Collaborations Between the Maurice A. Deane School of Law and the Psychology Department at Hofstra University

 In Fall 2018, Family Law, Uncategorized

In an effort to improve both professional outcomes and efficiency in functioning, a recent trend in both law and mental health has been to incorporate multidisciplinary approaches to best serving the needs of clients. In his Sidney and Walter Siben Distinguished Professorship Lecture in Family Law presented at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University on November 10, 2017, Forrest S. “Woody” Mosten, a pioneer in family law and alternative dispute resolution, pointed out the growing trend of multidisciplinary collaboration in all areas of professional functioning. He further extolled a vision for family law in which multidisciplinary practice would be the backbone of effective service to families.  Listening to Professor Mosten’s lecture and being given the honor of offering a commentary that day forced me to reflect on the long and productive history of collaboration between the Department of Psychology and the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, and most recently, the formalization of this collaboration through Hofstra Law’s Center for the Children, Families, and the Law.

The history of the collaboration between the Psychology Department and the Law School goes back approximately 23 years. At that time Professor Andrew Schepard reached out to me to discuss the creation of a children’s program that could serve as ancillary to the Parent Education and Custody Effectiveness Program (PEACE). PEACE is a court-based program for parents and provides information on the legal and psychological impact of family reorganization on children and parents alike. Through these initial conversations several PEACE-related projects ensued, including the development of PEACE4Kids (a corollary program for children in grades K-8), a program evaluation of the PEACE Program that was conducted as a doctoral dissertation (Salamone-Gant 2000), the development of a revised skills-based PEACE Program, as well as participation on the multidisciplinary PEACE statewide advisory panel.

While the PEACE Program served as the catalyst for the burgeoning collaborations between the two Hofstra University units, the relationship between the Law School and Psychology Department began to expand into the classroom. Our earliest integration of training of Psy.D. (doctor of psychology) and law students was through two programs associated with the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA). NITA is a not-for-profit organization that provides skills-based education programs for attorneys throughout the country. Participants receive training through didactic training and trial simulations with feedback from professionals in the field. The first NITA program involving Psy.D. students (psychology students) and law students focused on litigating and mediating divorces. The second program focused on representing the whole family in a juvenile assault matter.

For each of these programs, psychology students served as both expert consultants and expert witnesses for the law students and other participants. The law students and practicing attorneys developed the skills necessary for effective consultation with their own expert and developed and practiced the skills necessary for direct and cross-examination of a mental-health expert witness. The psychology students equally benefited by learning the skills and tools necessary to provide effective and efficient consultation as well as having the opportunity to be examined in a simulated trial.

Approximately 10 years ago, the Institute for Family Forensic Psychology (IFFP) was developed as part of the psychology clinic at the Saltzman Community Services Center at Hofstra University. The IFFP provided individual therapy, co-parenting therapy, therapeutic visitation, and assessments for families living in high conflict or with an abuse/neglect history. This new specialized psychology clinic opened the door for future collaboration between the Psy.D. program and the Law School. Students who were enrolled in the IFFP collaborated on cases with students enrolled in Hofstra Law’s Youth Advocacy Clinic. Students and faculty in both programs were also made available to each other to serve as ad hoc consultants to their counterparts. Furthermore, Professor Theo Liebmann, who has directed the Youth Advocacy Clinic since its inception and provided training to the interns in the IFFP, and I reciprocated with training for students in the Youth Advocacy Clinic.

With the development and growth of the Center for Children, Families and the Law came the opportunity to further enrich the learning experiences for law students and psychology students. One focus of the Center for Children, Families and the Law has been the development of a family mediation project. The initial planning stages served as a wonderful catalyst for developing collaborative coursework with psychology students and law students. Specifically, for two years, law students in the Family Law Policy course and psychology students in the Preventive Mental Health course were given collaborative tasks that were requirements for each of their respective courses. These tasks were designed to address the numerous and thorny issues that needed to be addressed for effective collaborative work between lawyers and psychologists.

Among these issues were differing and sometimes contradictory ethical canons, mandated reporting issues, and reconciling broad professional understandings of working with children and families. Furthermore, mediation-specific issues were addressed by the students with the interdisciplinary lenses. These issues included child-focused mediation, employing developmentally sensitive approaches to parenting plans, and addressing children’s special needs/exceptionalities in mediation. Furthermore, joint classes served as large working groups through which vigorous discussion and feedback on each of the chapters helped hone the final product. The collaborative coursework gave rise to a 200-page operations manual for the Center for Children, Families and the Law’s Mediation Project. Most of the chapters were written by these law/psychology student pairs, and the manual was co-edited by myself and the late Herbie DiFonzo.

With the operations manual in place and many of the interdisciplinary issues ironed out, a community-facing mediation project was implemented through the Center for Children, Families and the Law. This project was based upon the Honoring Families Initiative from the Colorado-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), a project for which Professor Schepard was a principal consultant and ongoing member of the advisory board. The Honoring Families Initiative is an interdisciplinary model to divert divorcing parents from the court system to the one-stop alternative of mediation.

The new Mediation Project in the Center for Children, Families and the Law has a few unique basic tenets. Among these are: (a) all mediations are performed by law/psychology student pairs; (b) all mediations are supervised by an attorney/mediator and psychologist/mediator pair; and (c) all mediations follow a child-focused model. Prior to entering the project, all students are required to complete a 40-hour mediation training, which is consistent with national standards. In addition, all mediation cases are supervised in the Family Law With Skills course, in which law students and psychology students jointly participate. In the coming year, the Center for Children, Families and the Law’s mediation project will be providing mediation services regarding custody and visitation issues in the courthouses in Nassau County.

There have also been several opportunities for cross-training and collaboration between the Psychology Department and the Law School on broader community-based conferences. For example, law students and faculty and psychology students and faculty were integral members of the planning committee for the conference “Preventing the School to Prison Pipeline,” sponsored by the late Chief Judge Judith Kaye and the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children that was hosted at Hofstra University. The Psychology Department also participated in the planning of the recent Matrimonial Summit “Matrimonial Practice in New York in the 21st Century: The Bar’s Role in Shaping Change.”

The future looks bright for the ongoing collaborations between the Center for Children, Families and the Law and the Psychology Department. These include new and innovative training programs for psychology and law students, multidisciplinary certificate programs for practicing psychologists and lawyers, and new programs to improve the lives of children and families in our communities. Consistent with Woody Mosten’s vision, innovative practice that benefits children and families must begin with changes in the education of the upcoming generations of professionals. It has been an honor and a privilege to collaborate with so many innovative and enthusiastic professionals who share in the vision of interdisciplinary training and practice and who have kept Hofstra University ahead of the curve for these many years.

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