Most scams, such as sub-prime mortgages and email scams, victimize adults. But custody scams victimize children. When government fails to protect children it throws open the doors to private contractors—lawyers and clinicians—who enrich themselves at the expense of children. (More about this child and the mother who tried to protect her appears below.)
Monday, January 14, 2008
This op-ed by Anne Grant originally appeared in the Providence Journal on Tuesday, June 27, 2006.
TUCKED INTO a Rhode Island alleged-murder story in the May 9 Journal is a disquieting detail: The alleged killer's two children, ages 7 and 9, were in the apartment during the alleged fight to the death. The divorced father had left his children with a sitter to go out drinking; in the middle of the night he brought home the man who would die in his West Warwick kitchen.
The court computer spits out an 18-page rap sheet on Raymond C. Potter, charged with first-degree murder in the death of James Martin. It dates back to his first arrest, for domestic assault, seven years ago. The Journal reports that he also stands "accused of violating probation from a 2004 felony domestic-assault case, in which he was given a four-year suspended sentence."
So how did such a father get the children? It goes back 45 years, to an astounding proposition.
In an all-night final session on June 2, 1961, Rhode Island's sleep-deprived General Assembly unanimously approved dozens of laws, including one that set up Family Court. Gov. John Notte immediately named a chief judge and four associate justices. Pumped with patronage, the court ballooned. Today, its 13 judges and 8 magistrates impose sweeping decisions, with judicial immunity. Rhode Island is the only state that gives judges lifetime tenure without review.
Many of the lawmakers who established Family Court were lawyers -- directing a river of revenue to their profession. Did anyone really believe that adversarial litigation could help troubled families? This combative protocol has produced irresolvable wars of attrition, benefiting no one but profiteers. Lawyers, intent on causing collateral damage, bring in mental-health "experts" and send volleys whizzing back and forth.
In 1975, Rhode Island legislators approved "irreconcilable differences" as a ground for divorce. This eliminated any mention of "distasteful details of personal conduct." Though state law requires domestic violence to be considered when awarding child custody, the court routinely presumes no fault and awards joint custody. Even when there is a record of domestic violence, judges issue bizarre orders requiring the abuser and the abused to agree on important decisions in their children's lives.
Abusers with money or other forms of influence, skilled at terrorizing their families, easily gain the upper hand. Their children, suffering nightmares and stomach ailments, refuse to visit them. The abusive parent charges the protective parent with "brainwashing" the children, and wins sole custody.
The so-called Parental Alienation Syndrome, touted by many in the Rhode Island Family Court, has been discredited by the American Psychological Association and, recently, by both the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Children's Legal Rights Journal. For more than a decade, I have witnessed the devastating effects of this strategy in Rhode Island courtrooms and families.
Abusers often pride themselves on a no-nonsense parenting style that may appeal to judges. They typically show little concern for their children. Some pursue the children to torment their ex-partner or to avoid paying child support. Some force the children to deliver intelligence on the ex-partner, for protracted litigation against the protective parent. Threatened by a brutal, angry, demanding parent, the children frequently suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and worse.
A North Providence nine-year-old, diagnosed with PTSD, feared that his father would kidnap him and kill his mother, so he refused to attend school after his father returned from military duty in Iraq. On April 11, 2005, while the mother's lawyer was away on court assignment, the father's lawyer brought an emergency motion with a court-ordered guardian; the obliging judge ordered the father to enter the mother's home and "pick up" his truant son.
Mayhem ensued when the father appeared with two police officers. He literally picked up his screaming son and took him out over his shoulder, past the boy's weeping mother, grandmother, and therapist. The damage of this shock-and-awe approach is not easily undone.
Today, the boy must refer to his stepmother as "Bonus Mom," and he sees his real mother one hour a week, under intense court supervision.
In another case, last month, after a lengthy series touting the Family Court program that helps recovering addicts keep their babies, The Journal held an online interview with the chief judge. Outside, a teenager stood in pouring rain and handed out fliers with a photo of herself as a baby in her mother's arms.
Her father, a Johnston policeman charged twice by the Department of Human Services with failure to pay child support, had accused his former wife of drug addiction. Repeated tests proved him wrong, but the chief judge inexplicably gave him the baby.
"All my life," read the teen's flier, "my father told me and everyone else that I had a druggie for a mother. Three years ago I figured out he was lying. I finally left my father's violence and returned to my mother."
Since then her father has not let her talk to her half-sisters. Tormented with rage, she has sought help from psychotherapy.
The problem is not limited to Rhode Island or the United States.
