‘I Serve ... With a Keen Sense of Duty, Hoping My Perspectives Help Right a Wrong’

Social workers who develop the skills to serve as expert witnesses in legal proceedings say the job is challenging, but it can also be extremely rewarding.

Johnnie Hamilton-Mason, a professor at Simmons College School of Social Work, takes pride in knowing her social work skills can play a vital role in furthering justice for people.

She said social workers have the training to offer clinical assessments and treatment for those who may become entangled in the legal system. “This is a way we can expand our roles,” she said. “I like the fact that I can work with people in an advocacy role to help them right a wrong.”

Hamilton-Mason has served as an expert witness since the 1990s and she is often selected by judges in the Boston area to give her opinion on cases that deal with such things as workplace stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and racial discrimination.

“Part of my role is to do good clinical assessments and treatments,” she said. “It’s extremely gratifying to have the ability to testify. It requires confidence in your capability to assess and state what you believe is going on with the case.”

According to the NASW General Counsel Law Note titled “Social Workers as Expert Witnesses,” social workers are called to offer their opinions on a variety of topics. It states that, unlike a layperson, an expert is allowed to testify beyond the specific facts related to treatment provided. It adds that an expert may draw upon the same facts and express an opinion based on his or her field of expertise.

Social workers may be called as expert witnesses in cases involving civil commitment, child neglect and abuse, parental rights, guardianship, mental and physical personal injury, disability, competency and criminal culpability.

Frederic Reamer, a professor at the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, has researched and written extensively on social work ethics. Because of his area of study, he is often asked to give expert testimony on cases involving ethics violations of social workers. He said he agrees to be an expert witness only when he can support the arguments or claims being made in the case.

In that role, “I serve as an expert witness with a keen sense of duty, hoping my perspectives can help right a wrong,” he said.

Reamer acknowledged serving in this role can be “very demanding and often stressful.” He contended, however, that social workers have much to contribute to the legal process, particularly when the controversy involves issues and topics that social workers are skilled in addressing.

“I would encourage social workers who consider serving as an expert witness to read a great deal about the litigation, evidence and due process and expert witness testimony,” Reamer said. “They may find it useful to consult with seasoned social work expert witnesses.”

Support. NASW has long supported social workers’ ability to testify as expert witnesses by filing friend-of-the-court briefs, assisting chapters and educating members through various educational materials such as the NASW General Counsel Law Note series, the NASW Legal Defense Fund’s “Legal Issue of the Month” and NASW Press journals.

For example, the LDF article “Social Workers as Death Penalty Mitigation Specialists” highlights a NASW amicus brief in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Wiggins v. Smith.

The ruling determined that the attorneys for Kevin Wiggins, who was found guilty of murder, unreasonably failed to obtain their client’s psychosocial history, which was prepared by a licensed social worker. The court ruled that this information was vital to give a jury when determining Wiggins’ sentencing in a capital murder case. Because of the ruling, Wiggin’s original death sentence was vacated.

The legal article says the decision is significant for social workers who deal with capital defendants and defense attorneys.

“Defense attorneys for all death penalty cases will now have to justify any decision not to obtain a social history,” it notes, “and they are on notice that licensed social workers are qualified and appropriate professionals to complete such evaluations.”

According to Sherri Morgan, associate counsel of the NASW LDF and Office of Ethics and Professional Review, the Wiggins case added significant influence to a social worker’s ability to provide expert witness opinions in certain cases.

“Now legal defense teams have Supreme Court recognition of social workers’ expertise in completing such evaluations,” she said, noting that courts increasingly recognize the value of clinical evaluations and actively seek high-quality help.

Marjorie Brittain Hammock, assistant professor of social work at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., has served as an expert in death penalty cases since the 1990s. Earlier in her career she was the chief of social work services at the Department of Corrections in South Carolina.

“We are trained to do these types of exams,” Hammock said. “I utilized the skills that I learned as a social worker and translate them to death penalty cases.”

For her first capital case, she said, “I did a social history (of the defendant) to help explain the fix he was in.” From that experience, more judges and attorneys relied on Hammock to help with similar cases. She has testified not only in her home state, but also in Alabama, Florida and Indiana.

“Each case brings its own issues to the forefront,” she said. “As social workers, we have the skills that are necessary to bring justice to every activity that goes on in the court. We assist in getting all the information, both good and bad.”

Leading the way. Social workers have been instrumental in establishing court precedents that have opened the path for others in the profession to be recognized for their ability to offer expert opinions. Among the most notable is Carlton Munson, an NASW Social Work Pioneerw and professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. He has a special research interest in the effects of trauma on child development.

According to the NASW Foundation’s biography of Munson, his participation as a clinical expert witness and consultant in two Maryland Court of Appeals child welfare cases established the right of clinical social workers to make DSM-IV-TR diagnoses and to testify as expert witnesses.

It further states, “These are accomplishments of national historic importance for the social work profession, and the Maryland Court of Appeals’ opinion in Dr. Munson’s case affirmed and established the credentials of clinical social workers at the state and national levels.”

Hard work. Deciding to participate as an expert witness takes stamina and hard work, according to social workers who have devoted time to this role.

William Shryer, clinical director of Diablo Behavioral Healthcare in Danville, Calif., said he used to offer expert testimony in child custody and evaluation cases. He said he has left this area of interest due to the high level of stress that can occur by being on the witness stand in front of an overly ambitious opposing counsel. “(Expert testimony) is not for the faint of heart,” he said.

“The only joy in this sad situation of divorce is that you are really working for the best interest of the children, often preventing more physical or emotional abuse,” Shryer explained.

He supports the need for social workers to be recognized as expert witnesses because they can view a situation a child is experiencing from a unique perspective.

“Understanding pyschopathology is one thing, but for the life of a child it can be school, community and many other factors that social workers are uniquely trained to understand and act on,” he said.

Other social workers agreed that the challenges of testifying on a case can be stressful and time-consuming, but the return can occur by helping improve lives.

Cristina Sorrentino Schmalisch, a psychotherapist in Massachusetts, said she learned firsthand the amount of preparation needed to provide an expert opinion.

A client of hers was seeking cognitive behavioral treatment for compulsive hoarding. The client was also facing an eviction due to her condition. Schmalisch said she agreed to serve as an expert witness in her client’s trial in response to a request from the client’s attorney.

“It took many hours to prepare to be examined and cross-examined,” she said.

In the end, she said, the jury’s decision was favorable to the defendant and eventually the client moved from the home that she was being challenged to leave.

“The court process was instrumental in assigning deadlines to motivate her to work on her (housing) unit and her quality of life,” Schmalisch said.

While the experience was challenging, Schmalisch said she gained new insight in how social workers can benefit the legal system in producing positive outcomes for those involved in a case.

“My hope is to encourage social workers to think creatively about how to use the legal system to help promote social work values, such as working with the legal system as an ally in promoting change,” she said. She encouraged others to consider being expert witnesses but noted it helps to be passionate about the subject matter.

State statutes. While most states in the U.S. legally recognize social workers as expert witnesses, a handful do not.

In Texas, for example, social workers are not explicitly recognized as expert witnesses. This has led to those in the profession having their competency being challenged in some child custody cases.

“We’re working with the system that makes these determinations,” said Vicki Hansen, executive director of the NASW Texas Chapter. “We believe licensed social workers have the skills and training to provide expert testimony.”

While Texas judges have the discretion to approve social workers as expert witnesses, Hansen said, “We think it would help strengthen the profession to have social workers in the state statute.”

NASW’s Morgan noted that social workers who want to be an expert witness should focus on their area of expertise.

“It’s important that you have a sufficient educational and professional background in social work that helps to demonstrate you are qualified,” she said. “It’s beneficial to be familiar with the latest research in your field of practice and it also helps to develop a relationship with the court system as some courts actively seek professionals to serve as experts.”

Morgan said social workers may learn more at the Social Work and the Courts Specialty Practice Section.