Shrouded in layers of complexity—ordeals in divorce and custody play out that often leave one to wonder whose interest they have in mind when determining outcomes.
Often times the players you find arguing before the courts in these types of cases are quite familiar and comfortable with one another—the faces and names appearing and tasked with hearing the facts and finding just solutions are regulars in these courtrooms. While each case is unique—the treatment, mannerisms and how they play out is bizarrely not!
What happens when outcomes take a backseat to convenience, money and in many cases systems of patronage?
“When I walk into that courtroom all I think about is my little girl. All they (the court and its players) want to do is to take her away from me. I get sick to my stomach just thinking about the next court date. If it was a fair and unbiased system I would not even be worried. This court is not—the agenda seems pre-determined.” —WILLIAM BRANDEL, ORANGE COUNTY, NEW YORK
William Brandel of Orange County, New York is involved in such an ordeal that is full of back and forth litigation that has seen filings, hearings, and custody agreements. It also has left a documented trail of payments to lawyers, an attorney appointed by the court for the child and custody evaluators. Many of these payments ordered by the court—with little consideration as to the means of this parent’s ability to pay—while warning him of such consequences (like contempt of court) if he does not do so in an unrealistic timeframe demanded upon him.
Examining William’s case many questions come up when reviewing the court docket, the paper trail—the carefully structured narrative delivered by lawyers and entertained by the court.
The peculiarity lies not only with what has been included on record with the court—but what appears to have been “excluded” and “un-obtained” by the court and those players it empowers to contribute to any findings of fact.
In commenting on his experience thus far in his ordeal, William stated the following:
“My experience as a parent going through a divorce and custody proceeding in the Orange County New York Court System has made me feel sorry for everyone like myself that has to try to defend themselves—not only from the opposing party—but the system itself. I am a single father who after years of raising my daughter alone without any support from my daughter’s mother is being brought back to court because of changes she wants that are different from what we both agreed on previously. The court system is supposed to protect children, do what is in their best interest. They don’t they don’t listen to the children—they appoint attorneys for them that seem to be more concerned about their own reputations and not to the parents going through tough times with their children. For the system to work everyone must work together and abide by the same rules—but that is not what happens and it hurts the children and parents both emotionally and financially. When the system fails people get scarred for life. I am disgusted with this circus of a system–it is broken and unless you are unopposed it will not be fair to you.”
William, who is a custodial parent with shared parenting time with the mother, has found himself in a situation where the future of his involvement in the life of his daughter is in jeopardy—in part due to unseen facts that have not been examined in part because of the nature and cycle of this type of litigation that drains many parents’ resources. The result in William’s ordeal has left him in a precarious situation due to such financial vulnerabilities—ones that have been exploited by those involved in the case.
Often what plays out, as it did for William, is a scenario where the attorney representing his or her client gets to a point where that client has had their financial resources depleted to the point where not much is left for them to get by, let alone pay more legal expenses to continue—resulting in the lawyer telling a client at a critical juncture that they can no longer represent them and will ask to be removed unless they receive substantial payment. Often that parent cannot make such an accommodation to pay and is forced into a scenario where they have to move forward representing themselves whereby they are completely disadvantaged—not having the expertise or know-how to navigate the courtroom proceedings and unseen politics that are playing out.
Commenting on the financial devastation inflicted by the court, William remarked:
“I am a disabled dad. I am on a limited income. I cannot work to supplement my income. The court system has taken every last penny I had…I have to pay a lawyer to defend my child—a lawyer who won’t talk to me! I have no funds left—they drained me now they want to go for the kill. This is justice? I will never recover financially unless I hit the lottery…”
Once in this circumstance, the options that exist for a person in such a situation are few and far between in this area of law. Not many lawyers are willing to challenge the system or work pro bono—because at the end of the day it is about money and power for these players in such court systems more so than a clients or child’s best interest.
Evaluation of Facts in Child Custody
In deciding the outcomes of child custody a court often relies on outside opinion in the form of evaluations done by forensic psychologists along with an appointed attorney for the child referred to as the Guardian Ad Litem.
These evaluations are only as good as the professionalism and thoroughness that is put into them. In Williams’s situation, his report seemed to have been rushed without many things being taken into consideration that are recognized as standard when putting together such evaluations.
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings.
In some states, such as New York, the litigant who is the subject of the evaluation is not permitted a copy of the report and often is at the mercy of their attorney to review it with them prior to any hearings so as to allow them to understand what is being said so they can take notes and sufficiently digest that information—with ample time to obtain other opinions and respond to any adverse findings that may not reflect the entirety of the parent as a whole or their overall skills in that role.
When reports rely on information based on a couple of one hour sessions talking to a parent and the use of some standard multiple-choice tests (i.e. MCMI-III or MMPI-2)—it can often equate to an incomplete picture and grossly inaccurate analysis of a situation. This now becomes a disadvantage to the child when the custody evaluator fails to employ many of the APA’s guidelines such as using multiple methods of data gathering and obtaining information from sources such as schools, health care providers, private therapist, extended family members, friends and other acquaintances of this nature. Thus the findings in such situation get submitted to a court that failed to obtain critical information and rely more on hearsay than fact in determining an outcome that will claim the best interest of a child—without the necessary facts to reach such determinations.
“The appointed attorney for my child has never talked to me about my daughter. She doesn’t know me or my child—yet makes recommendations without getting all the facts. I am judged by hearsay coming from one side. Now the attorney reports to the court what they ‘think’ is best for my child, having never even spoken to me? When I try to speak up no one listens—because I am the bad person. You can never get a fair shot if right from the start you are branded the bad guy. The truth now becomes hidden because one person doesn’t do what they should and as time passes they will never change their mind even if you have proof that they were wrong. It is not fair when the system fails time and time again and the same people are allowed to continue to be in decision making positions—and never questioned.” —WILLIAM BRANDEL, ORANGE COUNTY, NEW YORK
Civil Liberties for Families
“The FCLU is a national group of activists fighting for reforms in American family courts and the judiciary.” —SEBASTIAN DOGGART, PRESIDENT OF THE NEW YORK FCLU
A few organizations and advocates do come into the fold on occasion that assist individuals like William—one such being a group called the Families Civil Liberties Union (FCLU).
The President of the New York Families Civil Liberties Union, Sebastian Doggart, who has taken an interest in Williams’ case recently spoke about the dysfunction of the family court system and lack of oversight, saying:
“In New York, the Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) is supposed to oversee our judges. But the CJC neglects to investigate reasonable complaints: less than 0.1%, according to the Center for Judicial Accountability… There is no profession lesser suited to resolving differences over custody and parenting than attorneys. They are pre-disposed to conflict, deceit, and personal financial gain.”
Commenting on determinations in these types of cases the courts sometimes remark that they reach decisions based upon a totality of information—which can fall beyond the scope of what is being addressed and considered. That said, one has to wonder if this “totality” line of thinking by the courts encompasses all the variables and moving parts, not just those that are convenient for the court—especially without proper due process having been afforded to litigants prior to any determinations.
The familiarity between the players—Judges, custody evaluators, lawyers, and various third parties—and their performances before the courts are strikingly similar as one case after another is shuffled through courtrooms. In factoring the ‘totality’ of the court environment, the sense of small-town relationships existing between players make the dynamic and who’s who in relation to the outcomes a bit eye-catching.
Filling in the blanks and seeing who everyone is—what associations they have and even who they are related to within the court systems—translates into a sense that these cases and many of the outcomes have indeed been pre-determined to an extent, even prior to either party having been truly heard and represented based on facts over hearsay and fiction.
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