An Inside Look – Tips from a Clinical Social Worker Helping Asylum Seekers

Psychological evaluations can make a life and death difference for asylum seekers in need of long-term safety in the United States. Aimee Miller is a clinical social worker who has tremendous expertise in conducting psychological evaluations for asylum seekers. I interviewed her on the nuts and bolts of these evaluations.

Jocelyn: What do you need to share with a psych expert prior to having them perform an evaluation of your client?

Aimee: Every therapist differs in what they would like to see prior to conducting an evaluation but here are some items you should provide prior to the evaluation, if available:

  1. Asylum: Credible fear interview, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) interview, draft of client’s declaration, police reports, photos, witness declarations and verbal information regarding the protected ground(s) on which the application is based.
  2. U-Visa: Police report and a copy of the client’s declaration.
  3. VAWA: Draft of the client’s declaration and any evidence to be used in support of the application, including, as available, police reports, witness declarations, photos, etc.
  4. Hardship Waiver: Qualified U.S. citizen or resident declaration and pertinent mental health or medical documentation.

Jocelyn: Should you attend the evaluation with your client? Why or why not?

Aimee: In short, no.  At the most basic level, an adjudicator could perceive that there was outside influence in the content and outcome of the evaluation. This is in addition to issues regarding confidentiality in the therapeutic relationship on the therapist’s side of things. Further, therapists are trained in quickly developing a rapport and providing a “safe space” for individuals to discuss the traumas they have experienced, including those that bring up intense feelings of fear, shame and other difficult emotions. Due to their past traumas, clients can be particularly influenced by various dynamics in the therapy room and what they may or may not disclose can be influenced by something as simple as a sigh or an inadvertent reaction such as closing one’s eyes at a specific time. This happens for many reasons, most commonly of which is the intense shame and fear many clients feel in relation to the traumas they have experienced and the vulnerability in the process of having to “relive” them in the telling of their story.  It is not uncommon for clients to reveal incredibly traumatic events and details directly related to their case during the process of the evaluation that they were unable to reveal to their attorneys, due to various emotional, personal and institutional factors. Therapists have the skills needed to  to establish the connection needed to make clients feel safe, heard and seen. 

Jocelyn: Is it appropriate for you to make recommended edits or changes to the psychological evaluation once your expert submits it?

Aimee: Your expert should always submit a draft of the evaluation report to you prior to finalizing it for your review and comment but there are limits as to what can be ethically changed in such a report.

  1. Grammar and spelling issues: Yes! You should always flag these errors for the therapist to correct.
  2. Unclear content: Yes! If you have questions or concerns regarding an item in the report, you should speak to the therapist to obtain clarification. Many times, the therapist may not have intended for the sentence or paragraph in question to read the way it is being interpreted and it requires further clarification.
  3. Inconsistencies or corrections to the story: Speak to the therapist. If you note inconsistencies between the content of the report and the other documentation, definitely talk to the therapist.  It could be a case of the therapist misremembering or it could be that the therapist actually has the correct story and the client made a mistake in their declaration. If needed, the therapist should be willing to meet with the client, in person or telephonically, to clarify any inconsistencies or identified errors in attempts to make the report as accurate as possible.
  4. Requesting that information be removed: This most frequently refers to information that could be prejudicial against your client and runs the risk of ethical issues on the part of the therapist.  In many cases, it is some fact (i.e., the client was so depressed and traumatized that they were unable to function enough to file their taxes) that the therapist may not realize could negatively impact the case.  If the fact is not consequential to the evaluation, there may be room to remove it without ethical challenge.  However, in situations where a “bad act” is at issue, you may talk with the therapist to see if they believe there were any mitigating circumstances or psychological processes that may have influenced the “bad act” in question.  If you believe that this could be the case, you can ask the therapist to expound more on any mitigating or influencing factors to better explain what occurred and what contributed to its occurrence.
  5. Requests to add information: Yes! If you feel there would be information that would be helpful to add, such as a summary at the beginning of a particularly long evaluation report, information regarding the therapist’s assessment for malingering, treatment recommendations, etc., always ask the therapist to see if they are willing to add the requested information to the report.  If it is a therapist with whom you would like to work regularly, you can ask that they make this standard on all your reports.

Jocelyn: How can you find an expert to perform a psych eval?

Aimee: Finding an expert to do a psychological evaluation has become easier and, at the same time, harder.  Easier because many therapists now advertise their services in this field, however, there can be concerns about their training, experience, the quality of their evaluations and reports and the ability of the person to be accepted as an expert in immigration court.  When looking for an expert, always ask for a copy of a redacted or sample report, their fee structure (some charge hourly while others have a fixed rate), and the average number of hours they spend evaluating the typical client (a total of three hours should be the absolute minimum).  The most vetted places to find psychological experts are included in the following list:

  1. Center for Gender and Refugee Studies: They maintain an expert database for country and issue experts, including professionals who conduct psychological evaluations for immigration cases.
  2. Your colleagues: Whether you are a full-time immigration attorney or are at a large firm that does pro-bono work on immigration matters, colleagues who have worked on similar cases are excellent sources of information regarding experts, their clients’ experiences and the quality of their work.
  3. Legal Service Organizations (LSOs): LSOs who focus on immigration matters frequently have a listing of therapists in the area to whom they have referred their clients to for evaluations. They may be willing to share their list or provide you with recommendations.

Jocelyn – Thank you, Aimee! If you are an attorney or social worker interested in volunteering on an asylum seeker’s case, sign up on the Immigration Justice Campaign website today.

by Jocelyn Dyer and Aimee Miller