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PAU Alumna Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence

Amanda HarrisOctober is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. To highlight the importance of work done on behalf of survivors of domestic violence, we spoke with PAU alumna Amanda Harris (née Feldman), J.D., Ph.D., a psychologist and attorney representing domestic violence survivors.
Harris received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from PAU in 2016. She obtained a law degree from Golden Gate University. She currently works for a New York City law firm. 
How did you become interested in working with survivors of domestic violence?
While doing my clinical work as a graduate student at PAU, I was interested in borderline personality disorder and substance abuse and how people expressed trauma. From there, I focused on working with families and children where there was child trauma, intergenerational trauma, and domestic violence. I began to get a bigger picture of these families, which guided me to what it was going to do legally.
Why did you choose to focus on law and how does your psychology degree fit in?
I chose to focus on a career in law because I wanted to help people, especially survivors of domestic violence, and provide them with the best possible future. My psychology background gave me an in-depth understanding of survivors. Most legal practitioners who've been working in family and divorce law for a long time don't necessarily buy into a trauma model. Instead, they use orders of protection as a litigation tool rather than understanding what someone has gone through. 
How does being a psychologist inform your work as an attorney?
As psychologists, we know that couples counseling isn't an option because of the power the abuser holds. I’ve watched these machinations when handling divorce cases. Our role as lawyers is to be knowledgeable and to provide a safe environment for our clients so that they can have a better future.
I am also committed to educating colleagues at my firm, other attorneys, and judges about survivors. At my firm, I insisted that we conduct client screens, similar to intake interviews – to get a better understanding of the physical, emotional and/or financial abuses a client may be going through. This education includes picking up on the emotional cues when a client begins to shut down or doesn't feel safe during the legal process – and to ensure this person has a voice.
How has COVID-19 affected working with survivors of domestic violence?
During COVID-19, there is a greater incidence of domestic violence. It is incredibly challenging to do safety planning for clients, from looking for apartments to taking phone calls or emails at home, especially when they still live with an abusive spouse. It’s difficult to find a safe way to meet with clients to file the necessary paperwork because my office and the courthouse are physically closed. The greatest challenge is you can't as easily get in front of a judge the same day you file for a protective order.
What could the legal system do better to help survivors of domestic violence?
Legislation regarding domestic violence is state and jurisdiction dependent. Overall, domestic violence should be considered when awarding spousal support and dividing the marital estate/property. I also think our court system and police officers need more education on what psychologically is going on with a survivor of domestic violence and same-sex domestic abuse, which often gets missed. Overall, as a society, we need more training on identifying the signs that someone is in an abusive relationship.
What advice do you have for students interested in working with survivors of domestic violence?
Don't hold tight to the DSM-V when it comes to trauma and domestic violence. Working with the person and through their experiences is more important than any diagnostic label. There is no cookie cutter response to domestic violence. Visit a safe shelter, get to know survivors as individuals, and expand your mind about what constitutes trauma.
What organizations are you active in?
I serve on the New State Bar Families and the Law committee and its domestic violence subcommittee, where we are presently developing a continuing legal education course for Legal Aid and attorneys in private practice. The program entails preparing litigation and prepping clients to take the stand, seeing their abuser at the courthouse, and coping with co-parenting with the abuser without alienating kids from the other parent. This course will also educate attorneys on building a trauma-safe environment at their law firm, from training the receptionist to correctly setting up the conference room.