Vanguard Keynote Speaker Explains Family Courts Crisis



Vanguard Family Court Event Moved to May 9

According to keynote speaker Kathleen Russell, “the most basic problem in California family courts is that there is a complete lack of oversight or accountability over a burgeoning cottage industry that has sprung up there, and those working in the system are making A LOT of money with virtually no one checking on whether they are following the laws or rules of court, and they are fighting to keep it that way.”

Over the years, we have heard accounts of grave injustices within the family court system. Children in particular are vulnerable and are in need of protection, but, all too often, the court system favors those most able to afford an attorney and leaves millions of children in situations where they are in dangerous conditions.

Family court has to deal with highly emotionally-charged and high-conflict problems of divorce and child custody, which often bleeds into issues of substance abuse, domestic violence and child abuse.

The judges, lawyers and counselors often lack the training to deal with these highly complex problems.

Keynote speaker of our upcoming event, Kathleen Russell, helped to found the Center for Judicial Excellence in 2006, as a non-profit “established to improve the judiciary’s public accountability and strengthen and maintain the integrity of the courts.”

They have helped to expose court failures and push for judicial accountability through the media. “The Center has been especially effective at working to protect the rights of children whose parents are going through divorce, and the organization has been in the forefront of exposing a national crisis in the family court system that is harming millions of innocent children,” they write.

The Center has had some critical success, working with Assemblymember Fiona Ma on AB 1050, that grants California children the right to testify in family court, a law that took effect in January 2012.

In 2011, the Center worked with Senator Mark Leno to secure an audit of the Marin and Sacramento County Family Courts. The California State Auditor issued an alarming report in January 2011 about the significant lack of training or accountability for court appointees in these counties.

This year, Senator Bob Wieckowski has introduced a new bill to bring more consistency statewide to the laws involving the counselors and evaluators who advise the court on child custody decisions.  It would require the Judicial Council of California to develop a child custody evaluation form by Jan. 1, 2016 to be used by every investigator or evaluator conducting child custody evaluations.

“There are no juries in family or probate courts, so all of the power resides with the judge and his cronies, and they are corruptible. Money talks. Influence and cronyism rule the day. It’s all about ‘who you know or hired’ and not the facts of your case. There is also an unlevel playing field in family law- you have no right to an attorney, so parties who cannot afford a lawyer often get trounced by the other party whose got the best lawyer that money can buy,” Ms. Russell told the Vanguard.

Kathleen Russell said a key problem is that “you have an insular institution of black robed authorities who work daily with a small group of appointed cronies (therapists, attorneys, etc) who enjoy complete immunity from any sort of prosecution or discipline for malpractice or unethical behavior, even for egregious mistakes they make in the course of their work.”

“They are poorly trained, or trained in ‘junk science theories’ that throw blame on any parent that tries to protect their child from legitimate abuse or neglect. The state oversight agencies are underfunded and have often been blocked from disciplining their corrupt members, so litigants are stuck with no recourse whatsoever,” Ms. Russell continued. “Appeals are prohibitively costly for most, and in family law, it is extremely rare for an appeals court to question the trial court judge and overturn their decision- these judges are given broad discretion to do whatever the heck they want. It’s essentially become a racket.”

In this system, children are not protected at all.

Kathleen Russell explained, “Children have zero political power and are vulnerable as pawns in a legal system that thrives on fomenting conflict between the adult parties.”

She said, “The more they can get the parents to fight, the more often they will come into court, and the more money all of the appointees will make, for years on end. In most states, kids have NO VOICE whatsoever in family courts- they are treated like the couple’s property to be divided, ie the house, the car, the golf clubs, the dog.”

“When kids try to tell their court-appointed lawyers what’s going on in their lives, their experiences are frequently discounted or disbelieved. ‘Junk science’ that rules the day in family court purports that legitimately abused kids are simply ‘being coached’ to lie and say they are being abused by a parent simply because the other vindictive parent is angling to get an edge in the custody battle. Family courts are not designed to investigate criminal activity, and yet that is frequently what is happening, and poorly trained court professionals who are not following state laws and rules of court are routinely being assigned to thousands of family law cases because there is no effective oversight to root them out, and the cycle continues.”

Ms. Russell added, “Adults have been given blanket authority to determine ‘what is in the best interests of the children’ in family courts, often without speaking with the kids, and these adults are frequently more focused on the check they are receiving from the allegedly abusive parent, rather than the safety of the children, so they quite frequently write reports that favor the abusive parent.”

So what are the solutions? Kathleen Russell argues for accountability measures in the system.

“Many states have Judicial Performance Evaluations which monitor whether judges are abiding by the canons of judicial ethics that they swear to uphold in their work as a judge ‒ the CA judges have fought us on this, since they reason, why get evaluated when you aren’t currently facing any scrutiny, and it costs money to institute such a system,” she said.

Limiting or regulating the fees that family court appointees can charge is another potential solution. She explains, “(That) would cut down on the corruption, and instituting some sort of liability for court appointees (or at least making the oversight agencies that oversee them more functional in weeding out the bad apples) would go a long way toward a more fair system.”

Furthermore, she suggests the removal cases that allege criminal wrongdoing. Putting them in “a more specialized DV or child abuse court would also be a tremendous help, and training judges better in domestic violence and child abuse would cut down on the horrifically uninformed decisions that we see every day.”

She added, “Giving kids a voice in family court helps (as our bill AB 1050 has started to do here in CA), and passing the Wieckowski bill (SB 594) to mandate that a form be filled out by all custody evaluators that ensures that they know and have followed all relevant laws in writing their reports to the court, another good step.”

Ms. Russel concluded, “It is a HUGE HUGE mess and some have suggested that the current system is beyond repair and should be scrapped altogether, but I don’t see that as reasonably feasible.”

The event will also feature a panel discussion of parents, children, lawyers and advocates familiar with the family court system who can discuss its shortcomings from first-hand knowledge.

Join us on Saturday May 9 for the dinner and panel discussion. Doors open at 5:30 and the event begins at 6 pm at the Davis Community Church Fellowship Hall located at 421 D St, Davis, CA 95616.

Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door with a limited number of $25 tickets reserved for students and those with economic hardship.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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2 thoughts on “Vanguard Keynote Speaker Explains Family Courts Crisis”

  1. tj

    I believe I read that CA is the only state that doesn’t oversee attorneys.  Instead, attorneys are overseen by the State Bar, which operates on the fees attorneys pay to the Bar and is run by attorneys.

    1. Davis Progressive

      its a lot worse than that.  i’ve heard accounts that the lawyers actually conspire to fleece the client able to afford attorney fees through joint payments.

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