Commentary: Benoit Case Illustrates Fundamental Problems in the Family Court System

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For years I had heard the complaints about the family  court system – judges ignoring evidence of abuse, putting children into the custody of their abusers, lack of legal representation for some parties but not others, extravagant court fees, judges making capricious decisions and changing the rules of the game.

I heard these complaints from enough quarters that I could not ignore them but, having witnessed them myself this week in the case of Benoit v. Gilson, it brings them home to a whole new level.

This is the seventh year that the Vanguard has covered the court system in Yolo County, and, while critical of the courts and the Yolo County District Attorney, what I have witnessed here is a series of things that never could have been perpetrated in the criminal system.

Closing down the court: We will litigate this matter perhaps as soon as next week.  From my perspective, I believe the decision to close down the court to the public was improper.

In the court transcript, Judge Arvid Johnson reasons, “The concern I have, and the reason I’m treating this a little like a juvenile at this point, I would like to ask county counsel and the CPS to inquire and investigate whether or not CPS should be involved and whether or not a protective warrant should issue for the return of the children.”

My view is that closing down the court to public scrutiny is an extreme measure.  There was nothing that came up that warranted closing the court down. Nothing sensitive was discussed.  The matter itself doesn’t even directly involve the children, as Mr. Gilson is accused of committing domestic violence on his ex-wife and Ms. Benoit, but not on the children.

Holding a hearing without counsel for Ms. Benoit:  On July 19, Judge Johnson allowed a hearing to occur in which Ms. Benoit’s attorney was not properly noticed and was not in attendance.  Had this been a criminal matter, the case would have been re-scheduled.  If Kim Robinson was in the wrong, she would have been admonished, but the case would not have proceeded without her attendance.

This is not a trivial matter.  First, Judge Johnson changed Judge Kathleen White’s orders without Ms. Robinson there to have the opportunity to object.  Second, because he ruled on a matter before the court, he then deemed Ms. Robinson’s attempt to use her Penal Code section 170.6 peremptory challenge (to Johnson as judge) untimely.

Mr. Gilson has not been represented by counsel until now: One of the big problems in family court is that there is no right to counsel.  That means that often the victim, often a woman with less economic means in general, is left without representation.  That asymmetry leads to many rulings against the person without counsel.  In this case it was Mr. Gilson without counsel until this week when Brian Pakpour represented him.

How did CPS and county counsel suddenly get involved?: From the start, Deputy DA Tiffany Susz wanted to order Claire Benoit to court and potentially charge her for parental abduction in this case.  Up until now, Judge White, while troubled by Ms. Benoit’s lack of appearance in court, was more interested in proceeding with the custody decisions in this case.

Suddenly on Tuesday, we had the appearance of CPS, Yolo County Counsel, and potential counsel for the minor children – all who seemed to be in league with the deputy DA and Judge Johnson.

As Judge Johnson put it, “I would like to ask county counsel and the CPS to inquire and investigate whether or not CPS should be involved and whether or not a protective warrant should issue for the return of the children.”

He added, “She is clearly in contempt of court. She’s refused to make herself available. She has been ordered back. She is basically hiding in different places in Europe. And my question is whether or not that is grounds in and of itself for a protective warrant for picking up the children and returning the children. I believe that it is, but I don’t know, so I would like CPS and county counsel to look into that.”

The judge here has signaled that he has already made up his mind.  The question is whether the deputy DA has worked behind the scenes to maneuver the case back into her favor or whether the judge is doing this on his own.

Judge Johnson undoes Judge White’s arrangements: That leads us to this: in June, Judge White arranged for a Skype deposition for Claire Benoit and an October trial, leaving the issue of Benoit’s appearance for another point in time.  Judge Johnson has now undone everything that Judge White did.

The Vanguard asked some experts whether this was proper, and, from a legal standpoint, Judge Johnson seems to be within in his rights, but many are baffled that he, as a visiting judge, is completely reversing the decisions that Judge White very carefully put into place.

One of the big questions that comes up here is judicial accountability.  There is very limited accountability for judges in the first place – and for good reason, as we want judges to be able to make decisions without fear of recourse.

However, Judge Johnson, as a retired judge, is basically making money on top of his retirement pension and doing so with absolutely no accountability whatsoever for his decisions.

Kim Robinson has indicated that she will file a writ with the appellate court in hopes of undoing some of the damage here, and perhaps the appellate court can remove this case from Judge Johnson’s purview and give it back to Judge White, who was being measured and even-handed in her approach.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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46 thoughts on “Commentary: Benoit Case Illustrates Fundamental Problems in the Family Court System”

  1. Tia Will

    I must have missed something. Can you explain to me why this case ended up with Judge Johnson in the first place instead of continuing with Judge White ?

