Similar to watching a magician perform a trick on stage that has the initial impact of leaving most viewers in disbelief—the episodes that play out within the confines of family law can many times operate under the same principle—distract and deceive.
The Hand is Quicker than the Eye
Unless a person has had the misfortune of being in the predicament on more than one occasion – everything they encounter and see playing out before them is often for the first time. This tends to create a problem in an area of law that has very little oversight at its disposal – and the oversight that does exist in many cases often suffers from having an appearance of impropriety when one scrutinizes the membership and affiliations of such entities.
Using the analogy of a magician performing an act on stage and understanding how they did it – well, good luck in trying to get them to explain it to the bewildered audience since most magicians have a self-imposed rule to never reveal secrets. In applying this to the stage where family court ordeals transpire, whether it is one performer or several working in concert to produce desired outcomes – they often share one other fact that the spotlight doesn’t always focus on – the other individuals working around the stage with them day in and day out. These individuals are often in the best position to observe the inner workings of the court – holding different titles but commonly known as clerks, custody evaluators, reporters, security officers, interpreters and court attorneys.
View From Within
Many of them have spent a better part of their careers working within the infrastructure of the court system — all with a front row seat in observing various aspects of the behaviors and patterns playing out in the court.
Robin Dorantes, a retired Senior Clerk, worked for the State of New York, in the Family Court located in the Bronx. Commenting on her assignment there, she expressed the following:
During the course of my assignment at Bronx Family Court, (aside from the conditions that could occur from people requiring its services) I found the enormous egos and ironically lack of judgment of many judges, support magistrates, (at that time referred to as hearing examiners) and referees truly disturbing. As it is and simply by virtue of one having been appointed the title of judge [could] certainly provide a person with his or her own feelings of entitlement as well as insecurities, neurosis or any such variety of human frailties, not to mention one most unattractive condition commonly referred to as a ‘God Complex’. Of course and in all fairness, there were always those judicial employees who did as best as they could—given the limited resources available to them. There were times when a judge’s behavior would be so incredibly inappropriate as to provide fuel for non-judicial employees’ conversation amongst one another—as well as court officers, clerks, assistants and sundry other office workers. I’ve known officers to actually walk out of a court part in total dismay and disgust due to a judge’s untoward behavior. There was one such incident I recall where a hearing examiner, notorious for his uncontrolled outbursts actually ‘went off on’ a case before his bench, kicking over a trash can and had his officer remove the people from his courtroom! He had them return after lunch, a typical procedure if a case ran up to the court’s lunch hour; this exhausting procedure placed many a petitioner or respondent in a most inconvenient position as many of them had jobs and not being aware of the court’s machinations, could conceivably be there for the balance of the day, not to mention the copious number of adjournments imposed due to any number of reasons.
Rules Meant To Be Broken
Emily Gallup was a family court services mediator in California for four years where she was responsible for making formal written recommendations regarding child custody when mediation between parents did not succeed. She recounts experiences regarding ex parte communications that would often transpire saying,
I met with parents daily to try to facilitate mediated agreements. When this was not possible, I recommended what I thought would be the best custody arrangement. In the vast majority of cases, the judge ordered what the mediator recommended. I met with the family court judge daily, as well. Our judge did not understand/accept the concept of ‘ex parte communication,’ so I had to attend morning staff meetings where the mediators and judge discussed the day’s cases privately. I was also asked to have this type of ex parte communication with the judge in her chambers if she had a question about how mediation went, or what I’d recommended in my report.
In demonstrating how such conversations would transpire, these excerpts from her book illustrates this type of communication:
Bad Behavior and Key Insights
Melissa Isaak, an attorney who practices Family Law in Alabama, commented on several concerns in regards to the Family Court system, touching on a broad range of issues listed out below she offers an insight into some key areas.
Ex Parte Communications
“The ex parte communications are rampant. When the ex parte communication is brought to the issues.’ There are certain judges who are notorious for ex parte communications and it is expected when their financial contributors or friends are opposite a case. While everyone knows that it is not allowed, it is widely practiced.”
“Due diligence is woefully inadequate. In my experience and after thousands of cases, there is one Judge who consistently and consciously rules on custody decisions and applies what is truly best for children: shared parenting. Other Judges listen to evidence of how a Mother let a child eat ice cream at 10:00 p.m., or how a father put his daughter to sleep without brushing her teeth, or that a father let his 10-year-old daughter watch a PG-13 movie. Rather than focusing on how to craft an arrangement which would guarantee both (fit) parents having the opportunity to raise their children, the Courts entertain menial complaints that have little to do with parental fitness to the tune of billions of dollars a year.”
“It is common knowledge that certain lawyers carry certain favor with certain Judges. Without a doubt this a huge problem. With few exception, parents should be most concerned with who their Judge is and the track record of that Judge. If a parent’s case is assigned to a Judge who will not, under any circumstance, grant both parents equal rights to a child, both parents should be ready for the fight of their lives because they will be pitted against one another in a ‘winner takes all’ courtroom. If the parents have lawyers, they likely will have little interaction with court staff. If they have lawyers, they should be prepared to get the ‘what the Judge is likely to do’ speech. Few lawyers will challenge a system that they themselves know to be unfair. Every member of the bar should be concerned with fairness and impartiality. Regardless of the area of the law, this is the trademark of justice and the only way that our society will have any sense of trust in our profession and in the Courts.”
Across the nation the dysfunction within the family law system flourishes and continues in a manner where rules are ignored, laws are manipulated and egos go unchecked.
Parents and children are routinely put into circumstances far from anyone’s best interests but at the behest of power and profits. Until more individuals in the position to observe the true nature of these practices and proceedings have the type of recourse and oversight that is beyond reproach, protecting those willing to speak out on the misconduct and unethical behaviors, nothing will likely change.
“We live in a world where everyone thinks they do the right thing, so they are entitled to do the wrong thing. So ends can justify the means.”—Alex Gibney
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