“As a researcher, I focus mainly on the relationship between criminal behaviour and psychological disorders”, De Ruiter says. “I want to know what drives people to their deeds. It all starts with curiosity.” It is this curiosity that has made her something of a public figure in the Netherlands. As the stories behind the startling news headlines form the subject of her research, she regularly appears on Dutch television and radio programmes. And one thing De Ruiter has shown is that she does not mince words.
Lack of expertise
“All too often I see colleagues makingthe wrong diagnosis”, she says. “Take the case of the ‘Bijenkorf mother’, the psychotic woman who in October 2007 threw herself and her 18-month- old daughter from the fourth floor of the department store De Bijenkorf. The psychiatrist and psychologist who examined her concluded that she was suffering from borderline personality disorder. Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I couldn’t subscribe to this hypothesis. What I did find out, however, was that the woman had been using herbal diet pills that in some cases might induce psychosis.”
It is a striking example of the lack of expertise that De Ruiter witnesses in the Dutch forensic mental health services. “It’s unbelievable that forensic reports lack basic information such as the possible influence of substance abuse”, she says. “To me, this is a consequence of the fact that all clinical and healthcare psychologists in the Netherlands are allowed to work in a forensic setting.”
De Ruiter therefore took the initiative to develop a two-year master’s programme in Forensic Psychology, which started at UM in September 2010. “The bottom line is that diagnostic errors can cause a lot of harm to the people we examine. Good education is a necessity. I wanted to design an international, selective programme that offers us the possibility to thoroughly invest in our students. So far, their performance has been beyond expectations.”
Being partly educated in the United States herself, she knows from experience the advantages of an international classroom. De Ruiter: “My time abroad has deeply influenced me both professionally and personally. Looking beyond the borders of the familiar is very instructive in that it forces you to overcome your prejudices.”
Having an open mind would seem to be an indispensable trait for someone who deals with sexual and violent offenders in her daily work; people who, to some, are the embodiment of evil. For De Ruiter, though, the picture is somewhat more nuanced. “We feel pity for a person who violates himself as a result of a psychological disorder”, she explains. “But what’s the fundamental difference from someone who, because of the fact that he’s ill, violates others?” Consequently, our criminal justice system should focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution, she thinks. “Retribution is an awkward idea, because it doesn’t solve the problem. We can’t change the past. What’s more, lengthy imprisonment has proven to be harmful and expensive. Although I don’t deny that there are people who are too dangerous ever to return to society, I believe that forensic experts have the responsibility to search for effective treatments.”
Working towards a safer society is not only the business of forensic mental health professionals. According to De Ruiter, we are all responsible. “Some crimes could have been prevented, if only we had paid attention”, she says. “Tristan Van der Vlis made statements about mass murder, while having access to weapons. These are alarming signs that need to be taken seriously. Imagine if the Bijenkorf mother had received antipsychotics in time; then her baby would still be alive.”
For this reason, De Ruiter sees sharing her expertise through media appearances as an important part of her work. “I believe in the liberating power of knowledge”, she explains. “By making information about criminal offences available to the public, we can learn from it.” With this goal in mind, she is not bothered by the fact that her media contributions are met with both praise and criticism. “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
Corine de Ruiter
Corine de Ruiter (1960) studied psychology at Utrecht University, Barton College (North Carolina) and the University of Oregon. Before her appointment as professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Amsterdam in 1999, she worked as a clinical psychologist and cognitive behaviour therapist. In 2008, she took the initiative of developing a two-year master’s programme in Forensic Psychology at Maastricht University, where she is currently professor of Forensic Psychology. De Ruiter often serves as an expert witness in criminal court cases and is regularly interviewed in the national media.