A District employee who has conducted mental evaluations on hundreds of criminal defendants as a forensic psychologist has been removed from that role after concerns surfaced about her educational qualifications, according to city officials.
Officials with the District's Department of Health said Reston N. Bell was not qualified to conduct the assessments without the help or review of a supervisor. The city said it had mistakenly granted Bell, who was hired in 2016, a license to practice psychology, but this month the license was downgraded to "psychology associate."
Although Bell has a master's degree in psychology and a doctorate in education, she does not have a PhD in psychology, which led to the downgrade.
Bell's situation prompted the Council for Court Excellence, a nonprofit that advocates for improving the city's criminal justice system, to raise concerns about the hundreds of defendants Bell had evaluated. Forensic psychologists help the court determine if arrestees are competent to stand trial or require treatment at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the city's public psychiatric hospital.
"Based on the qualifications of Dr. Bell, it is possible that, based on her recommendations to the court, defendants may have been inappropriately sent to Saint Elizabeths, released to the community for outpatient restoration, or released without any recommendation for treatment at all," the council wrote in a Dec. 8 letter to D.C. auditor Kathleen Patterson.
The council also wrote that it had "additional concerns that many, if not all, of the evaluations she conducted throughout her tenure at (Department of Behavioral Health) have put the criminal cases associated with those evaluations at risk for review by the courts."
It is unclear whether prosecutors or defense attorneys will seek to challenge any decisions based on Bell's assessments.
In a letter to Patterson on Wednesday, Tanya A. Royster, director of the Department of Behavioral Health, defended Bell's work and said her agency hired Bell only after the city licensed her as a psychologist.
"We take your concerns seriously, but after reviewing the matter we do not agree that Dr. Bell did anything wrong or that her reports were not well-qualified and supported expert opinions when rendered," Royster wrote.
The agency said Bell has been reassigned to other duties because the department does not have enough psychologists to supervise her during criminal evaluations.
Bell did not respond to emails seeking comment. Phyllis Jones, a spokeswoman for the department who said she was speaking on behalf of Bell, said Bell declined to comment because the matter was a personnel issue.
The questions regarding Bell's assessments come amid ongoing tensions between D.C. Superior Court judges and the behavioral health agency over how the city handles defendants who may suffer from mental illness. The Department of Behavioral Health also oversees St. Elizabeths Hospital.
In recent months, judges have criticized the agency for what they say is a failure to examine, in a timely manner, criminal defendants who are suspected of mental illness. Judges have highlighted a case in which a defendant reporting for a psychological examination was turned away because the agency did not have a qualified psychologist available and said other defendants have been held too long in jail despite court orders that they be taken to St. Elizabeths for treatment.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee raised the issue during a Thursday hearing, questioning whether reassigning Bell would result in delays in court-ordered mental evaluations.
"This is a nightmare waiting to happen," Lee said. "Dr. Bell is a new fire in putting out fire after fire. I want to see something internally to address these issues rather than someone outside of DBH bringing it to your attention."
Andrew J. Saindon, senior assistant attorney general for the District, said he believes the city will be able to keep up with needed evaluations and added that there are plans to hire more psychologists. He also said there are plans toexpand the bed space at St. Elizabeths.
"We believe we can meet the demands," Saindon said.
Bell was one of two full-time employees who examined criminal defendants on behalf of D.C. Superior Court. In past years, there have been as many as four people tasked with that job.
Laura E. Hankins, general counsel for the District's Public Defender Service, said her agency was concerned about Bell but also believes that there are larger problems with the behavioral health agency's ability to keep up with the needs of defendants.
"Anyone tasked with conducting forensic competence screenings should have the proper qualifications, clinical skills and licensure. The insufficient number of qualified forensic psychologists has resulted in defendants being turned away after arriving at their scheduled appointments and in court cases being continued," Hankins said.
She said her agency believes that there "is a larger problem of DBH's callous disregard for the disruption their delays and unavailability cause to the lives of particularly vulnerable defendants and to the Court."
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's Office, which oversees the prosecution of most criminal cases in the District, declined to comment.
Tom Lalley, a spokesman for the District's Department of Health, said the District granted Bell a psychologist license in October 2015 "in error." The District hired Bell as a forensic psychologist a year later at a salary of $90,254, officials said.
Lalley said the city looked into Bell's qualifications in November after it "received information" about her education and training. Officials declined to elaborate.
Lalley said Bell previously worked as a clinical psychologist and a school psychologist in Virginia, including for Fairfax County Public Schools and the George Mason University Center for Psychological Services.