenny, however, are licensed to practice in Pennsylvania. Moberg and Kenny were unavailable for comment.)
Zongaro admits that the psychologists perform their assessments without the benefit of supervision.
"There isn't time for that," Zongaro says of case oversight.
In truth, the psychologists are burdened with a sizable caseload. Zongaro reports that Rubinstien, Sulik, Sampson-Clemens, Kenneth Moberg and Thomas Kenny perform an average of three MHAs each day.
Based on that figure, Samuel Knapp, professional affairs officer with the Pennsylvania Psychological Association (PPA), says it would be impossible for anybody licensed or otherwise to perform fair and accurate assessments.
"How can they do that?" Knapp asks. "I don't see how they can do a good job with that workload."
While Family Court judges dismissed the license issue as unimportant, experts say the matter is significant.
Steve Golding, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and an APA expert on unlicensed psychologists, says a license doesn't ensure competency. But Golding says licenses provide a "minimal guarantee" regarding a psychologist's education, training and supervision. Golding notes that people without licenses should not conduct evaluations which affect a child's life.
"When mental health professionals issue reports and perform services that the courts rely upon, the level of expertise should go far beyond the minimal level of licenses," Golding says. "These people need specialized training."
The PPA's Knapp notes that the state legislature made it legal for government agencies to hire unlicensed psychologists. But Knapp notes the legislature did this "with the expectation that government would provide good oversight ... [and] will have public protection measures."
Zongaro simply says that "licenses aren't required for employment here... I can only respond to myself as far as credentials go."
Beyond licensing, testing methods and lack of supervision, dozens of MHAs written by Sulik and Sampson-Clemens reveal a pattern of repeated phrases sometimes word-for-word in reports spanning several years.
"Basically, she is an impulsive young lady who does what she wants with little regard to the consequences," wrote Sulik on May 13, 1992.
"Basically, he is a highly impulsive young man who tends to do what he wants with little regard to the consequences," wrote Sulik on Feb. 2, 1995.
"The projected drawings show a timid, insecure, angry, frustrated, emotionally impoverished young man," wrote Sampson-Clemens on Jan. 21, 1992.
"The projective drawings suggest an insecure, frustrated, evasive young man," wrote Sampson-Clemens on Oct. 12, 1995.
Despite these apparent problems, Zongaro says the psychologists provide quality services.
"I feel for what the court is asking and the amount of cases that we get, we do okay," says Zongaro.
"Based on three drawings [of a house, tree and person], these people make an evaluation of sexual proclivity and sexual orientation, aggressive tendencies," says William Russell, a Ph.D. in forensic psychology who operates Assessment and Treatment Alternatives (ATA) and performs MHAs for the Defenders Association. "[Court psychologists] make quantum leaps based on little or no evidence."
"I should be so good," jokes Russell.
"The court would be better off using astrologers," says Stroeber.
Each year, thousands of parents come to Philadelphia's Family Court and wage war over their children's future. In cases where parents can't afford representation there were 1,751 such matters between Feb. 1995 and April 1996 the court appoints lawyers and psychologists.
Because of this, Eva Wojciechowski has spent decades performing MHAs on parents and children at the heart of domestic disputes. For the most part, Wojciechowski is the only court employee handling these matters.
But Wojciechowski isn't licensed to practice psychology in Pennsylvania. Further, nobody connected with Family Court is willing to divulge Wojciechowski's educational background. When asked, Wojciechowski a court employee for 25 years refused to list her credentials.
Wojciechowski, however, did acknowledge complaints regarding her work and credentials. But she declined an interview request, saying "it would be better" not to comment.
Steve Anderer, a family lawyer with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, explains that quality evaluations for custody cases involve a lengthy process of interviews and testing and costs anywhere between $2,000 and $10,000 per case. Specifically, Anderer says qualified psychologists should meet individually with parents and children, then conduct joint sessions with all parties. Further testing may also be required.
Anderer stresses that "for evaluations to be thorough, they must meet APA guidelines." Wojciechowski, Anderer notes, does not conduct tests within APA guidelines.
The situation surrounding Wojciechowski has not gone unnoticed. Lawyers, child advocates, and expert psychologists slam Wojciechowski for what they describe as unethical behavior. The most serious criticisms against Wojciechowski claim the court employee makes diagnoses without proper foundation and chooses sides in custody battles.
