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You Don’t Need a Mental Health Degree to Qualify as a DV Expert

 The custody court system has long looked to professionals with mental health degrees for expertise in domestic violence cases.  This was based on popular assumptions at the time courts first developed practices to respond to DV at a time when no research was available.  This is odd because until very recently the academic training for psychologists and psychiatrists provided no information about DV and even now discussion of intimate partner abuse in academic classes is extremely limited.  The one profession that works full time on DV issues, receives extensive training and can provide the courts with exactly the information they need is domestic violence advocates.  This should have been obvious and has now been confirmed by the US Department of Justice study led by Dr. Daniel Saunders.   

Dr. Saunders found that the training court professionals need to respond effectively to domestic violence allegations includes screening for DV, risk assessment, post-separation violence and the impact of DV on children.  This is exactly what DV advocates work on constantly and that is missing from so many of the evaluators and other professionals the courts listen to.  Dr. Saunders found that advocates have better training and understanding of these issues than evaluators, judges and lawyers.  The only reason courts continue to rely on less qualified professionals is because that is the way it has always been done.  I have heard judges refuse to listen to an advocate because she did not have a degree, but there is no legal requirement for this specific qualification.  In cases that require expertise about fixing cars, a court will routinely qualify an experienced auto mechanic, even one without a high school diploma.  

Although the evidentiary laws about qualification of expert witnesses varies by state, the basic qualification is that by virtue of education, training or experience the witness has substantially more knowledge and expertise than a layperson regarding an issue of relevance to the court.  By any reasonable interpretation, most DV advocates should easily qualify as expert witnesses in cases with allegations of DV  

Nevertheless we have seen too many cases in which a judge refused to listen to an advocate saying the judge had many years of experience and already had sufficient knowledge about DV.  The Saunders’ study demonstrates this is wrong.  Furthermore a party has a right to put this information on the record.  This is the only way to bring current scientific research before the court.  Another common excuse is to claim that DV experts are biased because they “always oppose domestic violence.”  In other words they support existing laws.  Ironically, courts routinely qualify evaluators who are part of the cottage industry that makes its money supporting abusive fathers.  They frequently appoint professionals from the cottage industry as GALs and evaluators and treat them as if they were neutral.  And these professionals are seeking to undermine the laws designed to take domestic violence seriously.  If there was a case involving arson fires, the court would have no trouble qualifying an expert in arson which would likely be someone from the firefighting community.   No one would think to disqualify a firefighter because they always oppose arson.  The difference is that arson has always been a crime; the firefighting community is overwhelmingly male and in our still sexist society we tend to place more value on what men say; and there are no arsonist rights groups.  

I have an unusual level of qualifications and expertise as an expert in domestic violence.  I have written or edited some of the leading books in the field.  I have been an instructor in a batterer program since 1999.  I have worked directly with well over 1000 battered women and well over 1000 batterers.  I have worked in the movement since 1983.  I have been qualified as an expert in NY, NJ, CA, ND and NM.  I am trying to provide more court testimony in order to promote the practice of courts hearing from genuine DV experts in cases involving DV allegations.  Eventually I hope that advocates from the local dv agency can serve as the experts so protective mothers will have access to this expertise.  Under present rules they should qualify.  Given the Saunders’ study and other recent research, it should soon be routine for courts to hear from DV experts in DV custody cases.  Imagine if courts start to regularly hear accurate information and research.