Department of Psychological + Brain Sciences

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Doing Justice

How the research of Amy Holtzworth-Munroe is shaping the practice of family law

Those most in need of help are often the most difficult to reach. Women and men in the process of divorce or separation, who may be in violent or abusive relationships and struggling financially, don’t always connect with the people and services available to help them.

As PBS Professor Amy Holtzworth-Munroe can tell you: “If you want to help divorced couples, putting up a sign and saying, ‘We do therapy with divorced couples,’ doesn’t work so well.”


Yet, about ten years ago, Holtzworth-Munroe discovered a highly rewarding way to reach numerous people in just such circumstances, by going to the place where all marriages begin and end—the legal system.


“If you think about it,” she observes, “it’s an access point. Everyone who gets divorced has to go there. Through the legal system you can contact people who might be at risk, but would not seek help on their own. It gives us a chance to help them.”


In collaboration with clinical professor of law Amy Applegate at the IU Maurer School of Law, she and a team of PBS colleagues, professors Brian D’Onofrio and Jack Bates, along with graduate students in her lab, are making major contributions to the evolution of court-required family mediation and other procedures to help couples settle disputes and form divorce or separation agreements. Their work often targets those who are most in need, either financially or as a result of situations of intimate partner violence.


Bringing evidence-based practice to the law


Holtzworth-Munroe brings to family law thirty years of experience as a researcher in the field of marital conflict, marital therapy, and intimate partner violence. One of the first researchers studying relationship violence in the 1980s, her research on male batterers was among the most influential in the field.


Yet, alongside the content of her previous research, Holtzworth-Munroe brings to the law a perspective that is not part of the legal tradition—an empirical approach to determining whether certain practices, whether forms of therapy or legal procedures, actually work.


“If there’s one thing that characterizes all the work our research team does at this point,” she explains, “it’s getting family law to use evidence-based practices.”


The law has not typically taken this approach. “Legal professionals don’t typically determine the effectiveness of a program in a data-driven way,” she explains. “They say, ‘This seemed to work’ or ‘That makes sense to me.’ It’s a question of the judges’ and the mediators’ own judgment” and that judgment is typically based on legal precedents or their own professional experience.


“The law,” she suggests, “has paid little attention to research as a way to make decisions about the usefulness of its practices. Medicine did it first. Now psychology.  But you get into law and it’s not something they’re familiar with.”


In local, state, and federal court systems, her research is shaping the practice of family law by conducting randomized controlled trials that determine the effectiveness of legal procedures.


In one series of studies that took place in the IU Maurer School of Law’s Viola Taliaferro Family and Children Mediation Clinic in collaboration with Applegate, who is the Clinic’s director, they have focused on how to incorporate children’s interests into mediation proceedings. Here they have found that parents agree to lessen their conflict when those agreements are informed by their children’s needs and interests.


In studies conducted in a Marion County Court in Indianapolis for those on government assistance, she and her colleagues studied the effectiveness of an online parent education program used in cases of contested paternity. They also examined whether a two to three week waiting period between when fathers learned about their paternity and when the court hearing  was held, regarding child support and related issues such as parenting time (i.e., to give fathers time to adjust to the news), led parents to be more likely to reach an agreement. To their surprise, those who had the waiting period and participated in the online parent program were less likely than other parents to reach an agreement on child-related issues.


One would have predicted that they would be the most likely to reach an agreement after having participated in an online program about the importance of getting along with the other parent and having had time to adjust to the news that they are the child’s father. It’s one of those results (among many) that sends home the message about the need for empirical research: Evidence and intuition do not always line up neatly.


The team will continue examining the impact of online parent education programs for divorcing and separating parents in a study starting in the Muncie family courts.


Finally, a study funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted in the Washington, D.C. Superior Court will measure the effectiveness of two forms of mediation in comparison to court-based litigation in cases with high levels of intimate partner violence. Litigation has been seen, by some, as more likely to protect victims of violence, as the victim faces the abuser under the protection that a court setting and judge might provide. Yet, no empirical studies have been done to confirm this view, and it is possible that litigation might not protect victims of violence while also denying them the chance to self-determine the outcomes of their mediation. The ongoing study will consequently, “take a look at differences between those approaches, their outcome, whether people thought it was fair, and how safe they felt,” she explains. “A year later, we’ll determine whether there’s been further violence, whether the agreements were kept and stood up over time, and other issues.”


An evolving field and a career that’s come full circle


Holtzworth-Munroe’s work is part of a larger trend in the uses of psychological science within the legal sphere. While psychology has long had a place in the courtroom—for example, providing expert testimony in criminal cases—more recently, it is being applied in ever more varied and fundamental ways:  to question, shape, and better understand the workings of the legal system itself.


Others in PBS and the law school are also tackling major issues at the intersections of psychology and law. PBS professor Mary Murphy and legal scholar Victor Quintanilla, a professor in the Maurer School, are collaborating on studies that examine the way judges, attorneys and citizens think about the fairness of procedures used in family law disputes. Several distinguished department alumni are leading experts in the field, among them John Monahan, a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and Mark Fondacaro, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. In light of the richness of this new area, PBS is in the process of creating a new certificate in psychology and law for students with a combined interest in both fields.


For Holtzworth-Munroe, work in family law has been a great intellectual adventure: “To work with people from a different field, where the training and way of thinking is quite different, to talk about where those differences are and how we mesh the two approaches—that’s been fun.”


She describes the interesting ways in which each side bumps up against the assumptions of the other—the initial resistance of a judge to randomized controlled trials because he has been elected to use his judgment and legal professionals questioning the fairness of research which randomly assigns individuals to one legal procedure or another. Or the need for researchers to accept limitations imposed by the law to protect clients from self-incrimination; it is impossible, for example, to ask the parties of a lawsuit about violent acts they may have committed even though the research team would like to do so.


Such issues, she says, “have led to engaging intellectual discussions about where the two fields meet and how we come together to talk about this and do work together.”


At the same time, her work in the law has, as she puts it, brought her own career, “full circle,” taking her back to one of her core concerns as a clinical psychologist-- to make evidence-based practices available to those who need them. That, perhaps, is the best way to ensure that justice is being served.



Psychological + Brain Sciences