  2. quielo

    “And my question is whether or not that is grounds in and of itself for a protective warrant for picking up the children and returning the children. ” This is clearly the right course of action.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i find it interesting that the vanguard carefully laid out a number of issues with the case and you ignored all of them and continued with your narrative.

  3. Tia Will

    quielo

    This is clearly the right course of action.”

    I share your clarity, just from the other side of the issue. What is clear to me is that the safety of the children should be paramount. I do not believe that their physical presence is required to ensure their safety.

     

      1. MamaBear

        You make strong assumptions. If my being mighty upset and combative when threatened with my children being taken from me and placed with a classified mental case who is on probation for attempted murder and conceived my youngest child by force – then just know most women are total wackjobs. Or else they are very lousy mothers.

        Think what you want. Only one of us is classified as mentally ill (and collects a permanent pension for it), is on probation for extreme violence, has a history of stalking and other serious crimes. Only one of us has a history of multiple suicide attempts and extended stays (or any stay for that matter) in a mental institution such as John Muir. All of the above is Eric. Not allegations – FACT. Proven FACTS. Documented FACTS.

        On the other hand, only one of us was present at the kids’ births, has financially supported them and cared for their every need alone. That is me. FACT. Known, documented, and proven.

        All that said I do agree it would benefit the DA (and the court at this point) to find some basis to classify me as crazy. Otherwise there is no way on earth any of their actions can be justified. Hence, I do not trust them at all. Too much at stake.

        Even if they may not be able to place my babies with Eric at this point, I believe it’s possible their CYA could extend to erroneously placing my children in a foster home for any period of time. No disrespect to the decent foster homes out there – but those are for children from abused, drug ridden, negligent households. To even entertain such a thing with my kids is pure insanity.

        Even if the foster parents were A grade; the trauma of being separated from their mom and siblings would be crippling. And then the exposure to the other children in such a home; oft coming from horrendous circumstances would only exacerbate that. So these are very serious threats to the well being of my children.

        And based on the way this case has gone- I believe either nightmare scenario is possible.

        Think and say what you want, I know the truth. The documentation proves the truth. And any honest person looking at this case, sees the truth.

        1. hpierce

          Even if the foster parents were A grade; the trauma of being separated from their mom and siblings would be crippling. And then the exposure to the other children in such a home; oft coming from horrendous circumstances would only exacerbate that. 

          Probably the most ill-informed, bigoted post I’ve seen in a long time.  Gotta stay away from those “lepers, deviants, etc.”, MamaBear! You rock!

    1. quielo

      “How would it hurt?” What good would it do? They will want to interview the children without the mother or father present. A complete waste of time and any judge who agreed to it should be dismissed.

  4. MamaBear

    One sad revelation of my case is the real caveat of domestic violence survivors.

    I take ownership for my mistakes but I think there is something very wrong with a mindset that would attack a survivor for whatever led to their being victims. Survivors should be supported and protected. Not discredited and attacked as a few posters (perhaps trolls) have suggested here. But even an attorney had such apathy and judgment.

    So the women surviving DV can expect to be challenged when they seek to make a better life for their children as well as themselves. Or, they risk losing their children altogether – Ive read articles where these losses have included death at the hands of their former abusers after they (strangely) were given custody in contested battles. Happening way often. Avoidable predictable tragedies. It really says a lot about some of our people.

    And again I repeat; my case is not one of baseless allegations. My case is a thick stack of papers from police records, photographs taken by police, medical records, mental histories… that anyone would be so eager to express doubts with so much insensitivity is beyond me. What a low emotional quotient some are working with. (Unless, trolls).

  5. Davis Progressive

    i ask again quielo, why are you persisting to attack the CLEAR victim in this case?  the father and i use that term loosely here, initiated this action.  there is no evidence that the mother did anything wrong.  he initiated this not the county.  all of a sudden instead of protecting the kids from the guy with the violence record, the county is protecting the kids from the mother.  WTF.

    1. quielo

      DP,

       

      Reading the postings of MamaBear gives me concern that she is, in her own words, a “wackjob”. I don’t understand why, despite numerous red flags, people like yourself keep yelling “You Go Girl” when you have no idea what the situation is for the kids.

      1. MamaBear

        Interesting. Everyone has an opinion.

        Anyway, the friends and family that have always been in my children’s lives (including my ex-husband – not Eric) know that we are very well.

        My children have attended school and private creches. They have seen some of the greatest parts of Europe. Historical monuments and fortresses etc.

