Family Court failings laid bare in research series

Poor systemic responses to children’s disclosures of abuse are detailed in a series of forthcoming articles by Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti.

The Family Court’s admission of unreliable evidence is putting children at risk, says Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti, an internationally recognised expert on the intersection of science and the law.

Dr Leonetti’s research exploring aspects of the Family Court system is due to be published in a series of forthcoming articles, the first of which explores the use of “unreliable pseudo-psychology” in the Court’s responses to family violence.

“When kids tell court psychologists, lawyers for the child, and judges that one of their parents is abusing them, they are often disbelieved, silenced, and even punished for their disclosures,” says Dr Leonetti.

“My research has revealed that a primary mechanism for this failure to listen to kids and protect them from unsafe parents is the poor quality of ‘expert’ psychological evidence that has become entrenched in the Family Court.”

For example, claims of parental alienation are frequently made by family-violence perpetrators, says Leonetti, often to shift blame, punish protective parents, and/or re-establish control over their victims.

“But when a court psychologist deems a kid to be ‘alienated,’ there is no way to determine whether that designation is accurate and no way to detect and correct the error if it is not,” she says.

“There has never been a study validating the claim that court-appointed evaluators can accurately identify parental alienation or distinguish it from other causes and types of parent/child estrangement.”

Dr Carrie Leonetti
Because of a lack of forensic expertise, Dr Carrie Leonetti (pictured) says some psychologists have inundated the Family Court with mythologies about family violence.

Dr Leonetti documents reasons for the Family Court’s failure to regulate “dangerous junk psychology” evidence, including cognitive barriers, gender bias, and the close relationship between Family Court Judges and court psychologists, which she says preclude internal reform.

Leonetti also details how the New Zealand Psychologists’ Board fails to regulate forensic psychology practice in the Family Court. She says many psychologists who serve as expert witnesses in the Family Court lack evidence-based expertise in family violence and professional competency in applying academic research to judicial decision-making.

“They tend to be clinicians with no specialised training in forensic psychology, child safety, or risk assessment.”

Because of a lack of forensic expertise, Leonetti says some psychologists have inundated the Family Court with mythologies about family violence that have contributed to the Court’s unsafe responses to children’s disclosures of abuse by a family member.

The New Zealand Psychologists’ Board does not prescribe specialised qualifications for forensic psychologists who offer expert evidence in court proceedings, says Dr Leonetti.

“Meanwhile, Judges and lawyers cannot sufficiently regulate the validity and reliability of a psychologist’s forensic methodology.”

Three of Dr Leonetti’s forthcoming articles:

Endangered by Junk Science: How the New Zealand Family Court’s Admission of Unreliable Expert Evidence Places Children at Risk is forthcoming in Volume 43 of the Children’s Legal Rights Law Journal will be published in December 2022.

Sub Silentio Alienation: Deceptive Language, Implicit Associations, Cognitive Biases, and Barriers to Reform, is forthcoming in the Washburn Law Review in 2023.

Combatting a Dangerous American Export: the Need for Professional Regulation of Psychologists in the New Zealand Family Court, will be available in the UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal in 2023.

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