Los Angeles Daily News

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

NOW says family court corrupt, harms children

By Troy Anderson
Staff Writer
Los Angeles Daily News

The family court system in California is "crippled, incompetent and corrupt" and enriches judges, attorneys and mental-health professionals at the expense of children, according to a new report to be released today by the California branch of the National Organization for Women.

After a three-year inquiry, the report's authors concluded that the state's family law courts have developed into "full employment programs" for private court mediators, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, educators and attorneys.

"What we are seeing is a lack of ethics and proper courtroom codes in the family law system," said Rachel Allen, public relations director for NOW. "As a result, judges, attorneys and other personnel are lining each other's pockets instead of acting in the best interest of the child."

Family courts, part of the Superior Court, are devoted to cases involving divorce, child custody, paternity and similar issues.

Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said the inquiry was an interesting project, but that family court judges would like to see the report before making comments.

"We have some questions about the methodology in terms of how the data was developed and to what extent this is randomized data," Parachini said. "Our position would be that our system does the best job it can, that it obviously can be improved, but we do not feel we are complicit with ... money grubbing."

The report was based partly on court files, interviews with people involved in child-custody cases and data from 300 parents who filled out an extensive Internet questionnaire. In nearly one-fourth of the 300 cases, judges awarded custody of children to fathers with criminal records who were accused of abusing them, according to the report.

"The findings suggest that women who are victims of domestic violence, whose children make allegations of abuse against their fathers, are particularly at risk of losing custody of their children to the perpetrator," NOW Executive Director Helen Grieco wrote. "In the most egregious cases, perfectly fit mothers who were primary caretakers are stripped of custody to release fathers from child-support obligations."

David L. Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council in Hyattsville, Md., said the NOW report makes a "preposterous charge."

"I would not imagine there is one shred of documented, supported and reliable evidence that California routinely gives custody to abusers and has a financial incentive in doing so," Levy said.

Ronald Isaacs, a Baton Rouge, La., attorney and founder of The Fathers Rights Foundation, said women's groups and family law attorneys encourage women to make false allegations of domestic violence and child abuse.

"Eighty percent of the accusations of domestic violence that are filed while a divorce is pending have proven to be false allegations made solely to gain an advantage in the custody cases," Isaacs said.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who conducts psychological evaluations of parents and children in custody cases, said the system is biased against women, and that abused children often end up in the custody of their abusive fathers.

"On the whole, the system is corrupt and does favor fathers in a lot of different ways," she said. "Judges abuse their power and discretion and make rulings based upon their unconscious identification with the fathers."

Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, called the report very alarming. "Does it bother me that people with criminal convictions are getting access to children? Yes. It would bother anyone," Levenson said.

Neal Tenen, a Sherman Oaks attorney and former chairman of the family law section of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association, said it might appear there are some financial incentives built into the system, but that ethical attorneys and judges don't abuse the system.

"Sometimes an attorney, not meaning to, can cause an action to go a little further along than it should and cost more, but there are other times clients don't want to follow the attorney's advice," Tenen said. "You get parties -- whether a man or woman -- who are very vindictive against the other spouse, and they just want to go to court and battle, even though their attorney can advise them otherwise."

Authors of the report charge that organizations purporting to provide nonprofit continuing education and support services for family law attorneys are a form of corporate fraud with an ulterior motive for perpetuating a corrupt system.

The report follows the April release of an audit by the Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Association that found judges treated themselves to golf tournaments, ocean dinner cruises and other outings with money from an obscure fund, started in 1960, partly supported by child-custody and support cases.

The association found that judges were not improperly influenced in legal cases by funds contributed by attorneys and clients involved in child custody and support cases, but the association's board voted in December to end the practice of accepting contributions from lawyers and others and to use only dues paid by judges for group events.

NOW will release the report today and, along with the legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, will hold a press conference in Los Angeles. The conference is scheduled after a hearing in the state's 2nd District Court of Appeal involving a Sierra Madre resident who lost custody of her daughter in 1998 after alleging that the father had abused the girl.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Daily News