I am an anomaly? Well, that is what I have been told by my colleagues, in more than one setting. The thing is, I really enjoy court. My name is Nicol Stolar-Peterson. I am a licensed clinical social worker in California. I worked in group homes as a music therapist and then got my master’s in social work and was hired at CPS (Child Protective Services) and worked there for more than 11 years.
I was an investigator, a forensic interviewer, an adoptions social worker and a trainer. I went to court a lot. I testified in criminal, dependency and family law court and I was sued more than once. Spoiler Alert, we won….. but more about that later.
Currently, I am an expert witness, a child custody evaluator, a court performance coach for therapists, a non-profit director and a skincare consultant. Got you on that last one didn’t I!? Hello tax write off for an at home business, and I write off my skincare. Plus, a huge upside is it is a “happy gig.” No death threats, just requests to boost lashes and moisturize. What can I say? We all need balance.
So let’s circle back to the fun topic of court. The point in this is my first court experience testifying as a social worker (percipient witness/fact witness). I bombed. I’m not being overly dramatic, it was horrible. I was told the day before to read my notes, review and tell the truth. That was it.
The best attorney questioned me on the stand, and I was flipping back and forth in this huge file, saying “I don’t know,” and misunderstanding questions and not knowing when it was okay to talk and not talk. It was a disaster. I was humiliated. I felt so dumb. The judge looked annoyed mixed with pity. Hard to say because by that point my prefrontal cortex was pretty non-existent and “flight” is my memory recall.
Ironically, none of the “Law& Order” episodes I watched had prepared me at all. So at this point, I had some choices to make. Climb under a rock and never go back to court. Well not going back was not an option because it was a regular occurrence in this work. I had a two-year commitment to CPS under Title IV-E, so that brings us to option B. Option B was to swallow my pride and go back.
So, I swallowed my pride and went back to court within a few days. I asked the attorneys if they minded me sitting in so that I could learn. They were surprised that I was back. And what happened next was life changing. They helped me. They taught me. They explained to me what was happening before, during and after court. They shared insight and knowledge with me. And what did I do with all of that information? I wrote it down. I soaked it up like a sponge.
I felt like there was hope.
I started reading up on procedural law, just the basics. What a shift in my understanding. What a shift in how I approached court reports, court testimony and evidence collection. What also changed were the attitudes of the attorneys towards me. They seemed to respect my willingness to go back and to learn. That was helpful in more ways than one. I went back to that same court room many times in my career and crossed paths with many of the same attorneys.
I did get the opportunity to be cross examined again by the same attorney that obliterated me on my first court testimony experience. I can still remember the case like it was yesterday. Not because we won, but because we HAD to win.
It was a case involving a sibling set that no one wanted. Each time we tried to find them an adoptive home, the adoptive parents would only want the youngest. So we fought to keep them together and we fought to place them with the right adoptive family. This case went on for over a year, almost two years.
I remember thinking, “It is my job to do well in court today. Failing is not an option.”
I did four-square breathing on the stand, I practiced my cadence, I was able to slow down the questioning, and I wore a good luck charm on my wrist. I looked at that attorney and thought, “You will not win.” This helped me keep my breathing in check. Not only did we “win” that day, those siblings have been adopted together and they are thriving, together.
The Playing Field
The point in sharing this with you, is court can be scary. If you can learn the basic procedures and environment, it is much like any other new endeavor, it just takes practice. When we take the time to understand the “playing field” we are better prepared. Court is very much like a sport. There are rules, uniforms, referees, penalties, points, game plans, and winners and losers. A player on the field cannot switch to the position of referee (ok maybe in peewee but were talking big people sports right now).
How does this relate to us as clinicians? What is our position a.k.a. scope? This is where we get “jammed up.” If we are the treating therapist and we get asked to make recommendations, we can slip right out of scope and right into a board complaint or worse. Knowing our role in that playing field is critical to doing a good job and protecting our assets.
Now maybe some of you are saying, “We can’t just walk into dependency court and watch.” You are correct. Those hearings are closed.
But you can go to a criminal hearing or a family law hearing. I prefer attending family law hearings when I have a few hours to just sit and learn. Some of the courtrooms focus on domestic violence restraining orders aka DVRO’s and those can be really eye opening when considering what some of our clients go through.
When you go in, the bailiff/deputy will ask you which case are you there. Simply let them know that you are a therapist and are there to watch and observe. They may tell you where to sit. I take handwritten notes when I am observing court and my cell phone is off. I do not have it on vibrate or some other annoying setting that may interrupt or annoy the court.
In addition, I have no desire for the bailiff to confiscate my cell phone. Get used to the room. Take it all in. Does this sound like “exposure?” Perhaps. Call it what you want, but do it. It helps. It’s also extremely interesting and an incredible opportunity to learn.
Now let’s jump back to the fun of being sued. Obviously I am being sarcastic. It is in no way fun.
Fortunately, not only did we win, but I gained a niche. Personally, I think there are way more fun and less scary ways to find your niche. But I wouldn’t be me if this wasn’t how it happened. I learned to take great notes. They truly saved me in both cases. Well, it was that and the fact that we followed the law and were protecting the best interests of the children on those cases.
Sidebar: if I had not written great notes, we could have lost. Let that sink in. Some cases are years old, so having intact, helpful and professional notes is critical.
So let’s transition to what you can do to feel better about court. A lot.
As a therapist with this odd niche, I have encountered many colleagues who have anxiety regarding court. They have so much anxiety, in fact, they simply have a statement in their intake packet that says something to the effect of “I don’t do court.” Here is why that is a problem. It must be followed up by a “however” and then include “should I be subpoenaed, here are my fees, here are my limitations regarding testimony” etc.
So here is a 2018 service announcement. Update your packets. Have a strong court policy. You can write your own, you can buy my copy/paste policy. But either way, put it in place. You will feel better! Grab my free “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Court Related Letters” off of my home page at www.therapistcourtprep.com .
The more prepared you are, the better you will feel. We must CYA. Court happens, subpoenas happen, we should not put our heads in the sand. Ignoring subpoenas is how you can end up with a bench warrant. So it’s best to put a strong policy in place.
The title of this was “Why court does not have to suck.” Court may never feel like Disneyland to you, or wherever your happy place is. But it does not have to “suck.” That word, of course, is the one I hear most often from my colleagues. Well, guess what? Tests “suck” but we take them anyway and pass.
Court happens. The more prepared we are, guess what? The less it will “suck!” As clinicians, we help our clients through some of the most difficult issues and overcome their fears. It is time to help ourselves. And p.s. :I have your 6 (look that up if you have never heard it before).