Florida Appeals Court Overturns Order Requiring Psychological Evaluation of Domestic Violence Victim

The Putnam County (Florida) Circuit Court overstepped its authority when it ordered that a victim of domestic violence at the hands of a same-sex partner, as well as her son, submit to psychological evaluations, ruled the 5th District Court of Appeal in Touchet v. Jones, 2013 Fla. App. LEXIS 12809 (Aug. 16, 2013). 

Sarah Touchet and Sandra Jones are a same-sex couple who lived together as a family raising a child.  Touchet filed a petition for injunction for protection against domestic violence against Jones, alleging that Jones had physically attacked her several times.  Jones filed a reciprocal petition. 

The trial court credited Touchet’s testimony, bolstered by the testimony of a police officer “who arrived on the scene” and “described Touchet’s injuries as ‘pretty severe.’”  This was described as one of several attacks that “seemed to escalate over time.  On one occasion, Jones attacked Touchet as Touchet was packing her belongings in an attempt to leave their home.  Jones often threatened to shoot and kill Touchet or report her to the Department of Children and Families to have her children taken away.” 

The trial court granted the petition, and ordered Jones to complete a certified batterers’ intervention program and undergo evaluations for substance abuse and mental health.  But the court went a step further, also ordering Touchet to get psychological evaluations for herself and her son: “I’m going to order you to obtain a psychological evaluation that focuses on your domestic violence issues – basically, why you keep going back.  I want to get that fixed,” said Circuit Judge Scott C. Dupont.  “And I’m also going to order you to follow any recommended treatment.” 

Judge Dupont denied Touchet’s motion to stay pending appeal, and later issued an order of contempt threatening to incarcerate Touchet if she did not comply within thirty days. 

Writing for the appellate court, Judge Jay Cohen said, “We find no authority for the trial court to require a victim of domestic violence to obtain a psychological evaluation and counseling.”  The relevant statutes authorize the court to “refer” a petitioner to a certified domestic violence center, but to “order” a respondent to participate in treatment and submit to psychological evaluation.  “In our view,” wrote the court, “the Legislature’s use of that contrasting language was not unintentional.  Thus, while the trial court had the authority to refer Touchet to a psychologist, it could not order her to undergo an evaluation.  While the trial court might have been well-intentioned, the impact of its order runs contrary to the goals and purposes of the domestic-violence statute.  The statute is designed to protect victims of domestic violence. . .  Requiring a victim of domestic violence to undergo a psychological evaluation would impose a substantial financial and emotional burden on the victim and would have a chilling effect on victims of domestic violence seeking the protection of the courts.  The psychological issues underlying the cycle of domestic violence have been explored in depth by many social scientists.  See, e.g., Lenore E. Walker, The Battered Woman (1979).  These issues are complicated, and the courts are ill-suited to address them.  The best the courts can do is offer protection to those victims of abuse without placing hurdles in their way and without threatening to incarcerate them.”

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