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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, June 2, 2014

What William Holt’s Disciplinary Hearing Shows About Rhode Island

On May 30th, attorney William F. Holt admitted violating the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. His hearing before a 3-member panel of the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Board summarized the violations: ex parte communications with a judge; removing divorce documents from the clerk’s office; filing a motion that misrepresented an order of the court; compounding litigation in multiple courts; and endangering a litigant by enabling her estranged husband to enter her home despite his psychiatric history and guns. 

These kinds of offenses are all too common in Family Court. The uncommon aspects of Holt’s hearing were that a judge finally censured him for fraud on the court and referred him to the Disciplinary Counsel and that the Disciplinary Counsel followed through with charges and negotiated a settlement – the equivalent of a plea bargain. The panel may now recommend to the Supreme Court that Holt’s license to practice law be suspended.

In 1993, when I was executive director of the Women’s Center of Rhode Island, we examined our successes and failures in order to improve our effectiveness helping families escape domestic violence. We gathered a group of mothers who had succeeded in protecting their children from violence at home only to find that Family Court exposed them to greater danger. Their complaints frequently focused on Bill Holt, a protégé of the Chief Judge of Family Court, Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, Jr. 

Holt and Jeremiah belonged to a group we called “the Cranston Cabal” from their years in the administration of Mayor Edward DiPrete, who became governor and then promoted the man he called his “closest friend,” Jeremiah, his executive counsel, to the top position at Family Court.

DiPrete later pled guilty to eighteen felonies, avoiding a trial that would have implicated others in his circle, and went to prison. Jeremiah faced his own ethical issues relating to his Cranston office building and business dealings with his tenants, including Holt, whose favored status with the Chief of Family Court made him a force to be feared.

Among the conflicts in cases I documented, Holt and Attorneys John Tarrantino and Patricia Rocha—the same two who represented Holt at his disciplinary hearing—hammered out a questionable insurance scheme to benefit their clients. They persuaded Rocha’s father, the late Judge Gilbert Rocha, to block the insurance investigators’ access to court records.

Holt’s conduct in that case displayed the same “zealousness” he described to the disciplinary panel on Friday. He called it his “passion for the law.” He described his thrill at strategizing and mental gymnastics. “I had the world by the tail,” he said, before this “tragedy” struck when he was finally censured.  

His colleague of eight years, Catherine E. Graziano, offered a revealing memory at the hearing. She and Holt had met on opposite sides of a divorce case. Later he called out of the blue asking her to join the firm he planned to start. She agreed to think about it, but was astonished when Holt called back to say he had put up his sign on Reservoir Avenue, and it already had her name on it.

His style of coercive control over colleagues and clients apparently affected judges, too. The disciplinary panel heard of a judge who could have censured Holt but merely scolded: “I’m not going to sanction you, but don’t let this happen again.”  

In one case, not part of Friday’s hearing, a mother had planned to sue Holt for malpractice after he had let her divorce order go through despite its reference to a settlement agreement that did not exist. When she complained, Chief Judge Jeremiah would not let her leave court until she had signed that agreement. The court never dealt with the real problems she and her child faced. Her street was shut down for the bomb squad to remove chemical explosives her husband had stored in their basement. Another state later suspended her ex-husband's medical license after his felony convictions for sexually abusive child pornography.

The real tragedy is not Holt’s brush with justice but that Rhode Island’s Family Court functions largely as a patronage mill, rewarding political insiders with appointments as judges, magistrates, and court personnel. The Court seldom gets to the issues that endanger families, and William Holt’s hearing illustrates why.

For years I was told that the Disciplinary Counsel would not charge attorneys for ethics violations like Holt’s unless there was clear financial malfeasance. At Holt’s hearing, Deputy Disciplinary Counsel Barbara Margolis said, “I can’t figure out why he did these things,” because it was “not for personal profit.”

Of course it was. Family Court lawyers in Rhode Island have a limited number of families to charge their billable hours. These common methods of dragging out cases are tools for holding the world by the tail and winning by attrition, not rule of law. 

UPDATE: The Disciplinary Counsel suggested a one-year suspension of Holt’s license, but the Supreme Court imposed a three-year suspension in November 2014, saying he “showed a persistent pattern of deceiving judges.”

After studying Rhode Island divorce cases that cost families hundreds of thousands of dollars, I was astonished when a Florida attorney told me she charges a flat $4,000 plus court fees for divorce and custody cases, and they are usually done within a year. Rhode Island is long overdue for its judges and Disciplinary Counsel to censure and charge the flagrant ethical violations in Family Court.  

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

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).

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Find out more about the crisis in custody courts here: provides forensic resources to end violence against women

about domestic violence in hague custody cases:

more about domestic violence in law enforcement: