Marriage, Divorce, Domestic Violence, and Emotional Hardship are all the centerpiece of MANY of our immigration cases. As such, this month I am honored to feature child, family, and expert witness psychologist, Jerome H. Poliacoff, Ph.D. , for our SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to sit with us, Jerome. First off, please tell our readers about yourself. What is the nature of your practice?
A: Thank YOU so much for “spotlighting” me!
I started my professional life as a child and family psychologist, trained at the University of Miami and the Children’s Psychiatric Centers. That clinical practice has evolved over time, more by chance and happenstance than active searching, into a forensic or court involved practice as an expert witness psychologist.
My first “legal case” was a child day care abuse case – I (and a few of my recently minted classmates) had a number of children from the same referral source who presented with troubling symptoms consistent with abuse. I was called as a witness and found myself fascinated with the forensic aspect of clinical work.
The defense attorney who deposed me called a year later to ask me to be a witness and I was hooked.
My practice consists of three parts
(i) Working with (counseling, consulting) adolescents and their families with all the sorts of “problems” adolescents pose to family harmony, and families in high conflict divorce
(ii) Serving as an expert (either evaluator, guardian ad litem, or consultant) in family court (divorce) cases, and
(iii) As an expert in assessing emotional damages claims in employment litigation or assessing hardship in immigration cases.
Q: What prompted you to become an psychologist?
A: Actually I wanted to be an attorney – I grew up on black and white TV and after Sky King my family’s favorite Saturday night “family viewing” was Perry Mason and the Defenders.
My family made a trip from New York to Florida and we passed what used to be the Children’s Psychiatric Centers (on the corner of Lejeune and Alhambra, a block away from my current office), I said I’d work there when I grew up.
I came back to Florida the first winter after graduating college to visit a cousin after the Viet Nam war had ended and he was enrolled at U of M on the GI bill. I took a tour of the campus – remember it was winter in New York – and I thought I’d apply to law school – admissions were closed BUT the psychology department was still accepting applications.
Anything to leave New York, I applied, and was admitted on a scholarship. I came, I graduated, I stayed (AND I did my child training at the Children’s Psychiatric Centers).
Q: What sort of cases are you most passionate about?
A: I enjoy working with adolescents, and I like family therapy, but maybe because I am still a “wanna be” lawyer I get passionate about legal cases – whether family, or tort, or immigration.
The case law, and rules and statutes, governing a case continue, for me, to make for keen reading material – each “side” has a theory of why they are “right” and figuring out what lies between is always a rewarding mental challenge.
Recently I’ve become active in working with collaborative family law cases (I know, “collaborative law” is an oxymoron if ever there was one).
The passions are still high but the road to resolution is much less adversarial, and as the “mental health neutral” in a case I get to help families craft a parenting plan, collaboratively, and get the opportunity (when needed) to keep the attorneys on task. And, more often than not the cases resolve without judicial input, and folks walk away feeling less disadvantaged.
Q: What are the kinds of immigration cases you work on?
A: Like winding up in psychology I come to immigration work by fortuitous accident.
In 2007, eight years after Elian Gonzalez, I was the default psychology choice for Ira Kurzban (no one in the Spanish language community would volunteer to serve pro bono as an expert) who was representing the father in what came to be referred to as “Elian II” (See: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/us/02adopt.html).
That relationship led to a whole new world of psychology and the law – one in which there were no guidelines for practice.
Over the past decade I’ve worked with families petitioning for waivers based on hardship, with victims of domestic violence at the hands of U.S. citizen spouses, and with asylum cases.
The most challenging are the DV cases, both emotionally, and because the INS seems to deny every one of them the first time around, despite the merits of the case.
Q: How has the changing health care environment changed to way you practice?
A: When I started practice in the 1980’s insurance carriers, Blue Cross Blue Shield for instance. reimbursed psychologists at a rate of a bit over one hundred dollars an hour. Some thirty years later that reimbursement is down to about half – about forty five dollars an hour.
