Mesha Ellis, PhD, spoke at the Nov. 2 breakfast meeting of the DeKalb Bar Association Family Law Section, discussing child sex abuse allegations in the context of custody disputes. Dr. Ellis is a licensed clinical psychologist in Georgia, Tennessee, and California, and an AASECT certified sex therapist. With more than 15 years of postdoctoral experience, she has also co-authored several peer-reviewed publications. Her education is extensive and includes an M.A. in clinical psychology (marriage and family therapy emphasis) from Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from The University of Alabama, an APA-accredited internship at the University of Chicago Hospitals, a forensic postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington (Child Study and Treatment Center) and sex therapy training at the Buehler Institute. Dr. Ellis’s presentation provided a daunting amount of in-depth information about custody evaluations involving sex abuse allegations.
Here’s a quick synopsis of what we learned:
Custody evaluation is a specialty practice within the field of mental health, and custody evaluation with allegations of sexual abuse is a subspecialty. Just as a family law attorney requires specialized knowledge of adoption law and practice before filing an adoption, a custody evaluator requires specialized knowledge of assessing child sexual abuse allegations before competently evaluating such cases. If sexual abuse allegations arise, we must make sure that the evaluator has the specialized training and education to be competent.
An evaluator does not – indeed cannot – determine the veracity of allegations. Rather, an evaluator’s role is to provide insight into the dynamics and characteristics of individuals involved. Dr. Ellis explained that there is no universal definition for sexual abuse – Georgia’s statutory definition differs from the U.S. Health and Human Service’s definition. She noted that even when behavior is not categorically sexual abuse, it may still raise concerns with a trained custody evaluator as troubling boundary violations. Examples that come to mind of seemingly innocuous behavior that a trained evaluator might recognize as requiring more scrutiny include odd details about tickling or rough-housing, sleeping arrangements, changing clothes, or bathing. Dr. Ellis also explained that there is no sexual abuse syndrome. Victims experience and display different reactions, and many do not display any symptoms. She did note, however, that studies have shown that reactions to non-penetrative sexual abuse are just as serious as penetrative.
Dr. Ellis emphasized the need to establish the scope of the custody evaluation at the outset. Scope is assumed to mean that an evaluation might focus on issues of parental alienation, dealing with a disability, or the effects of relocating a child. However, even when the scope is clearly limited and defined, if allegations of sexual abuse arise, the evaluator is a mandatory reporter and must report the allegations to DFACS or law enforcement.
DeKalb Superior Court Judge JP Boulee attended. Section Chair Dawn de Klerk presided over the program. Our executive director Cindy Harris went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we had breakfast after a short notice cancellation by the caterer. Announcements included a reminder that we help support Nia’s Place by collecting donations and purchasing items that Nia’s Place cannot afford to buy with its budget.
Look for a recap of the Family Law Section breakfast held on Dec. 7 with speakers the Hon. Berryl A. Anderson, Chief Judge, Magistrate Court of DeKalb County, and Ayonna Johnson, Director of Legal Services, Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence. Incidents of domestic violence increase significantly each year during the holiday season. Judge Anderson and Ms. Johnson discussed the TPO process in DeKalb County and what all of us should be doing to end domestic violence.
We invite you to our next breakfast on Jan. 4 at 7:30 am at the Old Courthouse on the Square. Register on the DeKalb Bar Association website here.