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NCNU student recognized by science ministry for social policy research

National Chi Nan University (NCNU) student Chuang Ming-rong (莊明蓉) received the top honor bestowed by Taiwan's Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) for graduate research this year — the 2021 Creation Award (創作獎) — for her analysis on how to better utilize the judgement of seasoned social welfare workers in determining the reliability of insanity defense in major criminal cases.

When it comes to claiming criminal insanity, recent examples include the defendants in such high-profile violent cases as the 2016 decapitation of a 4-year-old girl known as "Little Lightbulb," the 2019 fatal stabbing of an on-duty railway officer at Chiayi Train Station, and the 2018 lethal altercation in a Taichung dental clinic. Public perception of mental illness was not aided by sensationalizing media practices.

Psychiatrists explain that there are webs of intricate relationships spanning the family, marriage, career, and social life of each defendant — wherein the veracity of those who claim to be criminally insane can be carefully examined and extrapolated by social workers. The testimonials and evidence gathered by these workers are what inform the judges' decision.

Chuang, who is studying with NCNU's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, explains that these service providers offer their expertise in a professional capacity to legal proceedings, but their counsel are often met with doubt or misunderstanding. This motivated Chuang to devote her award-winning thesis to researching the role of the social worker in psychiatric analysis for penal examinations in Taiwan's judicial system.

Professor Tsai Pei-jen (蔡佩真), who chairs the university’s social policy department, explains that a suspect's motivation can always be uncovered by examining the clues and impressions embedded in that person's networks and past behavior. The profile constructed by psychiatrists based on input from social workers is instrumental to the parity of the justice process. Tsai also applauds Chuang for choosing an adventurous topic with little available reference and taking the initiative to conduct first-hand research and interviews.

Moreover, those who previously served in such capacity had to sign nondisclosure agreements over privacy concerns for all parties involved, and many medical facilities that were approached had responded to her proposal with lukewarm enthusiasm. Referrals from several professors with the university's department of social work finally helped Chuang overcome the additional barriers posed by the domestic COVID-19 outbreak. The scope of her research was limited to veteran psychiatrists and social workers based in central and southern Taiwan, but each interviewee added substantially to this new pool of knowledge.

Surmising from data gathered, Chuang finds that many red flags can be identified from the onset — through clinical examination and background analysis by trained professionals. Furthermore, social workers do more than just evaluate, they act and respond by offering aid, comfort, and solutions.  These are the timely interventions that can lower the risks of tragedy and better serve those that need assistance.

Social work is crucial to "restorative justice," an alternative approach to upholding fairness and viewing offenders, says Tsai. From rehabilitation through taking responsibility for one's actions, to compensation by rendering further assistance to the victim's family, there are other methods for restoring justice waiting to be adopted by current systems, she points out.

As for Chuang, the award winner, "it's all about looking out for people and what they hold dear." Social policy as an academic field at NCNU has brought new challenges and fulfillment to her life as a student researcher.

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