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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, November 2, 2009

California I-Team investigates Family Court Costs

I-Team Examines High Costs Of Family Court (Click on the title for the original link.)

Parents Say They Are Drained Of Money By Court Professionals

Lauren Reynolds
10News I-Team Reporter
POSTED: 2:18 pm PDT October 29, 2009
UPDATED: 11:55 am PST November 2, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- Jim Wittmack's home is lined with hundreds of pictures of the two children who no longer live with him.

"The whole custody thing was about money," he said.

He has strong feelings about the family court system.

"It is very well crafted by the professionals to extort money from the parents and ramp up fees," he explained.

It's a complaint the 10News I-Team has heard several times over the past year while investigation several stories in family court.

Connie Valentine of the California Protective Parents Association said, "It's pay to play."

She said the problem is not unique to San Diego or even to California, but is nationwide.

"It's a money industry at this point; a completely unregulated money industry in which the professionals can charge what they want," she said.

The professionals include attorneys, evaluators, special masters and mediators. Sometimes one person will take on different roles in different cases. For example, a mediator in one case might be a custody evaluator in a second and a special master, or tie-breaker, in a third.

Among the higher priced services provided by psychologists in San Diego is a custody evaluation. There are a dozen psychologists routinely used in San Diego Family Court.

"The fact that they use the same 12 people over and over again just confirms that it's like a cartel," said Wittmack.

He said the professionals know each other well and refer each other work.
Wittmack had two evaluations over three years with the same psychologist. The cost was $14,000.

"You just have to come up with the money whether it exists or not. In my case, I borrowed it from my sister," he explained.

The evaluators often will not release their reports until their bill is paid; they even get judges to compel payment, the I-team learned.

The I-Team found one example out of Northern California in which an 11-year-old boy, Coby, was the center of a custody dispute. His mother was ordered to pay $2,200 upfront to a custody evaluator. In the ruling, the judge wrote, "If mother does not pay the fees ... primary custody shall be changed."

The mother did not come up with the money and she lost custody. She told the I-Team she didn't have the money and the boy's father had missed child support payments.

Valentine said, "It's a shocking case."

She reported it to the Judicial Council, which oversees California courts.
Evaluators counter that their work provides valuable insight, especially given that judges get limited time with family members involved in disputes.

Stephen Sparta, Ph.D., spoke before a gathering of family law attorneys, judges and evaluators last spring and pointed out that evaluations are thorough and can help spot the psychosis in parents. He gave examples of violent outcomes of custody battles to make his point.

"Sometimes I feel badly that people without money don't get these evaluations," he told the crowd.

The I-Team confirmed that low income families, even those with documented conflict, are not ordered to get the custody evaluations because there is nobody to pay for it.

The reports are only used for families with financial means.

Since even some judges question the value, the I-Team asked Supervising Judge Lorna

Alksne why they are used for people in the middle or upper classes.

She responded that parents often request or demand these evaluations hoping their side will be favored. In most cases, she said, it is the parents and their attorneys who provide the court with the names they want to be selected as the evaluator. Judges do not control the costs, but they may rule on how parents should split the bill.

Alksne also pointed out that some judges try to dissuade parents from getting the evaluations because of the time and expense involved and the fact that it does not always solve the problems relating to custody sharing arrangements.

Parents have told the I-Team that attorneys or even judges steered them into the evaluation.

One local Judge, Jeffrey Boswick, is openly critical of the process. He spoke frankly about the evaluations while giving a presentation to court professionals. The presentation was videotaped and provided to 10News.

"It's too expensive, it takes too long to do, and it often times doesn't solve anything in the case," he said.

Wittmack said he had 50-50 custody of his children and that he and his wife typically were cordial to each other until the lawyers and professionals became involved.

He said he agreed to the first custody evaluation, but made it clear that he couldn't afford the second one.

In a letter, the custody evaluator who worked on his case said Wittmack failed to pay the entire "cost of the assessment" up-front.

The evaluator wrote it "resulted in the court changing custody."

Wittmack has his pictures of his children all around him, but he only has his children every other weekend.

About the mother and child pictured at the top

On February 21, 1992, Rhode Island Family Court's Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah gave this two-year-old to the sole custody and possession of her father despite his history of domestic violence and failure to pay child support. The father, a police officer, brought false charges against his ex-wife, first saying she was a drug addict. (Twenty-two random tests proved she was not.) Then he had her arrested for bank fraud, then for filing a false report, then for sexual abuse, then for kidnapping. None of his charges stuck.

The child remained with her father and stepmother until 2003, when, at 14, she finally realized that her mother had not been a drug addict. The teenager persuaded Judge Stephen Capineri to let her return to her mother. There she began working on the painful issues of lifelong coercion and deception--a tangled knot of guilt and rage. Most painful has been her father’s continuing refusal to let her visit two dearly loved half-sisters, whom she has not seen since 2003.

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.

We are using this blog to provide links to stories that will help concerned people, including government officials, become aware of this form of child abuse and legal abuse. We must work together to improve the courts' ability to recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in victims of domestic abuse who are trying to protect their children.

PLEASE NOTE: If you are looking for the story of the removal of "Molly and Sara," please visit http://LittleHostages.blogspot.com


About the Author and the Cause

Parenting Project is a volunteer community service begun in 1996 at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, RI, to focus on the needs of children at risk in Family Court custody cases. Our goal is to make Rhode Island's child protective system more effective, transparent, and accountable.

The Parenting Project coordinator, Anne Grant, a retired minister and former executive director of Rhode Island's largest shelter for battered women and their children, researches and writes about official actions that endanger children and the parents who try to protect them. She wrote a chapter on Rhode Island in Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues, ed. Mo Therese Hannah, PhD, and Barry Goldstein, JD (Civic Research Institute, 2010).

Comments and corrections on anything written here may be sent in an email with no attachments to parentingproject@verizon.net

Find out more about the crisis in custody courts here:

www.centerforjudicialexcellence.org/PhotoExhibit.htm
www.child-justice.org
www.leadershipcouncil.org
www.evawintl.org provides forensic resources to end violence against women

about domestic violence in hague custody cases:
www.haguedv.org

more about domestic violence in law enforcement:
http://behindthebluewall.blogspot.com/



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