Date of Conferral





Human Services


William M. Barkley


Extralegal Factors Important to Judges' Decisions in Child Abuse Custody Cases


Marilyn J. Nolan

MS, Pittsburg (Kansas) State University, 1986

BS, Missouri Southern State University, 1982

Dissertation Submitted in Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

Human Services

Walden University

May 2015

Research has shown juvenile court judges are skeptical of mental health testimony; however there is a lack of research regarding what types of testimony by what kinds of experts are valued by judges. Using the theory of legal pragmatism, the purpose of this study was to assess how 83 Oklahoma District Court judges rated extralegal factors influencing their perceptions of the credibility of mental health expert testimony. Quantitative survey research methods were used to collect the data. Friedman ANOVAs by ranks with multiple comparisons were used to test differences across multiple characteristics, and Spearman rho coefficients assessed relationships of age and gender of judges with their importance ratings of extralegal factors. The results showed that judges preferred PhD psychologists over other mental health professionals, witnesses who drew firm conclusions, testimony in layman's terms, and citing theories accepted by the scientific community. A child's testimony and educational credentials of experts were important to younger female judges when deciding custody as was maintaining the integrity of the family when deciding termination issues. Other findings included: all judges agreed sexual abuse was the most important criteria for terminating parental rights, all forms of child abuse were important case factors that influenced judges' decisions, and disparaging parents and substance abuse by a parent were important to older male judges in their decisions. Results from this study will assist in the development of core curricula for courtroom skills training for mental health experts, paving the way for positive social change. With improved training and quality of expert testimony, judges will be more likely to use testimony from knowledgeable unbiased experts when making decisions which will benefit children, families, and communities.