The Courage, Timing, & Privilege of Speaking Out

The Misinformation, Smear Campaigns, and Harassment of Family Court Personnel in the Age of Social Media and Hate

I am moved to post the following account of recent events in which my professional ethics were called into question by a reporter, who was likely influenced by angry, vindictive individuals who did not get their desired outcome in family court.  Forensic psychologists who conduct evaluations for family court are aware that some examinees suffer from severe personality disorders. Hallmarks of such personality profiles are deficits in judgment and impulse control, as well as the externalization of blame. As a result, it is common for these individuals to lash out at the forensic professionals who evaluate them, as well as judges, other mental health professionals, opposing counsel, and sometimes even their own attorneys.

In my case, a number of these individuals began to organize about 7 years ago and start a campaign of attacks on me through social media, frivolous lawsuits and board complaints, and outlandish and paranoid accusations of criminal conspiracies in an attempt to discredit me by whatever means possible. An individual I had never met, motivated by these groups’ defamatory social media statements, wrote someone needed to “teach that cunt a lesson,” one of the men associated with this group had been overheard to say I “should be raped,” and still another women suggested a murder-suicide might be a way to rid the world of me.

My mistake when this harassment began was to ignore these angry voices. Having conducted their psychological evaluations, I understand their behaviors match a certain psychological profile and my desire has been to stay above the fray and focus on the needs of the court so they can perform their primary function: protecting children.

However, when a seasoned, but non-science and non-legal-oriented, journalist, freelancing for an organization I admire and support, The Marshall Project, came to me with a narrative and point of view seemingly developed over time by listening to these individuals, I realized, belatedly, the importance of making sure that she and all who look at our nation’s family court system with a much-needed critical eye, understand the realities of working in that system, particularly with high conflict families.

Here, then, is my story – not unique, but one I’ve been living through for some time.

Dr. Alissa Sherry

 

First, let me explain for the non-clinicians who read this, what I do. I am a psychologist who works in the court system, often referred to as a forensic psychologist. My job is to research and write honest, in-depth, scientific analyses of individual personalities using objective methodology, in accordance with my professional ethics, training, and 15 years of experience.

I am frequently appointed by the court to analyze high conflict families. High conflict families are enormously complex and are most simply understood as families who struggle to handle minor disputes in a civilized manner. Their children are often put, sometimes intentionally, in the middle of these battles and judges seek my advice in making decisions about the best interests of these children. My responsibility is to the court and to the vulnerable children to whom the judges have a legal duty to protect. I take that responsibility very seriously. I have an ethical and legal duty to follow the evidence and not hold back on what I find.

Although every one of my examinees signs an acknowledgement that they understand my duty to the court, many are very upset when their disruptive, angry, vindictive behavior is exposed. I get it. I get it not only because I have conducted hundreds of evaluations on these types of personalities, but also because I published research about personality disorders for much of my academic career. In extreme cases, the lack of insight and externalization of blame can be quite profound.

I am not the only professional to have been the target of these hate groups. Across the country, these parents have formed so-called “watchdog advocacy groups” who claim to be fighting for family court reform, but whose sole purpose is actually to defame, harass, stalk and attempt to ruin the careers of court appointed evaluators in retaliation for having been held accountable for their behavior affecting their children. Many evaluators have chosen to abandon the field, decimating the resources at the court’s disposal. This outcome highlights the inherent hypocrisy of these groups: it is not reform they are after, but to rid the system of the very scientifically driven approaches that brought their insidious child abuse into the light of day.

The reporter I mentioned above was apparently influenced into thinking that I do not believe victims of domestic violence,  and instead, seek to remove children from domestic violence victims and place them with domestic violence perpetrators. Because this reporter has no experience reporting on the intricacies of high conflict family law, she was unaware that some of these parents weaponize allegations of domestic violence, as well as allegations of the physical and sexual abuse of their children, to disparage a loving parent, and distract from their own agenda to insert a wedge between that loving parent and his/her access to their children. Because this reporter has no experience with me, she was also unaware of the numerous cases in which I have given testimony to the court supporting the limiting of contact between a child and an abusive parent when such allegations have been factually supported and/or substantiated. This reporter had no way of knowing that some of these offenders are members of these same “advocacy” groups. I suppose it is much more salacious to believe I am a “child molester by-proxy”, a made-up term used by these groups to suggest I intentionally and maliciously place children with child molesters, and in this case, spouse abusers, towards what end, I cannot begin to fathom.

