Dr. Julie Battle, chair of Brenau Department of Psychology

Battle Tested

Brenau psychology professor Julie Battle brings a special strength to the war on child abuse: empathy. She helps victims understand what has happened to them and more effectively communicate their stories in a quest for justice.
By James Swift

In his seminal work, Beyond Good and Evil, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sternly warned those who fight monsters, “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” For the past 15 years, Julie Battle, chair of Brenau’s Department of Psychology, has stared into the abyss – serving as a voice for children who have suffered severe abuse and maltreatment. Since 2000, Battle has conducted more than 1,700 forensic interviews with minors – some as young as just 2 years old – who were abuse victims. She has testified about 100 times in Georgia courtroom trials in Hall and Dawson counties, including a heavily publicized case in 2015 involving a 4-year-old sex trafficking victim.

“Sometimes, the children don’t even recognize the behavior as abuse,” she says. “In one sentence, they will tell you very matter-of-factly these horrible things that happened to them, and in the next they’re talking about playing Superman and jumping off the sofa.

“The ones that have affected me the most are the ones where the parents have done everything right but it happens anyway,” she says. “When they leave them with trusted people and it still happens, how are you supposed to protect your own children?”

She is especially troubled when victim and assailant are part of the same family. She had one case in which an older sibling perpetrated abuse on several younger children in the family.

“These cases are especially heartbreaking,” she recalls. “Parents are torn. They love both of their children, yet one child has violated the other in the most intrusive way imaginable.”

Battle occupies a homey office in an unassuming white house on Academy Street on Brenau’s historic campus. Artwork depicting colorful ducks, rustic pictures of fruit and photographs of her two children are visible. Behind her desk, however, are stark reminders of the darker side of humanity – newspapers clippings with grim headlines detailing ghastly and grisly crimes.

Surrogate voice for abused children

The horrors of physical, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse, which leaves adult victims feeling disempowered, helpless and sometimes at fault, are particularly hard on child victims. They sometimes cannot articulate what has happened to them, even to people who can help them, like police, prosecutors, medical professionals or their own parents. It is doubly difficult if they have to relive their trauma through repeated interviews and testimony in the justice system. Authorities consider the forensic interview – a process where a child is given the opportunity in a safe, supportive environment to make a statement about what happened – as the “best practice” alternative to having a child grilled by police or heavily cross-examined in an adversarial courtroom proceeding. Psychologists like Battle must be extremely skillful in getting the young victims to tell their stories however they can and share those stories with authorities. She becomes the abused child’s surrogate voice.

It is not a calling for the faint of heart.

Heather Hayes, executive director of the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children, a nonprofit providing services for young victims in Hall and Dawson counties, has since 2000 collaborated with Battle on hundreds of child abuse and maltreatment cases. Battle, Hayes says, handles the deluge of constant “vicarious trauma” with an approach that is sharp yet compassionate. To build rapport with youngsters, Battle will get down on the carpet and play dolls with them. In homicide cases, she guides children through the aftermath of deaths of their siblings and makes sure they receive the aftercare services they need. Battle’s forensic interviews are crucial for social workers and prosecutors, and her abuse prevention programs are vital resources for various fields, from law enforcement to public education.

“There are not many people who would sign up for this duty, to spend the number of years she has spent doing it,” Hayes says, “but she is just a steady ship who shows up to do her job brilliantly every day.” Battle, who has an easy smile to go along with a warm demeanor, speaks softly. However, because of her knowledge and professionalism, she speaks with authority and conviction.

Professor Julie Battle, above right, is warm, friendly and engaging with students, teens and toddlers. But in the courtroom (facing page), her soft voice exudes authority, often overcoming even the most hostile cross examination.
Professor Julie Battle is warm, friendly and engaging with students, teens and toddlers. But in the courtroom, her soft voice exudes authority, often overcoming even the most hostile cross examination.

Battle  works as a facilitator in the nationally acclaimed Stewards of Children online training program, developed by the South Carolina-based Darkness to Light organization that combats child sexual abuse. She also frequently coordinates abuse prevention training sessions throughout the North Georgia community. A big component of the program, she says, is teaching parents and educators to have better boundaries and judgement. She cites a recent Hall County case, in which an 85-year-old violin instructor was charged with multiple counts of child molestation.

