LAUSD expert argues girl with low IQ may suffer less after sex assault

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A psychologist hired by LAUSD testified last year that a 9-year-old girl's low IQ provided a "protective factor" that could reduce the amount of emotional stress she experienced from a sexual assault, according to court records examined by KPCC.

Dr. Stan Katz made the statements during the May 2013 trial over how much in damages the girl was entitled to after being repeatedly sexually assaulted by a boy at her school.  The girl has an IQ between 64 and 70; the boy who assaulted her was not developmentally disabled, according to court transcripts.

The abuse happened at various spots around the school campus, according to David Ring, the girl's attorney. Her family sued LAUSD, arguing the girl needed financial compensation because she suffered significant trauma and would need long-term therapy.

"Protective factor"

At trial, Ring asked Katz what he meant when he had testified that the girl's mental disability "acts as a protective factor." According to the court transcript, Katz answered, "There's a relationship between intelligence and depression. What happens is the more you think about things, you can ruminate, you can focus on things, you can look at the complexities of the matter and become more depressed."

Following up, Ring asked, "So because she may be less intelligent than a general education student, she's going to suffer less depression because of it?"  Katz replied, "Very possible, yes."

Katz didn't deny that the girl had suffered, and he said she would require therapy to deal with the trauma. 

The assaults against the girl occurred in 2010, when she was 9 years old. Katz testified that when he interviewed the girl in April 2012, whatever emotional problems she may have had at the time were a result of not having her father in her life and her mental disability, not the molestation.

"I have handled hundreds of cases where the experts have given depositions, and I've never heard [the protective factor argument] in the way it was said" in this case, said Ring.

Two experts in the field reviewed Katz's testimony and said there is no science to support his assertion about the protective factor.  

"I have never seen developmental disability in a child that age used as a protective factor with respect to how they handle trauma," said University of California San Francisco psychiatrist Dr. Lynn Ponton. "In fact," she added, "developmental disability quite often puts them at risk for this type of trauma."

Dr. Steven Berkowitz, an associate professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, agreed.

A mentally disabled person who has undergone a traumatic experience may have a "compromised" ability "to fully understand why something may have happened" or "the consequences for themselves and others," said Berkowitz, who is also director of the Perelman school's Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery.  That person may also have difficulty with "decision making or problem solving around the use of coping strategies to assist them in dealing with the stress or trauma," he said.

Asked about Dr. Katz' protective factor argument on behalf of the school district, LAUSD Associate General Counsel Greg McNair said he hadn't read the trial transcripts, but added, "I don’t know anything about that. I would not agree with that. I think anyone who has been involved in a traumatic event would suffer tremendously."

Katz did not return repeated calls seeking his comment. 

"The jury was offended"

The jury in the case awarded the girl $1.4 million in damages, far more than the $10,000-$12,500 LAUSD attorney Keith Wyatt argued she needed for therapy sessions.

"The jury was offended, they were disgusted and they thought it was unbelievable that an expert witness could come in and say something like that," Ring said, referring to post-trial conversations he had with jurors.

Members of the L.A. Unified Board of Education did not respond to requests for comment, although it's unclear how familiar they are with the details of the case.  According to LAUSD counsel McNair, the board does get a brief, called a trial informative, at least thirty days before a trial, which describes the facts of the case and the positions of the district and plaintiffs, but daily briefings are unusual.

"It's a rare case when we would provide a daily update to the board on a case," said McNair. "I get daily updates on every trial that takes place," he said, adding that he's typically tracking about 100 lawsuits "more or less" at any one time.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, believes it's important that LAUSD keep its board well informed about ongoing litigation.

"What I wonder is whether or not the LAUSD actually knows what its experts and its lawyers are arguing, because this is beyond the pale for any school district that is supposed to be, under law, caring for children,"​ said Hamilton.

Even though Katz's comments on the protective factor were just a small part of his testimony in this case, Hamilton expressed concern that L.A. Unified might try to use the same argument in future lawsuits, a prospect she found "disturbing." 

Katz has become something of a celebrity through his appearances on several reality TV shows, including  "It's Complicated" with actress Denise Richards. But he said in court that most of his time is spent as an expert witness and mediator in child custody disputes. For the past ten years, he's worked on several cases, including some LAUSD child abuse cases, with Wyatt's firm of Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt.

Dr. Katz is consulting on another child abuse case involving a former teacher from Hamilton High school. That case is scheduled to go to trial in February and Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt has been retained to defend LAUSD, district officials said. Keith Wyatt will not be the lawyer from his firm trying the case because the district said he will no longer represent it in any lawsuits following remarks he made to KPCC about his handling of another sex abuse suit. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Dr. Katz when he was referring to the relationship between intelligence and depression. KPCC regrets the error.

With contributions from Francine Rios

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