What this reporter, and most people do not know about me, is that I spent a year of postdoctoral fellowship working with victims of domestic violence. I conducted research for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research on domestic violence and PTSD in inner-city Atlanta at the Emory University School of Medicine. I did this work under the supervision of Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., ABPP, past president of the American Psychological Association, just one of her dozens of professional accomplishments. When I see domestic violence, whether it is physical, emotional, financial, or sexual, I take it extremely seriously, as do most forensic psychologists.

The #MeToo movement, like many social movements aimed at rooting out injustice, had to make an overcorrection before it found its rightful tone. It has moved from “Believe women” to “Listen to women.” This rightful tone is an acknowledgement of the many factors affecting allegations that prove not to be true, including unintentional and honest misremembering and misidentification. Moreover, this realigned understanding of abuse and assault claims acknowledges the extremely small percentage of intentional false allegations motivated by well-understood, vindictive, and even psychopathic personalities that many professionals have become familiar with in their work as forensic psychologists. To think these personalities exist only in a prison population is a misinformed understanding of not only complex maladaptive personalities, but also of our criminal justice system and the factors that contribute to incarceration. The reality is, these personalities are quite common in high conflict family law.

So, I do listen to women. As a feminist and former Associate Director for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I am not only extremely attentive to women’s issues, but I am also aware of research that shows fathers are just as capable as mothers of providing the love, care and healthy attachment a child needs to thrive. That is why I listen to men, too. If we really want to talk about gender equality, we must also have the conversation that acknowledges that women, too, can be perpetrators of domestic violence and that men have their own social barriers to reporting it. To “believe,” based solely on the sex of the accuser, does not further gender equality one inch forward.

Furthermore, if we really want to talk about domestic violence, we must talk also about its synonymity with power, domination, and control. That maladaptive need for power is not just sought by men, it is also sought by women. It looks different, it sounds different, but it exists and is alive and well in high conflict family law often in the form of emotionally manipulating a child to reject the other parent. While this type of manipulation is not relegated solely to women, it is a unique way women are able to exercise the power, domination, and control synonymous with domestic violence, a fact acknowledged by peer reviewed psychological literature.

This is not the first reporter to have approached me about one of these cases. I tell all reporters I cannot talk to them without a release of information signed by the examinee and usually the reporter goes away, I assume because their informant realizes that once the reporter has access to the entire story, no story will be written. I did the same in this case and it took the reporter 18 months to get a release signed –  18 months during which time I can only assume the informant was shaping and reshaping her narrative to the reporter with no threat of being discredited. When the reporter finally reached out to me after the release was signed, I was asked a series of “fact checking” questions that were full of misinformation and distortion. The reporter would not allow me to speak off the record and would not allow me to be any kind of source for her story. It was clear, the only way I could affect any chance of an accurate narrative about me making its way into the piece was to risk being quoted and those quotes being completely taken out of context to support a narrative the reporter had invested 18 months of time and work into.

Upon careful consideration and the advice of several trusted professionals, I decided to speak anyway. It was time for this harassment, not only of me, but of my profession and of the court, to be confronted and if it meant I was going to be the sacrificial lamb, so be it. The Marshall Project’s mission statement says it “seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” It is an important and timely mission and it is imperative their journalists understand the contextual intricacies of the complicated legal matters they cover. This is why I have decided to speak out here, so journalists have access to resources other than homemade Youtube videos made to look like some kind of expose’ talk show. Any voyeur can search my name online and find all kinds of defamatory statements about me. What the reader may not realize is because of my confidentiality obligations, I am not permitted to defend myself online or in any public forum against the specific defamatory statements made by the people I have evaluated. Given that, I understand how a biased, but ill-informed judgment could be formed about me.

Research has found that less than 1% of all custody litigants end up in an office like mine. As conflict goes, they are the highest of the high conflict cases. In addition, they can only get to my office with a court appointment from a judge, meaning the court has seen enough to know that the problems causing this conflict are likely being driven by some kind of mental illness and are likely harming the children involved. This has led some of these hate groups masquerading as advocacy groups to make outlandish claims of racketeering (a criminal term I had to look up the first time I saw my name associated with it), suggesting that either judges receive financial kickbacks from evaluators, or evaluators receive them from judges or something along those lines. Frankly, I do not fully understand the accusation because its foundation is so blatantly paranoid and cognitively disjointed. However, it is notable that these organizations believe this kickback scheme is so pervasive, it is operating all across the country, not just with me and not just in Travis County, Texas. It would be laughable if it weren’t aimed at a system that exists to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.

There is little disagreement that family court systems around the country lack the resources to handle the volume of cases judges are assigned. The courts, overwhelmed as they are, often have neither the time, nor the training to make effective decisions in some of these high conflict cases without court appointed forensic experts. Ironically, these high conflict cases often have numerous court hearings, contributing to the court’s already overwhelmed docket. It is not a perfect system, but it is the system we have. If legislators had the will to commit resources to the family court system, I have no doubt we could create a better one, but the limitations of our current system rarely lie in the hard working efforts of our judges who commit their lives and careers to public service or their court appointed experts who literally risk their lives and safety to help children caught in the middle of these toxic families.

High conflict family law is unlike anything the average person, or the average journalist can fathom. As part of my work, I have seen women intentionally coach small children to accuse their fathers of sexual abuse, a crime that could put a father in prison for a minimum of 25 years in the state of Texas. I have seen men use their wealth to retain and conflict out every high conflict lawyer in town in order to handicap their wives and force them into unfair and demeaning settlements. I have seen evidence of mail tampering; false police statements; abducting and hiding children in foreign countries; faking a beloved family member’s death; secretly terminating Medicaid services for a profoundly special needs child; use of recording devices, tracking devices, and key stroke devices to surveil the ex-partner or child; badgering a child into making false statements; making a middle school aged child so terrified of a parent the child wet himself in open court while talking to the judge; manipulating children to take the stand, just feet away, against a parent who loves them; cyberstalking; getting unethical lawyers to intimidate expert witnesses into recanting their opinions; self-inflicting wounds to set up an ex-partner for assault; evidence tampering; creating fake Craigslist ads to suggest an ex was soliciting sex online; tampering with home surveillance footage to make it look like a mother had neglected her infant for 12 straight hours; using religion to manipulate children to fear the other parent; and trapping unsuspecting men into marriage by lying about birth control or intentionally getting pregnant. Domestic violence isn’t just men beating their wives. The behaviors I have described above are those of both men and women, and they are every bit a part of a campaign of domestic violence and terrorism against an ex-partner.

The type of personalities that do these sorts of things do not hesitate to co-opt the narratives of actual domestic violence or sexual abuse survivors in order to manipulate others’ impressions of them, including the impressions of journalists. By and large, the majority of these cases involve socio-economically advantaged, largely (but not exclusively) white families who have had multiple opportunities to have their cases heard by judges and in some cases, a jury of their peers[1]. They spend tens of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars on litigation fees. I am unaware of any case where a parent in one of these privileged cases has had their due process rights infringed upon, meaning, they had every opportunity to bring whatever evidence or witness to testify as a part of that process. Given those facts, circulating conspiracy theories about racketeering and out of control custody evaluators is about the only play they have left.

As I said above, the biggest mistake I made in this process was failing to address the harassment when it started. I just wanted to focus my energy on the children and families that needed my undivided attention and not get pulled into this ridiculous circus. But I now realize that ignoring this cancer actually did the opposite. I failed to do my part to raise awareness of these terrorist groups that, without push back, cripple our family court system. However, I am transitioning out of court appointments to focus on other aspects of my career and I find myself at a time in my career and at an age where it feels more important to speak out on behalf of others, than just defend myself.

If a journalist needs any corroborating evidence of my reputation and work ethic, I might point her or him to the more than 200 court appointments, comprising over 400 forensic psychological evaluations, I have been asked to conduct by judges in Central Texas. I would also point to the other 150 cases where attorneys have hired me to consult with them on these complex family issues, as well as the fact that no disciplinary action has ever been taken by my board against me, despite these “advocacy groups’” repeated efforts to slander me to my board at public hearings and other avenues afforded to them by law. It should be noted licensing boards exist to protect the public against the unethical conduct of professionals. They do not exist to protect me or other psychologists. These facts alone should speak for themselves with regard to my reputation, integrity, and professionalism.

But for now, I am speaking out to protect other court appointed professionals who do this work and to protect a system that has, on the whole, protected and helped thousands of children entrusted to its care and judgment. My silence has perpetuated the problem and for that, I apologize to my family law community. But I will be silent no more. I will be writing more about this issue in the months to come in order to do my part to educate the public, and to protect other forensic evaluators who continue to be brave enough to do this work, the ethical attorneys who work to protect the children and ex-partners from these individuals, as well as the judges who must make incredibly difficult decisions on a daily basis about child welfare and safety. I welcome any constructive questions or comments from our community that you might want me to address as I continue to write about these important child welfare issues.

