Social Workers as Expert Witnesses

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A social worker is an exceptionally varied career with many different career paths and different workplaces. Even within an individual’s social work career path they may find they have played many different roles. However all the roles social workers play have one thing in common – they make a difference in people’s lives and particularly in the lives of the vulnerable. As skilled professionals with a vast wealth of expertise and experience in their field, one role a social worker can play is that of an expert witness in courts. While this can seem a daunting prospect, it is also a highly worthwhile role with expert witnesses often being instrumental in the success or otherwise of a case.

What is an expert witness?

An expert witness is an individual who has considerable expertise through training, education and experience on a given subject that is relevant to the case who can clarify and explain subject matter of a complex nature that is likely to be beyond the range of understanding of the average person. Although usually not a direct witness to the particular case, they can draw on their expertise to give their expert opinion. 

Expert witnesses can be drawn from all fields. They may be experts in medical, technical, scientific, psychological or forensic fields to name just a few and may act for either the defense or the prosecution in both criminal and civil cases. Unlike other witnesses who must have some connection to the case that they witnessed with their own senses, an expert witness is likely to have no physical connection to the case but to offer evidence based on their expertise alone. This can be particularly valuable when there are disputes on the value or reliability of other witnesses or when there are few witnesses to the crime.

Among the cases where expert witnesses are required are cases that can require the expertise of social workers. While social workers may have a connection to the case, such as if they were working with a family involved in the case and be called as witnesses to testify to that, social worker expert witnesses generally do not have a direct connection to the case. And as with other expert witnesses, draw on their knowledge and experience to clarify aspects of the case and provide an expert opinion.

Gaining expertise

Social workers embark on a life-long learning journey where there is always more to discover. Before they even start working as a social worker, they first need to qualify. At the very least prospective social workers need to achieve a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). However most positions require a Master of Social Work (MSW) which can be completed after a BSW or another bachelor’s degree. These courses can be studied at universities either in person or through online study. All courses should include a number of hours of field placements where they start the process of gaining real life experience.

The required number of hours in field placements is also a feature of online degrees, even if you do not live near the university providing the study. A good example of how that works can be seen on the MSW online at Cleveland State University Ohio where Field Placement Services help identify quality placement sites in the student’s community which will align with their goals. With 900 hours of hands-on social work experience as well as 100% online study, this accredited course prepares a thorough grounding for those embarking on a social work career.

Social work appeals to those who are always keen to learn more and gaining the MSW is just the beginning. Social workers gain expertise through their own experience as a social worker and through exchanging knowledge with their colleagues. They may embark on further formal training, perhaps in areas of social work that particularly interest them or through regular training provided through their employment.

They will also learn from the wider social work community. They may subscribe to blogs or publications that provide the latest developments, theories and policies effecting the role of social worker. They may also attend conferences where through lectures, speeches, workshops and networking opportunities, they acquire further knowledge and share their own.

Through these many opportunities for gaining knowledge, experience and expertise, social workers truly become experts in their field. And as such may be interested in becoming expert witnesses and using this knowledge to clarify and explain matters in a trial and offering their own expert opinions. Many of the cases that require a social worker expert witness are highly complex, but getting them right makes a huge difference in the lives of often vulnerable children and adults. And so in the role of an expert witness, a social worker continues to play a vital part in helping the vulnerable.

Criteria of an expert witness

In theory any social worker could be a social worker expert witness. However whether they actually can be an expert witness is up to the courts to decide. Appearing in court can be challenging and so any social worker willing to be an expert witness should understand the process and be court-ready.

An expert witness are usually expert consultants who are ready to testify under oath. When deciding whether someone can be an expert witness, lawyers will look at their qualifications, particularly those on an area of expertise relevant to the case. Often they will choose social workers who have both a high level of practical experience and a strong academic background with a good reputation among their peers crucial. It may be, for example, that they have written articles or professional publications on a particular topic that is relevant and demonstrates their expert knowledge.

A lawyer will also need to check for bias, whether it is for the plaintiff or the defendant as this will render the expert testimony less reliable. Lawyers will often be keen to use social workers with a level of experience as an expert witness, particularly those who have testified in in previous trials for both defense and prosecution as evidence of their impartiality. It is important to make sure the social worker is an expert in all areas that they are going to be questioned on, as offering an expert opinion on an area they have no qualifications or experience in, could lead to their testimony being discounted and have a negative impact on the case as a whole.

As well as being able to produce authoritative, non-biased information, lawyers will want an expert witness who knows how to present that information. They will need to be able to speak clearly and in a manner which conveys their confidence, sincerity and professionalism. Judges and juries start to form, opinions as soon as a witness takes the stand and so their bearing and their dress too needs to present them as a voice worth listening to.

What does a social worker expert witness do in a trial?

In a trial the expert witness can be called give evidence. And like any other witness they will be required to take the oath before presenting their evidence. There may be deposition questions which will establish the social worker’s qualifications and expertise, their analysis and any rejected analysis or unused information and their key assumptions. The opposing counsel too may ask deposition questions often to limit the scope of what the expert witness can discuss.

When giving evidence lawyers from both sides will ask questions which the expert witness must answer truthfully and to their best of their knowledge. Cross-examination is part of the court process and it is important for the expert witness to remain calm and professional when answering questions from the opposing counsel. It is, after all, their role to throw doubt onto their testimony and reduce the relevance of the expert testimony to the trial. The expert witness should answer these questions clearly and succinctly to be most effective.