In England, a group called Fathers4Justice asserted that "judges are denying fathers access to their children on little more than the say-so of vindictive ex-wives." Those fathers lost credibility this year after their plot to kidnap the prime minister's child became public. The Guardian noted ("Sins of the Fathers," May 8): "The little-known but astonishing truth about the family justice system is that it routinely grants contact orders to men who have been violent towards their partner and children. In the past decade, family courts [in England] have ordered 11 children to have contact with fathers who subsequently murdered them."
A year ago, the Rhode Island Senate established a commission to study Child Safety in Custody and Visitation. It never met.
Legislators seem too busy to care who, if anyone, is watching the children.
RHODE ISLAND’S chief justice, Frank Williams, objected to Governor Carcieri’s recent but since-dropped proposal to balance the budget by shutting down the courts and other state operations on four generally slow days. Williams cites a section of the Rhode Island Constitution that guarantees the right to a speedy trial, insisting this “cannot and should not be abrogated by monetary interests” (“Top judge balks at days off,” Feb. 14, 2007, p. A-1 ff.).
Tell this to families devastated from decades of looting by Family Court lawyers, guardians ad litem, and mental-health professionals who drag out domestic cases that promise them a stream of income through frivolous litigation and strategic delays. While the majority of those in Family Court may not be looters, few would deny that some of their colleagues unethically exploit human crises to enrich themselves.
Among the many children I’ve followed are three whose 18th birthdays are finally emancipating them. Family Court had removed all three from protective mothers who were victims of domestic violence or rape. These children endured years of abuse by fathers intent on punishing women who had rejected them.
One youth was abandoned by the abusive parent; the other two rebelled. Feelings of rage overwhelm them like a riptide. Family Court subjected them to endless crises and false charges. Judges labeled them “manipulative” before returning them, damaged, to their mothers.
The first time I asked Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah in 1993 about problems that battered mothers encountered while trying to protect their children in his court, he said amiably that it’s all political anyway. He saw no problem in the fact that psychologists favor whichever parent pays them.
Am I naïve to think this system should rely on rules of evidence and merits of a case rather than money? Are these children not entitled to speedy justice?
Chief Jeremiah’s direct involvement in many of these cases along with his former tenants and political associates suggest significant conflicts of interest. His assistant David Tassoni, mediating one of the cases, determined that the father should pay only $200 a month child support. This locked the man’s two teenagers in poverty while their mother worked menial jobs day and night.
Cranston records for 2004 show the same father, a licensed real-estate agent, giving his house to an older son by his first wife. She had been director of counseling at a Rhode Island college 25 years ago when she called campus security and police, saying that he had taken their baby and threatened to kill her.
According to her affidavit, he menaced her colleagues, too, telling her: “When I get through with you, you won’t have a job and neither will they, if you live that long.” When a judge found him in contempt for failure to pay her child support in 1995, he had already faced abuse charges and three years of litigation with his second wife.
The second case dragged through 11 Family Court judges by 2002, when Judge Howard Lipsey said: “I feel [this father] is abusing the court system for his own purposes . . . taking advantage of his children . . . of his oldest son . . . of his former wife. I think he is really devious. I think he has no desire to really look into the best interest of the . . . children. And if anyone is causing pain to these children and not allowing them to re-establish a relationship . . . it is he who is doing it.”
Judge Lipsey returned the children to their mother after they had been psychologically devastated by twenty-nine months with this abusive father. Then Lipsey did something astonishing that revealed the unrelenting cat-and-mouse game at Family Court. Saying he was no longer unbiased, he recused himself from any further decisions on it, including child support, and sent the case to a 12th judge, where Tassoni weighed in as mediator.
Many younger children have already replaced the three who are turning 18. People in Little Compton packed their community center last year after the court removed two young sisters from their mother when the girls complained about things they said their father had done to them.
The father paid for a psychological evaluation blaming the mother. The court ordered her to pay tens of thousands of dollars for mental-health professionals and a guardian ad litem, while she seldom sees her daughters.
Elderly grandparents and friends struggled to raise a six-digit sum for an out-of-state lawyer, who has fought similar cases in 44 states. If he gets to argue this case, it could set a historic precedent for Rhode Island children.
The General Assembly has dodged this problem. One-quarter of its members are lawyers, many of whom practice in Family Court. Lawyers dominate both chambers’ Judiciary Committees.
The U.S. attorney says he cannot step in: This is a state matter.
The real question is not whether we should close court for four days, but whether we will continue to deny justice for 18 years while professionals in Family Court profiteer off children in crisis.
Lawyer Jeffery Leving and men's advocate Glenn Sacks have rushed here from California to rally the troops in support of the so-called Parental Alienation Syndrome ("Protect children from alienation," Commentary, July 8). Their effort illustrates the way adversarial litigation feeds on troubled families.
