The Play Therapist in the Courtroom: Preparing Yourself and Your Client for Court

The Play Therapist in the Courtroom: Preparing Yourself and Your Client for Court

Jeffrey M. Sullivan (Sam Houston State University, USA) and Sinem Akay (Sam Houston State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7036-3.ch026
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This chapter addresses what is often the most anxiety inducing experience most play therapists will encounter in their professional career: appearing in court. Play therapists who work with cases of child abuse face a higher chance of appearing in court on behalf of their child client. The purpose this chapter is to detail some ways play therapists can best prepare for the court process, which often begins at the moment the client relationship is established, how to prepare for court once a subpoena is received, and best practices for testifying in court on behalf of the child client. Finally, this chapter discusses the effects of court on the child and how to best help children recover from courtroom experiences.
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Child Protective Services (CPS) received around 3.4 million child abuse and neglect reports in 2012. Among these referrals, 9.2 per 1,000 children were victims of abuse; of which 78% were neglect, 18% were physical abuse, and 9% were sexual abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children and Families, Children’s Bureau, 2012). According to Finkelhor, Shattuck, Turner, and Hamby (2014), 1 in 4 children living in the U.S. experience some form of abuse during their childhood years. Equally distressing is a recent meta-analytic review of childhood neglect in the U.S., which revealed that the overall estimated prevalence for physical neglect of children was 163 per 1,000, while the prevalence of emotional neglect numbered 184 per 1,000 (Stoltenborg, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Ijzendoorn, 2013). Clearly there are an alarming number of abuse cases in the U.S., and probably even more that go unreported.

These numbers, however, only capture cases at the time of report, and fail to capture what happens to children once their abuse is reported. The events that follow the reporting of abuse are every bit as challenging for children as dealing with the abuse itself because the abuse is now in the open, and should children be called on to appear in court, testify in their own defense, and face their abuser directly, this experience may leave a scar almost as deep as the abuse itself. And if this child is a client in play therapy, then the play therapist often feels challenged in ways that they rarely feel prepared to face.

Play therapists provide children with developmentally appropriate treatments to deal with trauma and are invaluable resources for children to recover from trauma related to neglect and abuse. However, most play therapists are equipped to work with children and caregivers to provide trauma treatment, but are underprepared for being subpoenaed to testify in court. The courtroom is far removed from the warmer confines of the therapeutic relationship. When going to court, expectations change and the role of the play therapist shifts from therapeutic ally of the child to objective witness of the facts.

While the legal system over the past 10 years has continued to recognize play therapy as an appropriate method for counseling children (Snow, 2016), play therapists appearing in court may still experience systematic scrutiny of their records, manner of practice, and professional credibility. Play therapists unaccustomed to this level of scrutiny may experience what feels like an attack on their personal and professional integrity. Moreover, upon completing a courtroom experience as a witness, play therapists may be left wondering whether their testimony actually helped or possibly even harmed their client’s case, leaving them feeling dejected, guilty, and even traumatized. Most certainly, going to court is a scary experience, as the authors of this chapter will attest, and it’s common to feel lost, vulnerable, and isolated when summoned to appear in court.

The purpose of this chapter is to shed light on an aspect of play therapy practice that many play therapists don’t understand or acknowledge until the subpoena arrives at their doorstep. It will help play therapists prepare for the day of court, which can be emotionally and professionally overwhelming. The information provided in this chapter will help play therapists better understand the legal process, from reporting child abuse to going to court. Play therapists will understand their roles in court when called to testify on behalf of their clients, and know ethical ways of working with attorneys during court preparation. Additionally, this chapter will include tips for play therapists to help prepare their clients for court, as well as process the aftermath of appearing in court, so they can avoid further traumatization. Our ultimate goal is to help play therapists feel better orientated and prepared for the courtroom experience.

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