When giving evidence the expert witness is there to clarify matters for the judge and jury, explaining complex aspects of their area of expertise in a way that laymen can easily understand. While most witnesses in a trial must stick to the facts of what they experienced with their own senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste or smell – the expert witness can be asked to offer their opinion.

If there is any question on whether the evidence of the social worker expert witness is admissible, in federal courts and most state courts, the trial judge makes the decision. To do this they apply the Daubert standard with the judge taking the gatekeeper role. These include ensuring the relevance and reliability of the expert testimony and whether the conclusion is the product of sound scientific methodology. The illustrative factors of whether a conclusion is ‘scientific’ is based on the following criteria:

  • Whether the theory or technique can be tested and if it has been.
  • Whether it has been subject to peer review and if it has been published.
  • Whether the theory or technique has been widely accepted within the relevant community
  • The error rate, both known and potential
  • The existence of standards controlling its operation and whether those standards have been maintained.

In some trials expert witness testimony is crucial for the jury in reaching a decision and so it is essential for the most rigorous standards be applied. There are no set rules on what cases a social worker can or cannot be called to testify as an expert witness. However the nature of social work does mean that there are some types of cases that are more likely than others to require a social worker as an expert witness.

Domestic violence cases

Domestic violence cases can be tricky to prosecute, often with much of the evidence resting on believing one party over the other. If there are third party eye-witnesses to domestic violence much of it tends to be from other people living in the same household, which means very often it is the children or stepchildren of the plaintiff and/or the defendant.

With much of the case resting on ‘he said/she said’ type evidence and often this can be historical with the possibility that the domestic violence has been happening for years before the victim seeks help, expert witnesses are often needed to help the jury assess the reliability of the evidence. A medical expert witness, for example, might be called to testify that a pattern of injuries over s given time is typical of domestic violence, even if the injured did not report it as such at a time. However much of the behavior of victims and eye-witnesses, particularly children can seem unusual to juries, often casting doubt on their testimony.

In their line of work social workers can often work closely supporting victims of domestic violence and their children and are aware of how the impact of this can manifest in the behavior of victims and witnesses. They can therefore be called as expert witnesses by the prosecution to help the juries understand the psychology of the victim and perhaps answering the questions that may puzzle many juries –“if it was so bad, why did you stay? Why didn’t you report it years ago?”. As people who work closely with domestic violence victims as they try to rebuild their olives, they can also provide expert testimony on the long-term psychological and emotional impact of domestic violence on the victim and their children.

Child welfare

Cases that involve child welfare are difficult, often with the court needing to hear testimony from under-age witnesses. These cases can cover a wide range of issues. They might be criminal cases of accusations of abuse including physical, sexual, psychological and neglect, some of which can be difficult to prosecute sue to lack of physical evidence. They can also be civil cases as a child, often nearing or having reached adulthood, seeks compensation from an abusive parent or stepparent. Additionally there are child custody cases ranging from cases where one parent is trying to prove the other unfit to cases where neither is necessarily unfit, but nor can they agree on the best arrangements. Social workers sometimes have to make unpopular decisions regarding children, removing the from the parents’ care and placing them in foster care. These cases too can sometimes go to court if the parent feels the actions of the social worker was not justified.

In some of these cases social workers involved in the case can be called as witnesses, to recount the evidence of what they saw and heard or to explain why they took a certain action. However there can also be a case for social workers who were not involved in the case to act as expert witnesses. In this they can draw on their experience of working with children. The testimony they are required to give might include how the impacts of psychological abuse can manifest in a child, in order to back up a child’s claim. Or it might be to explain social work procedures to explain why a particular action was or was not taken.

Disability cases

People suffering from a mental or physical disability often receive support from a social worker, giving social workers experience that they can use in their expert witness testimony. The types of cases they may be involved in can be criminal or personal injury cases where a crime or accident led to the physical or mental disability. In this case expert testimony on the likely long-term physical and psychological impact of the attack or accident can help juries understand the seriousness of a case and may influence compensation amounts.

Other cases may involve discrimination, where the plaintiff perhaps faces dismissal from their employment purely because of their disability. Legislation around these cases can be tricky it understand. In these cases a social worker expert witness might be required to explain the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it is relevant to that particular case. In these cases the testimony may be used to show how the plaintiff was discriminated against or it might be used by the defense to show how in fact it has no relevance and the employer acted lawfully.

Testifying in cases

Cases that require the testimony of social workers are often harrowing, covering crimes against some of the most vulnerable in society. Witnesses, juries, lawyers and judges alike can find these cases particularly difficult and it is hard to keep the emotion out when considering the evidence. This is another factor that makes the testimony of expert witnesses including social workers valuable. As professionals who are accustomed to cases like this, they are better prepared to stick to the facts and provide their testimony purely on their expertise, knowledge and experience.

While being an expert witness is not the most obvious part of the role of social worker and of course, most social worker careers will not include becoming an expert witness, for those who do take on this role they can be assured they are playing an important part. Because of them vulnerable victims can get justice and perhaps also compensation, while the innocent can be exonerated. It is just one more way that social workers can make a positive difference.

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