"Unless I have a client who's really, really poor, I'm going to use private therapists," says Elaine Smith, a partner with the family law firm Smith & Leibel. "There's no way I'm using the court's [psychological] services. [Wojciechowski] really doesn't look at parenting skills. Anytime I have a client who can afford to, I always go private."
Wojciechowski's "work is sloppy and she will place fault based upon where she considers the fault to lie, not where the fault lies," says Napoleon N. Vaughn Ph.D., an expert Philadelphia psychologist who specializes in custody matters.
David Steerman, co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Custody Committee, has received numerous complaints regarding Wojciechowski. The biggest concern, stresses Steerman, is her lack of credentials and the "very alarming" procedures she employs.
Wojciechowski "makes snap decisions based on relatively short interviews" adds one prominent family law attorney, who spoke on conditions of anonymity. "She makes sweepingly negative or positive conclusions that are just not consistent with the facts."
The prime concern regarding Wojciechowski centers on the importance of MHAs in custody cases. Unlike delinquency cases, judges may enter MHAs into the record without labeling them evidence. Therefore, opposing lawyers often do not challenge an MHA. Moreover, several family law attorneys say Wojciechowski often does not complete MHAs before a trial begins.
"These things slip in unchallenged all the time," says one attorney. "The only question, is 'How many cases?'"
Though Family Court refused to provide statistics on MHAs in custody cases, Frank Cervone, director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, says 70 percent of Domestic Court cases involve some form of free representation. With this, Cervone "presumes" that Wojciechowski's impact is significant.
A major problem, says Cervone, is that Family Court judges value Wojciechowski's opinions despite her lack of credentials. Cervone stresses that Wojciechowski's opinions can affect everything from a child's living arrangements to matters like religion, education and healthcare.
An MHA "might be critical," says Cervone. "The court only gets to meet the parents and children in a very superficial manner. The judge needs outside help [to make decisions]. That's where the MHAs come in."
Despite the concerns raised by Cervone and the others, none of the Family Court judges contacted by City Paper expressed concern over Wojciechowski's role in custody cases or her seeming lack of credentials.
"I'll tell you frankly, I never looked at [Wojciechowski's] reports based on whether she was licensed or unlicensed," says former Family Court Judge Ed Rosenberg, now a senior judge in the Court of Common Pleas. "I accepted them as professional."
Wojciechowski "has been here for years and years and there's never been a complaint," says Family Court Judge Nicholas Cipriani, who handles custody cases.
Judge Steven Levin, a former Family Court judge now serving in the Court of Common Pleas' civil section, knows about Wojciechowski's license status. Levin strongly defends the veteran court employee.
"I don't give a damn whether somebody gives [Wojciechowski] a piece of paper that says she's competent," says Levin. "I have found her to be an extraordinarily competent person. She has great insight into human beings."
Yet Levin admits that he never relied on Wojciechowski for anything other than a "snapshot" of a family's condition.
"I have been uncomfortable at times because [Wojciechowski] didn't have higher level" of education or licensing, Levin says. "The tests she uses really don't have any validity, or so I've been informed. I didn't rely on the tests, I didn't care about the tests. Basically, I was interested in seeing how [Wojciechowski] viewed these people."
Asked why the court allows Wojciechowski to conduct tests it considers useless, Levin says judges are not in a position to limit her activity.
"[Wojciechowski] is the psychologist," Levin says. "I don't have a right to tell somebody that they shouldn't use a test if they think it's helpful to them."
But how helpful are those tests to the children?
Psychologists like Vaughn say the judges' comments reveal a bias that goes against the public interest.
"The court seems to put an absolute value on tests done by [court psychologists] without knowing why," Vaughn charges. "They don't have to back up any of their conclusions ... because the judges don't ever question [the results]."
Robert Tanenbaum Ph.D. is an expert psychologist specializing in the Bricklin Test, a method of examining parenting skills from numerous viewpoints. Tanenbaum stresses that Wojciechowski's reported propensity for making snap judgments is a serious charge and should be examined carefully.
"If [a psychologist] is going beyond their data and making decisions that speak to the future of a given family's life, they really need to be on solid ground," says Tanenbaum. "The rule of thumb is to say what you can and don't say anymore than that."
Tanenbaum and Vaughn add one more point: the Family Court's custody unit should privatize its assessment services.
"Maybe the court's approach meets some minimum standard of practice but it does not reach for the standard where you go beyond the rudiments and look at each family as unique entities," says Tanenbaum. "As a result, absolutely overwhelmed judges must rely on [MHAs] that typically don't tie a parent's capabilities with a child's needs."
"This situation [with unlicensed psychologists] is very, very dangerous," argues Vaughn. "It is a scandalous situation. However, [the court] justifies it by saying they're overloaded, that they don't have enough personnel. The bottom line is children lose out."
Early in 1994, 18-year-old Thomas finished a lengthy stint at the VisionQuest program, a residential treatment facility. The program's exit report on Thomas depicts a stay dominated by aggression toward smaller boys and menacing sexual behavior towards women.
VisionQuest's conclusion? Thomas "sound[s] like a potential rapist ... it seems evident ... that he will re-offend when he returns to the community."
The Philadelphia Child Guidance Center (PCGC) backed VisionQuest's concerns. After a full psychiatric evaluation, PCGC labeled Thomas an "anti-social personality," then referred him to the Joseph J. Peter's Institute for sex offenders. Thomas lasted less than three months in an outpatient program that confronts sexual aggression with confrontational therapy.
Counselors at J.J. Peters placed Thomas through rigorous psychological tests aimed at digging into the history of sexual deviance and aggression. But Thomas maintained a long-held pattern of denial. A "manipulative" Thomas was found not amenable to treatment even though he fell into the "high" risk category for re-offending. Judge Joseph Bruno committed Thomas to the open program at New Castle State Youth Development Center.
Thomas now would cost the taxpayers real money, $229 per day or $83,500 per year. Philadelphia picked up 40 percent of the tab.
Najma Davis, director of juvenile social service for the Defender's Association, says cases like Thomas' are not exceptions.
"We're supposed to help kids," says Davis. "But by the time they have been misdiagnosed and sent to one or two different programs, the damage is irreparable. The kids feel like they are failures ... so they begin to sabotage themselves. They go back to stealing, to doing drugs. They have lost faith in the system and once that happens, they no longer believe us when we say we can help them. It's too late."
Davis, a critic of the Family Court's psychologists, says a delinquent's alienation begins with the MHA process. Davis says everything from the setting for tests (drab, grim, colorless rooms and sometimes holding cells) to the interview techniques create an adversarial situation where cooperation is needed. Davis is not alone in her criticism.
Debbie Williams is a court representative with the Juvenile Justice Center of Philadelphia. In that role, Williams escorts delinquents to and from various appointments in Family Court. Williams claims the MHA testing process leaves kids scarred.
Delinquents "go in one way and they come out totally different," Williams insists.
"The kids always complain that they're frustrated about [the exam] and how they've been treated during the exam," adds Sabrina Allen, a court rep with the Northeast Treatment Center.
"Most kids are upset" after testing, agrees Mark Elvin, VisionQuest's director of Community Based Shelters.
The most significant complaint about the court testing process focuses on Barbara Sulik, the unlicensed psychologist (the state board of education certified Sulik as a school psychologist in June 1982). People like Davis, Williams and Allen say Sulik asks inappropriate questions, then threatens her interview subjects if they do not cooperate.
Specifically, the trio allege that Sulik asks every test subject "Have you ever had sex with your mother?" Further, they say Sulik discusses placement options with the delinquents and reminds them of her authority within the process.
Sulik "threatened one of my kids just last week," says a VisionQuest court rep who spoke on terms of anonymity. "She said 'You're going to end up going somewhere where there are retarded kids.'"
Sulik "asks them, 'Did you have sex with your mother?'" says Davis. "That is a totally inappropriate question."
Sulik asks "'have you had sex with your mother?'" says Williams. "Out of every child I've taken [to Sulik], I've only had one in two years who came out with no problems at all," says Williams, noting that Sulik demands that juveniles and non-professionals address her as "Doctor."
Allen further backs allegations regarding Sulik's questioning on incest issues. Elvin reports "hearsay" reports on Sulik's conduct but declined to comment.
"I have to work very closely with the courts," Elvin says. "I have to protect my relationship with them."
Sulik declined comment on the allegations when contacted by City Paper.
"I have been told not to talk," Sulik says. "I wish I could comment. [But] I like my job."
