#FeatureFriday – Dr. Kaitlyn McLachlan

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Kaitlyn McLachlan, Ph.D., C. Psych. is an Assistant Professor in CPA-Accredited Clinical Psychology program at the University of Guelph. She is a Registered Psychologist with the College of Psychologists of Ontario (as well as British Columbia, out of province status). She completed her graduate training in Clinical Psychology (MA, PhD) at Simon Fraser University and a postdoctoral fellowship with the Kids Brain Health Network, appointed at the University of Alberta and University of British Columbia. She maintains a busy interdisciplinary research program that includes an important focus on FASD in the criminal justice and forensic mental health systems, in addition to understanding risk factors and improving outcomes for justice-involved youth. She also teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, enjoys trying to keep life in balance with a busy young family, and loves running and cycling.

I am the Research Lead for Justice with CanFASD. I love my role because it gives me the opportunity to work with an incredibly talented, collaborative, and engaging group of researchers and caregivers who are all focused on improving outcomes for individuals with FASD, their families and circles of care, communities, and Canada as a whole.

I first learned about FASD while completing an early training placement. I was working with a young man when someone suggested FASD might be a factor in his situation. Neither I, nor my supervisor, had the knowledge or training to best understand how this individual’s disability may have been of relevance to our court-ordered assessment. My clinical training was not unusual in this respect; I did not have formal training on FASD until I sought out additional opportunities. I was shocked to learn how limited the FASD-informed scientific literature was at that time, making it tough to know how best to ensure that our practice was evidence-based. An influential academic advisor suggested trying to help fill that gap for my doctoral research, and as they say, ‘the rest is history.’

I’m glad to say that research in the context of FASD in the justice system has grown since that time. However, there are still many important gaps to be filled to better support individuals with FASD who are involved in the justice system. Certainly, many individuals with FASD do not become involved in the criminal justice system, and protective factors play an important role in supporting individuals, their care systems, and families, toward healthy and positive outcomes. However, individuals with FASD are substantially overrepresented in both correctional and criminal justice contexts, highlighting the importance of identifying best practices and solutions for improving outcomes and reducing this inequity. Check out a recent systematic review by Flannigan and colleagues (2019) here if you are interested in learning more.

My training in clinical psychology with a forensic specialization followed an interdisciplinary program of study focusing on human rights, social justice, and inequities in our legal systems and institutions. After completing my PhD, I had the good fortune of completing a research-intensive postdoctoral fellowship with the Kids Brain Health Network. This opportunity helped me to develop interdisciplinary and collaborative skills that are critical to better understanding the complex problems facing individuals and families impacted by FASD.

I was awarded the inaugural Dr. Sterling Clarren FASD Research Award in 2015 for my research contributions with a program that linked adverse life experiences and biological indicators of stress in individuals with FASD. This award meant a great deal to me, both because of all that is reflected through Dr. Clarren’s foundational contributions to the field of FASD, but also because of the recognition and opportunities to engage further with the Canada FASD Research Network. Why share this with you now? This year’s call for nominations is now open! Consider applying or nominating a candidate here. Applications close December 6, 2019.

From my early days knocking on the doors of experts in the field, to my ongoing collaboration and engagement with colleagues, learners, families, communities, government partners and other stakeholders, I have found the FASD community to be welcoming and collaborative. Getting to know researchers and clinicians in the field from across the world has been one of the most positive experiences of my career.

The research field of FASD is a great place for students to make connections, learn from families and communities, and make important contributions! Together with students in our research team at the University of Guelph (the Psychology, Law, and Neurodevelopment [PLAN!] Research and Policy Group), we are conducting research to inform evidence-based policy and practice at the individual and system levels. Some of our current projects include identifying factors that influence legal decision making about defendants with FASD in criminal cases; characterizing how legal decisions about defendants with FASD have been made in real Canadian criminal cases; identifying best practices and training needs among forensic mental health clinicians (psychologists and psychiatrists) focusing on FASD; and identifying evidence-based approaches for identifying individuals with FASD, including via the use of screening tools, with FASD in criminal justice and legal settings.

In the last few years we have also published studies identifying the prevalence of FASD in a Northern Canadian Correctional context, evaluating whether youth risk assessment tools are valid for use among individuals with FASD, understanding the psycholegal abilities of justice-involved youth with FASD, and identifying the strengths and resiliencies among justice-involved youth with FASD. An important and exciting focus of my research program has been to ensure that our findings are relevant and helpful for informing evidence-based policy, and have an everyday impact.

My advice for those looking at a career or graduate training in FASD research? It is a hugely rewarding experience! Get in touch with researchers in the field and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the best place to begin. As well, listen to individuals with FASD and their caregivers. They have so much knowledge and experience to offer and should be included in the research process.

We are always interested in connecting with others! Feel free t­­o email me at kmclac02@uoguelph.ca if you’d like to learn more about our research activities, or if you are interested in applying to our clinical training program!

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