[1] Texas is the only state that allows jury trials in child custody litigation.

What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Jury Decision Making

What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Jury Decision Making

July 20, 2018, Live Webcast

Texas MCLE Course Number: 174021850 (up to 1.00 hr)

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Presented by: UT Law CLE

Visit them on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook

A studio webcast that I did earlier this month discussed how jury decision-making may be impacted by both unconscious biases and cognitive science.

What makes a bigger impression on a jury—your opening statement or closing argument? What causes jurors to conform to the pressures of others and can voir dire mitigate these effects? How do leading questions affect jury verdicts?

The 1-hour recording will be available here with the opportunity to earn CLE credit in TX and CA!

Cognitive Science is the interdisciplinary study of the mind. In psychology, it is the study of attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, reasoning and thinking. A major area of Cognitive Science is the area of bias. We are naturally drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs and, similar to that, we tend to not notice the flaws in ourselves as easily as we notice the flaws in other people.

We will also fill in the gaps of our understanding if we don’t feel like we have enough information or meaning to make a decision. This is where relying on stereotypes comes in to play – an easy, but inaccurate way, to understand a group you may otherwise be unfamiliar with. We can unintentionally think favorable towards groups and people we are familiar with versus those we might not understand or know. Both of these tendencies have a great deal to do with the underlying biases around racism, sexism, homophobia, and similar biases against other groups.

Our memory has limits. It is changeable over time because we edit and reinforce some memories after the fact. We tend to
discard specific information in order to form generalities. Knowing that everyone’s brain operates this way, it is up to the litigator to do some of this work for the jury and frame your case in ways they will digest. Knowing jury members will edit and
reinforce memories after they have heard them, the power of repetition of certain key facts is important.

For more on the effects of Cognitive Science, stay tuned for our published recording on this discussion.

Reducing our Carbon Footprint

In an effort to reduce our carbon footprint, the Legal Consensus team will be working remotely at times. Because we are working remotely we have decided to downsize the physical space. You can find us at 4000 Medical Parkway, Suite 205, Austin, TX 78756. We are located near Central Market and have plenty of parking. We are also conveniently located near the 803 Metro Rapid Bus route. Here is a great article if you are interested in reducing your carbon footprint.

25+ Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Ryan Sutton, Ph.D to Join Legal Consensus Team

Legal Consensus welcomes the addition of our new postdoctoral fellow, Ryan Sutton, Ph.D. A graduate of both Howard University and Xavier University, Dr. Sutton comes to us most recently from the Child Guidance Clinic located in the D.C. Superior Court of Washington D.C. Dr. Sutton has extensive experience conducting psychological assessments as was the 1st place Research Award Winner for the Research Association of Minority Professors. As such, he will be working with Legal Consensus as both capacities as an expert in psychological assessment and heading up our research program. We are grateful to have him through the support of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement located at the University of Texas at Austin.

The New Legal Consensus Website Is Live!

Our new, responsive website is ready and we’re thrilled to share it with you. We appreciate you visiting and always welcome your feedback. If you have any website, branding or other marketing or advertising needs, we strongly recommend contacting the fine folks at mixtape marketing: www.mixtapeagency.com / 512.981.7155

Welcome Beth Prasse to the Legal Consensus Team

Legal Consensus welcomes the addition of our new Office Manager and Administrative Assistant, Beth Prasse. Coming from an accounting background, we are so pleased to have her in charge of our invoicing process and the general ins and outs of the office. If you have any administrative needs, please do not hesitate to contact her.

Welcome Shelley McCarthy to the Legal Consensus Team

Legal Consensus welcomes the addition of our new Project Manager, Shelley McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the University of Virginia. As such, she is the perfect liaison between attorney’s offices and Legal Consensus so you know just how your client’s evaluation is progressing. She will usher your client through the paperwork and scheduling process as well as keep you up to date as we schedule collateral calls and obtain collateral documents. She is also in charge of our psychologists’ schedules. If you have a question about any of these issues, do not hesitate to contact her. We are so delighted to have her on our team!

Legal Consensus Has Moved

Please make note of our new address below. As always, we welcome visitors during business hours but recommend calling in advance, to ensure someone will be in our office to greet you. Clients wishing to make a secure online payment may still do so using PayPal.

8500 Shoal Creek Blvd
Building 4, Suite 103
Austin, TX 78757