The Field of Forensics: Investigation vs. Science with Dean Tong

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Interview with Dean Tong, Independent Forensic Expert

You’ve seen it on episodes of Law and Order: SVU: an impressionable child, manipulated and coerced by a vindictive parent, accuses an innocent person of abuse or other crimes.  Sure, stories like these make great TV – but sadly, they aren’t just fodder for riveting primetime dramas.  These situations occur in real life, which is why Dean Tong, a forensic trial consultant, has become a highly regarded expert on “child victim hearsay” – or rather, a statement from a child made to a parent, social worker or other adult outside of the court room, often about alleged abuse.   

dean tong, field of forensicsTong helps guide attorneys on the proper strategies during the pre-trail and trial stages in juvenile, family, criminal and administrative court cases, almost all of which involve allegations of child abuse.  Often, these allegations occur during high-conflict child custody cases in which one parent is looking to discredit the other (just like episodes of Law and Order: SVU).  He also serves as a testimonial expert, where he gives his expert opinion on several areas of psychology, including cognitive child development and best practice forensic child interview methodology.

Tong is the author of three non-fiction books on his main area of expertise, which is unfounded/false child sexual abuse allegations.  He’s been featured in numerous print media stories published in Rolling Stone magazine, The Washington Post, The Globe, The Boston Globe, Reuters, United Press International (UPI), and Christian Science Monitor. Tong has also provided expert commentary for the news media on several high-profile criminal cases, including those surrounding Michael Jackson, JonBenet Ramsey and Woody Allen. 

After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Pre-Medicine with a minor in Psychology from Northeastern University, Tong went on to earn his Master of Sceience in Psychology and Law in Child Forensic Studies from the University of Portsmouth in England.  He is also a Certified Forensic Consultant (CFC) honored by the American College of Forensic Examiners. 

Read on to find out how Tong came to specialize in child victim hearsay and child abuse allegations and why he thinks crime dramas like CSI: Miami are helping persuade more students to get involved in the field of forensic science and investigation.

eLearners: Tell us more about your educational and career background.  How did your experience lead you to a career as a forensics expert? 

I was accused of abusing my young daughter almost 30 years ago and it was this firsthand harrowing experience that prompted me to eventually make a career change from laboratory medicine and medical technology to child forensics and work as an expert witness in court.

eLearners: Describe your job in forensics consulting.  What are your primary responsibilities and duties as a trial consultant and expert witness?  

As a consulting expert or trial consultant, my job is to assist attorneys with both preparation of the court case, all the way through pre-trial and through trial and the case-in-chief, if necessary. This includes strategy which includes suggestions on pleadings, case law, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles to be used as learned treatises, requests for admissions, interrogatories, help at depositions with questions and questions at hearing/trials on direct/cross and re-direct/re-cross. In addition, I critique other fact witnesses and expert's notes and reports as well as forensic child interviews on DVD. In this capacity, I'm protected under Attorney Work Product privilege and my work is not discoverable.

As a Testifying Expert, oftentimes I will be asked by counsel to generate my Forensic Advisory Report. And of course, oftentimes, too, I'll have to defend my findings and opinions within my report at depositions and/or hearings/trials. In this capacity, my work is discoverable by opposing counsel. Most of the time, the Court will disallow me from assisting counsel as Trial Consultant in the courtroom and act as a testimonial expert on the witness stand and I'm bound by the Rule of Sequestration. But most of the time in a case I'll begin as Trial Consultant and the attorney changes my role to Testifying Expert perhaps mid-way through the case, but before I appear in court.

eLearners: Which forensic science elements and techniques play the biggest role in your consulting business? 

In my work, standard operating procedure manuals or policy and training manuals of CPS, police, therapists, forensic interviewers, etc. usually come into play as I'm comparing/contrasting the work done by these aforementioned professionals to their own published guidelines. And, of course, I always review/critique forensic interviews of children allegedly abused and compare/contrast same to best practice methodology.

eLearners: Take us through a typical day or week on the job.

A typical day on the job will involve me waking up to e-mails I must answer – perhaps potential new clients who've queried me at my web site and these folks could be parents accused of abuse and/or attorneys. Then, I'll turn to cases on my plate and this may include reading 300 - 500 pages of discovery which could include court transcripts, police reports, CPS reports, and more. Almost all of my cases include DVD's of children allegedly abused in which case I'll have to review the same and take copious notes.

eLearners: Can you tell us about some of the high profile or interesting cases you’ve worked on?

The highest profile case I was retained in where my involvement probably made a difference in the legal outcome of the case was that of Bridget Marks, a model and author from New York. I've commented as an expert in many high profile cases (JonBenet Ramsey, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, the Catholic Church, etc.) where I'm sure my commentary did not persuade the court system to alter the outcome of the cases.

eLearners: Do you think the media falsey sensationalizes your profession?

field of forensicsNo, I do not feel the media falsely sensationalizes the world of forensics in the court of public opinion. In actuality, I think shows like CSI: Miami helps persuade people to get involved in the field of forensics. But, once involved, these same folks realize too the court of law is far different from the court of public opinion. But, students need to understand that ideology, sound bites and clichés they hear and see on television will not be categorized as scientific evidence in a court of law. Experts try to adhere to best practice methodologies while attorneys try to adhere to the Best Evidence Doctrine when trying a case in court.

eLearners: Which types of students do you feel are ideal for jobs in forensics?  Which skills and attributes contribute most to a successful career in the field? 

Students who are tech savvy, in my opinion, have a good shot to succeed in the world of forensics. For example, information technology (IT) people are constantly in need because of the large volume of child pornography cases. But, to be successful and endure in this field (because those who make it and testify as I do as an expert), the individual should have thick skin (you'll have to face very competent opposing attorneys and you'll be on the stand for hours on end) and be a constant learner (have a thirst for knowledge). For example, my field of child sexual abuse and forensics is so dynamic and there are new concepts and methods to grasp and learn weekly.

eLearners: What advice do you have for students pursuing forensics degrees?  What are the biggest challenges, and how can students prepare themselves?

Understand that when you pursue forensics and complete your mission you'll be appearing in courts of law. So, it would behoove you to learn the law as it relates to your area of science. I think the biggest challenge for the forensic specialist is testifying articulately and competently on the witness stand in court. So, you should be adept at public speaking because you'll be conveying your opinions to attorneys, judges and juries. If you're gun shy of speaking in front of court case decision makers I advise you to stick to consulting work, only.

eLearners: Is there anything else you would like to share that you feel would be valuable to students who are considering forensics degrees?

I recommend criminal justice students obtain their Ph.D. or similar doctorate degree to insulate their credibility. In addition, please know that if you're a person who holds a professional license and testifies as an expert in court, you are vulnerable to board complaints by those individuals who believe they've been negatively affected by your professional testimony.

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