My guest blogger today is Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD, professor of social work at the Yeshiva University in New York, New York. He writes:
Lawyers are increasingly calling upon social workers to serve as expert witnesses in cases involving children and families. Roles for social workers are emerging in the courtroom as social work expert witnesses in such areas as guardianship, forensic issues, child abuse and neglect, wrongful death, commitment hearings, education, family custody evaluation, child welfare, adoption, and foster care.
As society gets more specialized and complicated, the courts are using the testimony of expert witnesses (such as social work expert witness, foster care expert witness, social worker malpractice and child welfare worker malpractice) to help resolve cases. Whether defending social workers or agencies, or litigating on behalf of a client, having the right experienced expert witness can make the difference between winning or losing an important case.
How a social work expert witness can aid the court
A social worker who is called as an expert witness may be asked to provide:
- An in-depth analysis of the events and issues in question. For instance, in many states social workers are permitted to make diagnostic assessments.
- A thorough analysis of the procedures, policies and practices used by the social workers and agency to determine their appropriateness, legality, and conformity with current practice (e.g., were child abuse investigation procedures appropriately carried out?).
- Reviewing pertinent documents, evaluating their findings, and developing conclusions regarding the evidence.
- Trial preparation and assistance during the discovery and trial phases.
- A familiarity with relevant and applicable case law.
- Testimony which is ethical, accurate and persuasive. Contrary to popular myth, expert witnesses are sworn to be completely truthful -- they cannot 'fudge.' It is important to remember that they are not advocates; their primary duty is to the court, not to the person who retained the expert.
- Special qualifications to testify in a specific case (i.e., Does the witness have any unique publications regarding the issues at bar? Does the witness demonstrate any bias for the plaintiff or defendant? Does the witness offer previous testifying experience? For whom? Which specific cases?
Assessing qualifcations for a social work expert witness
Who can be an expert witness and what is required to become an expert witness? Expert witnesses are usually expert consultants who testify under oath about the specifics of a case. They relate their conclusions and opinions about the actions in question. More than ever, social work issues in litigation require the services of expert witnesses. Experts are needed to inform judges and juries on technical matters and national standards of care for human services issues related to the cases brought before them. Choosing a social work expert witness requires critical evaluations of numerous features beyond obvious credentials. When choosing social workers as expert witnesses lawyers should look for people with qualifications that will help them accurately identify best practice standards, thus adding credibility to their position or allegations.
Costs for retaining a social work expert witness
The cost of retaining social workers can vary considerably. They are usually paid by the hour. The hourly fee typically covers reviewing documents, interviewing key people in the case, travel expenses, and any other time spent working on the case. Rates for being deposed or testifying in court are higher than for other kinds of preparatory work.
The growing use of social workers as expert witness will likely continue. Social workers who serve in this role will play an important part in litigation and dispute resolution. Retaining a social work expert witness will not necessarily result in a victory in the courtroom. A credible expert witness, however, can offer invaluable information that can be used to present a more comprehensive case.
For additional information, contact Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD.