Clinical Psychologist Folasaitu hopes to make a difference

The Judiciary in Samoa has been bolstered by the arrival of a new Clinical Psychologist, Folasaitu Dr. Julia Ioane.

She will be working with the Alcohol and Drug, Family and Youth Courts over the next year.

Folasaitu joins the judicial branch from the Auckland University of Technology and a private practice as a Clinical Psychologist as a consultant to the therapeutic Courts with the aim of closing the prison pipeline for young offenders.

She said her role is to support staff in the therapeutic courts and collect data on the motives driving crimes to inform programmes aimed at cutting offending and recidivism rates.

Clinical psychology is a practice that diagnoses and treats mental, emotional and behavioural disorders such as substance abuse, depression and violent behaviour.

Including clinical psychology in the court system to inform the judiciary and try to address the reasons behind crimes has become mainstream practice abroad but is new in the Pacific.

The former Chief Justice, Patu Tiava'asue Sapolu, first learned about the idea from Folasaitu in 2014, when she was in Samoa in 2014 working with Judge Ida Malosi to deliver counselling training.

The opening of the Alcohol and Drug Court (A.D.C.) in 2016 made the case for psychology in the courts clearer, Folasaitu said.

“Our main role is we look at what is underlying the offending behaviour, what has happened to this person that has led to this,” she explained.

“So we look at background, childhood experiences, education, family, spirituality, all of those things, and based on the training and the research that has been done we create a formulation, an explanation on what is it that has led to this behaviour and what is going to mitigate the risk and what are the recommendations for interventions.”

"In this way, the reason people commit crimes can be exposed and treated, which ought to reduce reoffending and avoid prison time.

"And if that work is done carefully and data collected, research can reveal trends in why certain crimes are committed by certain people, and work can begin to address it, and eventually avoid future crimes being committed.

“We know from international research that prison just does not work. There is only a small population for which prison is appropriate."

The clinical psychology approach involves probation and parole teams of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, the families of the offenders and their village leadership, all undergoing a treatment program.

This is already part of the work of the therapeutic courts, and Folasaitu is working to review the curriculum of those programs to marry western psychology with the fa’aSamoa (the Samoan way) to get the best results.

She is training the therapeutic court staff, and non-government organisations and religious workers on risk assessment, mental health, trauma, anxiety and depression and substance abuse alongside that work, to better equip frontline staff to respond to offenders.

“The intention is to ensure the delivery of the program is consistent, valid in terms of being based on research and incorporating how we do things there in Samoa.

“The reality is they (the frontline staff or community) may not be qualified clinically but they have a whole wealth of knowledge in terms of the fa’aSamoa we just haven’t written about and that is really important for being able to deliver that work here.”

Incorporating the Samoan worldview into the work of psychology is a necessary process, Folasaitu said. As a western practice that does not currently fully represent indigenous practice, there is no ready-made approach to family violence, youth offending or A.D.C offenders that can be applied in Samoa.

As a clinical psychologist who was raised with the fa’aSamoa and has always worked with offenders, Folasaitu said Samoan culture has strong foundations for psychological work.

“Our principle around humility and alofa, those are relational values,” she said. And that is essential for forging safe spaces for offender and their families to work through their problems together.

“The challenge is trying to create a safe space for people to genuinely disclose, because we are strangers,” Folasaitu said.

“You don’t want to air out your dirty laundry to a complete stranger so I try to be really respectful with the people that I am working with.”

But she says including clinical psychology into the Samoan court system will be a slow process because it is not a well-known field. 

“My role here is to explore what has happened that has led to this behaviour, with the view that I am sure you didn’t wake up this morning with this full intention to carry out this behaviour,” Folasaitu said, when asked how she explains her role to young offenders.

Looking into the past to explain the present can often leave families feeling guilty for their loved ones' crimes and lead to them blaming troubling or traumatic experiences on themselves. But Folasaitu says she is careful to mitigate such feelings.

“We are trying to get an understanding as to what may have led to this behaviour occurring. If we understand that we are able to figure out how do we deal with it, and ensure it won’t happen again," she said. 

“When you frame it in that sense, parents can say okay, we have got that.”

Folasaitu and her work is funded by the New Zealand Government.

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