Catherine Cerulli sitting on steps outside courtroom.

Catherine Cerulli: Using science against violence

Catherine Cerulli ’92 was a law student when she co-founded the law school’s oldest legal clinic, now called the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic, where clinic students represent people in crisis and advocate for public policy to reduce violence. It was one of the first in the country. She remained at the clinic upon graduating with her law degree.

From there, she went to the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office. There came a point when she realized that to effect lasting change, she’d need to expand her lawyer’s toolkit. So she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in criminal justice, enabling her to bring scientific rigor to the challenge.

Cerulli has devoted her career to preventing and redressing violence between intimate partners. Now she is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester where she has directed the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership and the university’s Laboratory of Interpersonal Violence and Victimization.

I view myself as an educator,” she says, “and to be an effective teacher, you need to have your hands in research, practice and policy. Ultimately you hope that your students will contribute to the world.

“I view myself as an educator,” she says, “and to be an effective teacher, you need to have your hands in research, practice and policy. Ultimately you hope that your students will contribute to the world.”

As a researcher, Cerulli has three primary interests. She’s interested in “how people move through the court system,” with a focus on preventing violence. She also studies the long-term effects of such violence on its targets: its impacts on health and mental health – including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – and how those effects live on in future generations. She brings that expertise to her continuing legal work, advising attorneys and judges and testifying as an expert witness in abuse cases.

Family violence knows no borders, and Cerulli has presented and led projects all over the world – from China to Italy, Russia to Southeast Asia. “Wherever I give a talk,” she says – “people come up to me and say, ‘This happened to me’ or ‘This happened to my mother.’ This is the human condition. It doesn’t matter what country I’m in; what differs is the nuances.” As a mentor, she works with young scholars worldwide, teaching methodologies and approaches and helping them to design their research. She’s particularly proud of two young students in India whom she helped start an online journal about social justice issues – at significant risk to themselves. “I’d rather live one day as a lion than 10 as a lamb,” one told her.

This year, Cerulli was selected as one of six midcareer scholars to study in Washington, D.C., as a Health Policy Fellow, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Academy of Medicine. The prestigious and intensive program aims to enrich fellows’ understanding of how federal policy is made, and includes a nine-month assignment in the executive branch or a Congressional office to work on health-related legislation and policy development.

Building on that experience, Cerulli expects to return to Rochester and examine how to help judges make more informed decisions about child custody and visitation to prevent child abuse and neglect. “I’ll examine the science, the risk factors, and put together an algorithm of sorts for judges and lawyers to use,” she says. “There’s a robust body of research on risks and protective factors, as well as the neurobiological effects of abuse on children and their behavior. I want to translate my colleagues’ science for judges and lawyers to be able to use it.”

It’s emotionally involving work, but Cerulli says it’s something she was born to do. “As professionals, we’re prepared to do certain things in our life,” she says. “Then there are people who are called to their work. When you’re doing this difficult work, those two components have to align. You really have to be prepared and called to want to make a change in this world. I feel lucky that my educational opportunities, mentors, and colleagues along the way have helped me work on preventing violence. I also appreciate survivors who have partnered with this work and trusted us with their stories.”