When the insurance carriers started demanding more and more paperwork, and were paying less and less, I took myself off all the panels I had previously been on.
As a more senior psychologist, with a forensic specialty, that has not been a problem for me – actually it was an excellent decision. But for many of my colleagues, if not most, depending on insurance reimbursement, and the increase in paperwork, has led to some older professionals to scale back or seek other specialties, and others to work harder and longer for less.
Q: So, in the face of a declining heath care system, the high cost of insurance, and the often times out of status position of immigration litigants how do they afford your professional fees?
A: Most of the two or three hundred cases I’ve evaluated for hardship, or DV, or asylum, are ones in which petitioners are here illegally, they do not have (cannot afford) health insurance (which doesn’t pay for court related evaluations in any event), and they are meeting a psychologist for the first time.
Let’s take a hardship case for instance:
In order for you to demonstrate hardship on behalf of your client you need to demonstrate that there would be a hardship to a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident relative of the alien which would result if the alien’s inadmissibility cannot be waived.
And, hardship falls into three very loosely defined categories based on previous immigration court decisions (a) hardship, (b) extreme hardship, and (c) extreme and unusual hardship.
No matter the nature the hardship your task, and mine as a psychological evaluator, is to articulate the variety of circumstances that fall under the vague rubric of “hardship.”
The ultimate goal is to prove that the degree of hardship suffered by the alien’s qualifying relative(s) exists, and that this situation cannot be remedied by a move abroad on the part of the United States citizen or lawful permanent resident relative(s).
Early on it seemed that a psychological exam or testing showing for instance depression, or anxiety, on the part of the qualifying relative would be enough – it was until the INS got stricter (more restrictive) in it’s deliberations.
Over time I began to see that the population I was evaluating had little access to health care and suffered more often than not from gastrointestinal diseases (e.g., Crohn’s disease), and or metabolic diseases (e.g., diabetes, obesity), and or cardiovascular disease in it’s early stages (e.g., elevated blood pressure).
There is a wealth of empirical literature on the effect of disease on psychological functioning, and the effect of psychological functioning on health.
Once I got the connection my reports have begun to focu more on the adverse interaction of poor health and psychological functioning, or poor psychological functioning on health.
Those are the kinds of things that psychologists, by training and statute, or able, and allowed, to opine about and the resulting reports have become longer, more scientific, and testimony when required more compelling.
At the end of the day I decided to set a low flat fee for my services in immigration cases – health insurance, if it were available, wouldn’t cover it, and I see my work in this arena as “giving something back”.
Q: How is immigration court different than family court, or civil court?
A: WOW! Don’t get me started. An employment case (e.g., allegations of sexual harassment, or age discrimination) heard in Federal, or even state, court can go on for years until a trial, if there is one.
Along the way, as an expert, I get to review relevant deposition transcripts, I get to critique the work of the “other side’s” experts AND my work is subject to the same scrutiny and examination.
In family court – whether as a guardian ad litem, a parenting coordinator, or an evaluator – the same “discovery process” takes place.
And, a trial, if it comes to that, has been preceded by any number of appearances in court along the way by the attorneys.
Immigration court – when it occurs – is after all the paperwork is in.
A hearing is presided over by a judge who is a civil servant employed by the justice department, and today is under a demand to process increasingly larger number of cases.
The government attorney is often different at each hearing and or the final hearing and there have been no prior depositions of experts.
I think the judges respect having an expert but also don’t know what to do with one – the trial attorneys for the government are less receptive, less prepared, and increasingly hostile.
AND all this takes place at a final hearing that is scheduled for three or four hours!
Q: Thank you for your time, and for your thoughts, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. How can our subscribers reach you for a consultation?
A: I can be reached at (305) 624-7900 or via e-mail at email@example.com, or through my website drpoliacoff.com.
Thank you, Jerome, for sharing your knowledge with our subscribers. This is Elina signing off until next month’s spotlight interview. Have a great month!