They ignore the guideline just published by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges that Parental Alienation Syndrome "should be ruled inadmissible and/or stricken from the evaluation report." They disregard the definitive analysis that discredits Parental Alienation Syndrome, in the current issue of Children's Legal Rights Journal.
Leving and Sacks try to dismiss me as a "women's advocate." But I have also written in this newspaper about a superb father who lost children and home, allegedly owing to collusion among lawyers and judges at Rhode Island Family Court.
They allege that Amy Neustein's "now adult daughter, Sherry Orbach, publicly refuted her mother's claim [that the girl had reported being sexually abused by her father]." Photographs suggest another story. The smiling 6-year-old became a different child after the Brooklyn, N.Y., Family Court kept concerned experts from testifying, and awarded her father sole custody. By the age of 8, Sherry appeared dazed and emaciated, and lurid in scarlet lipstick and nail polish.
Leving and Sacks say nothing about Dr. Richard Gardner, who devised "Parental Alienation Syndrome" and who lobbied to abolish mandatory reporting of child abuse.
People held hostage at any age soon identify with their abusers; like Sherry Orbach, they will say or do whatever is required. Yes, they are being alienated, but not by "Parental Alienation Syndrome." Their scientifically predictable behavior is called the Stockholm Syndrome.
It's time the Rhode Island General Assembly held Family Court accountable for the alienation it blames on victims of abuse.
MANY AMERICANS have been shocked to discover how torture is used to extract information when conducting a war. This has unsettling parallels to what happens when children are abused to extract intelligence in contested custody and visitation cases.
For more than a decade I've been following these cases in the Rhode Island Family Court, trying to understand how the problem ever got so bad and what can be done about it.
I have focused on those cases where one parent had a history of domestic violence, and the other parent was trying to keep children safe. Abusers with enough money, power, and obsession have learned to use Family Court to their advantage by treating children like prisoners of war.
Children tell of an abusive parent requiring them to gather intelligence for court. They are rewarded or punished according to the usefulness of the information they deliver on the other parent. Some learn to fabricate evidence: Lying becomes a way of life that torments them for years to come.
Well-intentioned judges try to get children to tell them the truth in chambers. It rarely works. Children who have been sexually humiliated are too ashamed to talk about it. If children speak candidly to the judge in front of warring attorneys, they are punished severely afterward. So-called "expert witnesses" favor the parent who pays.
Children distrust some judges' air of self-importance. In one Rhode Island transcript, a judge tells a 13-year-old: "Maybe if your dad and mother had come in here in the first place we might have helped them stay together."
The judge never knew that, eight years earlier, the boy had watched his step-father shoot his mother in the head with a 38-caliber pistol. After four misfires, one shot struck home. She recovered and eventually won a divorce. But her volunteer lawyer told her not to complicate matters with the history of domestic violence.
The boy's court-ordered visits with his stepfather grew increasingly disruptive until he finally suffered a breakdown and told his mother that he had seen her shot. By then it was too late. Within months, he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head.
We must remove cases of contested custody and visitation from the routine terror that accompanies domestic violence. Children in intractable cases should be represented by an advocate who is independent of the courts and works solely in the child's interest, dedicated to discerning the truth as quickly as possible.
Child protection agencies cannot do this. Under federal guidelines to preserve families, their social workers and attorneys have buckled under parental threats, abandoning these children.
We need dedicated teams, trained to recognize patterns of abuse, who can closely follow intractable cases and assure that children’s physical, emotional, and financial needs are met. The team could be called guardian ad litem if only that term were not so badly tainted by those who colluded in the past with whichever parent paid them. The team would monitor child support. They would provide supervised visitation that would show them what is really happening. They would deliver independent psychiatric assessments to a small number of select judges who specialize in these cases. They would break the grip of malicious game-playing that delights an aggressive litigant.
One woman recalled her husband's threats when she left him. A deputy sheriff in Family Court with a history of abuse, he had shouted at her, "What do you love most in life?"
She said, "My children!"
"Watch what I do to them!" he screamed.
Too many children suffer long-term damage in intolerable, court-ordered circumstances, because the details of their lives cannot be adequately presented in litigation. Too often judges and magistrates have conflicts of interest or stereotypes about one parent or the other. These cases assure callous lawyers a perpetual income if they let them linger.
Leaders in the legislature and the courts must end the sanctioned abuse of children in contested custody and visitation cases.
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About the mother and child pictured at the top
She is one of countless children in Rhode Island subjected to severe emotional and physical trauma by Family Court when it helps abusive parents to maintain control over their families after divorce. When she turned 18 in 2007, she gave the Parenting Project permission to publish her picture on behalf of all children who have been held hostage by Rhode Island custody scams.
About the Author and the Cause