Peter Jamison writes an outstanding article detailing the horrors of the family court system:
Interviews with dozens of parents, activists, lawyers, judges, children, and former family court employees, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of family and criminal court documents, indicate that the system’s methods for assessing whether child sexual abuse or spousal battery has taken place — findings that are critical to deciding whether a parent should retain custody of or visitation rights with a child — fall short of the standards accepted by domestic-violence experts and the criminal-justice community.
And here lies the problem:
Still, advocates of reform say a few widespread problems lead to poor court decisions, such as inadequate procedures for investigating abuse; the use of controversial and potentially dangerous psychological theories about child welfare; and a prejudice toward joint parental custody, even when one parent is clearly violent. Compounding these issues, critics say, is a lack of accountability for judges, attorneys, custody evaluators, and other court personnel, who enjoy immunity from lawsuits even in cases where they make decisions that do obvious harm to children and parents.
Family courts have no juries, and litigants who lack the money for a private attorney have no right to counsel. (As a result, many parents without financial means must represent themselves.) In the place of the traditional fact-finding apparatus that operates daily in criminal and civil courtrooms — dueling lawyers, and jurors charged with determining the facts of a case from available evidence — family court substitutes a cadre of individuals who make decisions in concert. Foremost is the judge. And it is with the judges, in some ways, that the problem starts.
Few aspirants to the bench relish the idea of refereeing the roughly 20 percent of divorces that are hostile enough to end up in family court. As a result, many assigned to this branch of the judiciary are rookies — paying their dues for a year or two before moving on to the more genteel arenas of civil or criminal law — or lifers without the aptitude to move on. “Family courts are the ugly stepchild of the law,” Oakland family law attorney Kim Robinson says. “It’s considered the bottom of the barrel. Almost no one wants to be there as a judge. The judges come in with a major attitude about it from the get-go.”
Family law judges are aided by a range of subjudicial officials, including psychological evaluators and minors’ counsels, attorneys appointed to represent the children in disputed custody cases. The courts also rely on mediators, who attempt to arbitrate custody agreements between parents. Failing such an agreement, they have the authority in many California jurisdictions to make a recommendation about custody rights.
Complaints about how all these people do their jobs aren’t new, and in light of their high-stakes, high-conflict work environment, some amount of dissatisfaction among litigants is to be expected. But officials in state government have begun to take the sheer volume of those complaints seriously.
While the system’s mistakes affect both mothers and fathers, men are statistically more likely to be the perpetrators of the types of serious crimes that highlight the family courts’ shortcomings — as they are in all the cases, substantiated by criminal convictions, examined in this article. The topic of gender’s correlation with violent crime is hotly debated, but studies have found that only 6 percent of sex offenses and 5 percent of serious incidents of domestic violence are committed by women.
“The way that the courts have to work is evidence-based, not theory-based.”
And more good advice:
Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University at San Bernardino, likewise says that the family courts need to be revamped so as to devote more attention to evidence — as do other courts of law — rather than the opinions of individuals such as psychologists, mediators, or even judges. “I would like to see judges relying a lot less on psychological evaluations and a lot more on the facts of a case,” she says.