Zongaro, one of Sulik's supervisors, says he's not allowed to not address the matter either.
"That's a personnel matter," Zongaro says. "I'm not at liberty to discuss anything like that, only things pertaining to myself."
Davis says Sulik's approach to issues of incest is damaging to delinquents in two ways. First, Davis notes that direct questions about incest place a juvenile on the defensive and violate a delinquent's sense of privacy. In addition, Davis says the approach guarantees confrontation. Secondly, Davis argues that Sulik's approach makes kids tune her out.
Sulik "barks at children and dresses them down for 'negative attitudes' so they ignore the questions," Davis says. "One kid said to me, 'If [Sulik] has no respect for me, I have no respect for her.'"
Davis also says many clients beg for a second test after visiting with Sulik.
"If children are asking to be retested, you know there's something really wrong," Davis says.
In the end, says Davis and others, misdiagnosed delinquents are sent to programs for which they are not suited.
"To be perfectly honest, we've had some problems [with court MHAs]," says Peter Ranalli, VisionQuest's director of operations. "There have been several kids who've come into the program [from Philadelphia] who've had mental health issues that we weren't capable of handling and we've had to throw them out. It happens. I've got to admit that."
Ranalli says VisionQuest now screens Philadelphia delinquents "really closely." But Ranalli admits that when misdiagnosed kids slip through, the kids VisionQuest are trying to help suffer as does the unsuitable kid.
"Our goal is to make these kids a little more human so they aren't out on the streets killing," Ranalli says. "[But] with a bad placement, a kid's right back into the system again. We've done no good. And a bad placement is a drain on our resources while he's here. That kid takes away from the other kids."
Jones of the CJRI says statistics over the past two-and-a-quarter years show that 5 percent of Philadelphia delinquents leave treatment programs within a month of sentencing. Jones adds that anywhere between 10 to 35 percent leave various programs within six months. Jones stresses that shortened stays can stem from poorly done MHAs but,more often, involve running away, committing crimes within a program or unruliness.
Still, Jones says the statistics convinced CJRI to begin ask programs why placements fail.
"We need to understand why kids are leaving these programs very quickly," Jones says.
Kirk Heilbrun, co-director of the law and psychology program at Medical College of Pennsylvania and Villanova Law School, offers an alternative to the court's evaluation services. Heilbrun, a nationally recognized expert in the area of juvenile forensic psychology, says the 25 students in his program could provide the court with testing services that he would closely supervise.
"The court is relying on the accuracy of [MHAs] to make real important decisions," Heilbrun says. "And it's not like the court can go back and correct the course it's taken once it's been taken. That decision pretty much stands. They need good information."
Heilbrun's plan would save the court money, time, and elevate the quality of MHAs. It is similar to the 1993 pilot program which the Defenders Association initiated via a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. Dr. Ralph "Mac" Turner of Temple oversaw that "enhanced evaluations" effort. But Family Court officials did not expand upon the program.
Russell of ATA says the court should consider alternatives because the current system focuses on the existence of problems, not the causes.
"The problem with the court is they're trying to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying dynamic that causes the symptom," Russell says. "It's like trying to treat a fever. If you don't treat the underlying infection, you're not going to cure the fever, you're not going to cure the disease."
One Philadelphia juvenile probation officer who makes recommendations for juvenile placements also says the court should consider alternatives.
"The problem with the [court] psychologists is how can somebody who spends an hour with a kid tell me what to do with that kid's life?" says the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the court thinks anybody can wave a magic wand call it a Slosson test, whatever. They're mistaken."
The court, however, seems reluctant to change.
"What does a license give you?" asks retired Judge McCabe. "A license is a piece of paper. [The psychologists] are the professionals. I looked to them to make the right decisions."
In the same breath, McCabe admits that he's "not familiar with" either the Slosson or WISC tests despite his lengthy service in delinquency court.
"The what?" McCabe asks when questioned about the court's testing methods.
McCabe's comments typify the court's approach to scrutiny. Sources say administrators promised major changes after the 1990 Jean Sosnowski scandal. That debacle unfolded when the Daily News reported that Sosnowski, then clinical chief over the psychologists, did not have a Ph.D. in psychology (Sosnowski's Ph.D. is in education guidance and counseling).
The only change, however, came when the court fired Pino, the psychologist who blew the whistle on Sosnowski.
When City Paper approached Family Court for information, the system reacted with hostility.
John Fitzgerald, who earns $62,769 as director of the "Medical Branch" where the psychologists work, refused to discuss the matter.
"I'm not making any comments," says Fitzgerald, who oversees the psychologists despite having just a high school degree. "I'm not supposed to nor am I going to."
Asked about complaints regarding Sulik, Sampson-Clemens and Wojciechowski, Fitzgerald denies having authority over the psychologists.
"That's their concern," Fitzgerald says. "I have nothing to do with that. Anthony Zongaro, he's their supervisor."
Fitzgerald also refuses to reveal his duties and responsibilities despite taking home a large salary courtesy of Philadelphia taxpayers.
"My job is of no concern to you," Fitzgerald says. "I have nothing to do with the public."
Fitzgerald's boss also declines comment.
"My position is that [Fitzgerald] is the director the Medical Branch," says Andrea Hoffman-Jelin, director of Children and Youth Services for Family Court. "I'm employed by the Court of Common Pleas. In that position, I'm not at liberty to comment on anything related to the courts."
"The problem is that I'm just the assistant chief," Zongaro says. "There is no chief."
The court's pass-the-buck attitude apparently filters down to the lowest levels of staffing.
"Why are you writing about us?" asks Sandy DeMuro, secretary for the court psychologists. "You should do a story on DHS [Department of Human Services]. They're really a mess."
Dominic Masciantonio, an attorney who represents the court and Panepinto, says the court would not release the psychologists credentials because it "is a matter of privacy." Masciantonio adds that he disagrees with Judge Panepinto's stance.
"As far as I'm concerned, these are matters that ... everybody should know," says Masciantonio. "[The psychologists'] education ... should not be a secret. [But] I don't give orders."
Masciantonio also denied that the court psychologists were ordered not speak with City Paper.
"This is a free country," Masciantonio says. "Anybody can talk."
Critics of the psychologists say the situation has existed for years due to Family Court's highly political atmosphere. As ex-Judge McCabe puts it, "the Family Court was always a family court. It had a lot of family members, whether it was political family or personal family."
Family presents a problem for change. Should Panepinto reform the medical branch, he would risk angering Fitzgerald, the brother-in-law of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Frank Montemurro. If that happened, Panepinto might alienate Montemurro. The Supreme Court Justice is one of the people who appointed Panepinto to his post as the Family Court's administrative justice.
The specter of court politics apparently convinces some people to remain silent.
"We would rather not comment at all," says Joe Lavoratano, St. Gabriel's clinical director. "You have to appreciate that we're a private contractor with Family Court. It behooves us to have a friendly relationship with the Family Court."
Ellen Sterling Ph.D., an expert in custody psychology cases, also would not discuss the situation at medical court.
"Any remarks I make could be held against my clients," says Sterling.
Thomas' last court MHA his third in seven years came in the winter of 1995. Thomas Kenny administered Thomas' most vigorous court evaluation yet the Slosson, drawings and copying geometric figures. Kenny's one-page analysis found Thomas "self-centered and preoccupied." Judge A. Frank Reynolds returned Thomas to New Castle.
Thomas will turn 21 in less than a year. At that time, his release is inevitable. Thomas' next birthday present is freedom.
And as Najma Davis notes, the chances of helping Thomas began slipping eight years ago in a Family Court psychologist's office.
Thomas "was not a sociopath [when first arrested]," Davis says. "He was neglected, perhaps abused and he was highly dependent. But he could have been helped through treatment. Maybe his crimes were a cry for help. But the reasons were not identified. The system failed."
Davis still holds hope that Thomas can be rehabilitated, noting that he's participating in therapy for sex offenders at New Castle. At the same time, Davis admits Thomas could easily re-offend next year.
"You can't predict this," Davis says. "There is chance. The hope is that he won't, but you can't predict it."
Knapp of the PPA says the odds are stacked against delinquents like Thomas once they do not receive proper care.
"When you have kids with depression, anxiety disorders, they need a facility that emphasizes treatment. But if you get a kid in the wrong facility, it's going to be a mess. The kid will not be rehabilitated. That kid who's not getting treatment, he's going to re-offend. And when that happens, the system's failing. When the kid turns 21, he's in the adult system. Then everyone pays. Prison is very expensive."