“We let them go in the backroom with the instructor, we let them close the door and we think that’s OK,” she says. “The program is a way to train parents to make better decisions, to realize just how risky that situation is.”

Battle also lends her expertise to law enforcement officials, rape counselors and domestic abuse responders. Working alongside such a wide range of individuals, she says, demonstrates the pivotal role psychologists play in addressing some of society’s most pressing issues.

In any given year, roughly 30 percent of the U.S. adult population meets diagnosable criteria for mental health disorders. About 50 percent of Americans experience mental health-related issues at some point in their lives, which Battle says clearly defines the need for professionals who are well-versed in psychology science.

“We have therapists in prevention roles trying to stop abuse and violence from ever happening and we have people on the backend dealing with the consequences,” she says. “Ideally, we would like to educate everybody and teach people skills so that these crimes never happen in the first place.”

Admirable impartiality, cool confidence

Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard says she is “blown away” by Battle’s commitment, talent and knowledge, which is a great model for young professionals. She engages toddlers and teens, prosecutors and defense lawyers and juries with comfort and credibility. While other child advocate vets tend to become overzealous and emotional, Woodard says Battle retains an admirable impartiality.

"In a court room, I'd put her up against anyone," says a leading North Georgia prosecutor who has witnessed Battle endure severe cross -examination by defense attorneys.
“In a court room, I’d put her up against anyone,” says a leading North Georgia prosecutor who has witnessed Battle endure severe cross-examination by defense attorneys.

Lee Darragh, district attorney for Georgia’s Northeastern Judicial Circuit, says that Battle has an extraordinary skill for thorough forensic interviews that helps keep abused children off the witness stand. And, he adds, when Battle is on the stand in the child’s place, she is virtually unassailable in cross-examination.

“I would put her up against any forensic interviewer in the country,” he says. “She is constantly updating and refining her own technique based on current studies and findings. She’s just a good student as well as an excellent teacher.”

“It just does my heart good to see someone who has such a caring commitment to the health and safety of children,” Woodard says. “She just brings out the best in all of us.”

Battle, who is 44 years old, grew up in Thibodaux, Louisiana, a small town about 60 miles west of New Orleans that is most famous for being the birthplace of Amos Moses, the one-armed alligator hunter in the eponymous 1970 country song by Jerry Reed. After graduating from a private Catholic school and the University of Southern Mississippi, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Houston.

She chose clinical psychology as her major over her other passion, mathematics. In her studies, Battle was inspired by works like Truddi Chase’s When Rabbits Howl and Marilyn VanDerbur’s Miss America by Day. As an undergrad she was named outstanding psychology student of the year and was involved in a student group that presented educational programs on date rape, bullying and self-esteem to local schools.

When she entered graduate school, the worlds of academic psychology and real-world criminal justice collided.

“I started teaching right away,” she recollects. “I was paired with an older student who had been teaching for a while in the psychology of the law class … that really contributed to what I’m doing now.”

In the last year of her doctoral studies, she had a full-time internship at the Veterans Administration medical centers in Mississippi where she worked with Vietnam War vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and women who had experienced sexual assaults while in military service.

Battle and her husband Jeff migrated to Atlanta in the late 1990s for Battle’s postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University. She spent a year working with patients with severe mental health disorders at Grady Hospital before Carmen Mas, then chair of Brenau’s Department of Psychology, recruited her in 1999 to join the department’s two-person faculty. She succeeded Mas as chair in 2007. Since she came to Gainesville, the psychology program has grown to a faculty and staff of 10 overseeing an undergraduate degree program, master’s degree programs in psychology and clinical psychology, a community counseling clinic and an online interdisciplinary Master of Applied Gerontology program.

Mas, who also worked at the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children in Gainesville, introduced Battle to forensic interviewing. “We were talking about clinical practices and what I wanted to do,” Battle recalls, “and she immediately told me I needed to go talk with the people at the center.”

The center’s director, Heather Hayes, says Battle handles of the deluge of constant “vicarious trauma” as well as anyone in the field with an approach that is sharp yet compassionate.

Brenau’s interdisciplinary emphasis

In her Brenau work, Battle says she strives to make each undergrad and graduate class community-focused and interactive. In one psych lab, students took a trip to a Humane Society shelter to witness the effects of behaviorism on cats and dogs while in a child advocacy course students were invited to sit in on youth maltreatment trials.

A key academic strength of the department, Battle says, is its interdisciplinary emphasis.

“As a whole, the psych department faculty are great,” Battle says. “What I love is that we all have very different specialties, so when students come, whatever it is that they are interested in, there is probably a faculty member who has some expertise in that area.” Both undergrad and grad students, she says, appreciate their programs’ intensive feedback. Beyond teaching psych fundamentals, Battle says Brenau’s courses also help students with personal growth goals, such as developing communication skills and better expressing their own beliefs and convictions.

In addition to clinical training, Battle says students also learn plenty of assessment and research skills. When they leave their programs, she says they are equally prepared to pursue careers in therapy or psychometrics, a branch of psychology concerned with  the objective measurement of human beings’ skills and knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits and educational achievement.

“Our grad students don’t have trouble finding jobs, and a lot of them have job interviews before they leave,” Battle says. “As for our undergraduates, they’ve gone on to HR positions, inpatient faculty staff and research. We even had two students who left and went to work for the FBI. ”

While the graduate programs have almost maxed out in terms of growth, Battle says there’s plenty of opportunities to expand Brenau’s undergrad psych program.

“We have about 15 to 20 new psych majors a year. We’d really like that to be closer to 50,” she says. “Some of our courses are only offered every other year, but if we get our numbers up, in the fall our first move will be to offer those courses every year.”

Regarding future degree tracks, Battle says she is optimistic the department can begin work on a postgraduate industrial organization psychology program shortly. “We’ve been talking about it for years,” she says, “and we now have the resources to do it.”

Outstanding teacher

Before she became an adjunct professor at Brenau, Sheena Young, BU’13, was a student in several undergraduate and graduate courses taught by the Department of Psychology chair.

“Dr. Battle has a gift of making just about anything make sense, even inherently difficult subjects, such as statistics,” Young says. “Her passion for educating is so evident in her instruction style that she makes students want to pay attention and learn, which makes her easy to follow and a great teacher.”

As the recipient of the Ann Austin Johnston Award for outstanding teaching, Battle delivered the fall convocation address to Women's College students.
As the recipient of the Ann Austin Johnston Award for outstanding teaching, Battle delivered the fall convocation address to Women’s College students.

Dr. Kristen Green, clinical director of the Brenau Center for Counseling & Psychological Services and assessment coordinator for the department’s clinical counseling program, says Battle’s influence on her colleagues is undeniable.

“Her leadership has encouraged the growth of research among the faculty, and she encourages faculty to reach beyond our day-to-day activities to serve students and the community,” she says. Furthermore, she says Battle has greatly inspired students to reach their full potential by expecting more out of their own abilities.

Undergraduate Coordinator and Assistant Professor Perry Daughtry says students love taking Dr. Battle’s classes because “she drives them to levels of accomplishment they did not believe they could achieve. Can there be a greater positive impact on students than to alter their view of themselves and their capabilities?”

She drives faculty, too. Daughtry says she encouraged him to apply for and pursue doctoral studies. “Julie is the reason I am striving for a Ph.D. — I would not be working toward this goal if it was not for her.”

Battle concedes that she would like for her legacy to be that she helped people stretch their abilities and inspired many of them to join her in the daunting task of providing professionalism and compassion to the most vulnerable among us.

“It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child,” Battle says. “I feel humbled and honored to be part of the village in Hall County that works to protect the children from abuse and to help them deal with abuse when it occurs.”

At the May 2015 commencement, Battle received Brenau’s annual Ann Austin Johnston Award for outstanding teaching. As a result, she delivered the keynote speech to welcome incoming students at the Women’s College first convocation last fall.

“Regardless of where you end up in life, what job you have or how much money you make,” she told the students, “if you are bold, if you write your own narrative and you find your passion, you will be successful.”

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