        I have maintained remote employment well enough to support us. Not a year of vacation; but a year of a decent healthy life with a lot of sightseeing.

        I have also checked in with local police and reported to embassies wherever we have gone.

        We have friends and family in Europe as well as America. No one is living in “exile” nor North Korea.

        Not that it really matters to you. lol

      2. ryankelly

        The father petitioned for and was denied custody of the children from a previous relationship in another county due to violently assaulting the mother in front of the children.  He turns around and petitions for visitation, with the intention of gaining custody of the children (one of them being  a result of him raping the mother) in Yolo County, knowing that they were out of the country with their mother visiting France.  For some reason, the DDA and the Court is “investigating” but not seeing that this man is a danger to women and their children.   You paint this as child abduction, but the father did not have custody when the family left for France.

        Again, do families need to ask permission from the DA’s Office to travel out of the country with their children?

         

      3. Davis Progressive

        i have read her comments, given the circumstances she seems very circumspect.  i also think david’s point previously is worthy of consideration: her claims have all panned out and can be corroborated.  that’s not the norm for a “whack job” and i have had many of those as clients.

        1. Davis Progressive

          interesting how you’re perfectly willing to jump on ms. benoit’s case but not willing to take a stand on anything meaningful here.

        2. quielo

          ” willing to take a stand on anything meaningful here’ Of course that begs the question if taking a stand on anything here can be considered “meaningful”. Aside from that the davis specific questions I generally avoid having an opinion as I am new to town. I have voiced opinions on some of the educational questions and was quite specific on my opposition to mediation as a substitute to adjudication. 

           

          You seem to be willing to make a diagnosis based on internet postings.

  6. Tia Will

    quielo

    This is clearly the right course of action.”

    I share your clarity, just from the other side of the issue. What is clear to me is that the safety of the children should be paramount. I do to believe that their physical presence is required to ensure their safety.

     

  7. MamaBear

    Hpierce; regarding my comment on foster homes – a child would have to be the victim of serious abuse and adverse circumstances in order for placement in a foster home to be anything but a severely traumatizing and negative experience.

    My kids are well fed, have enjoyed seeing the whole of France and Italy. (The DA has been informed of our stay in Rome), are extremely happy well indulged children,

    This circumstance stinks – but I do give myself credit for filtering it as much as I have for my kids. The burden of guilt for any inconveniences/stresses it has caused rests on the shoulders of the Deputy DA and now Judge Arvid Johnson. It is THEIR negligence that has left a decent parent with NO safer alternative.

    That said, there is no foster home in America that would not be horrifically traumatizing to my children – or any children from a loving, sober, non-abusive household.

    If foster homes are being used as some sort of summer camp, then that needs looking at too.

    Part of me suspects/hopes that this recent play in the court may just be a means of restoring good appearances for Judge White as she is begged to return and now looks like a Saint. If I am right, great. But her previous most considerate and sensitive orders need to be restored along with her.

    1. hpierce

      You perpetuate your slander of foster parents and their personal homes.  I know several.  In some cases, they ended up adopting the children they fostered.  Whatever.  You are not worthy of further engagement about the foster care system.

      1. MamaBear

        Wow.

        No kid wants to be ripped from the arms of a loving, non-abusive, drug free biological parent to be placed into a foster home.

        Kids in foster homes SHOULD only be kids that come from very abusive and or/drug ridden homes. Otherwise, a lot of abuses of parental rights are taking place… and the stories I have heard there may be true.

        My kids would most certainly be traumatized. Firstly, for losing their mother and siblings.

        Secondly, for inheriting a transient blended family of children who probably require a lot of individual attention (and monitoring) for a myriad of severe traumas that “too much traveling” don’t really compare to.

        For a child coming from a household of abuse and drug use, a foster home is relief. Not for others.

        Ya, good night.

      2. David Greenwald Post author

        Come now Hpierce, I was a foster parent who adopted. You can’t take this stuff so personally, you have to understand where the person is coming from.

        1. hpierce

          So, depending where someone is “coming from” they can denigrate others with good motivations, good behaviors… got it… remember that ‘mantra’…

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            You’re going to double-down on this?

            “No kid wants to be ripped from the arms of a loving, non-abusive, drug free biological parent to be placed into a foster home.”

            Is that statement unreasonable? No.

            “Kids in foster homes SHOULD only be kids that come from very abusive and or/drug ridden homes. Otherwise, a lot of abuses of parental rights are taking place… and the stories I have heard there may be true.”

            I don’t see anything unreasonable and I certainly don’t see denigration of others with good motivations. Show me your cards.

  8. MamaBear

    Quielo, do you suffer from mpd? Or amnesia? You are the one who has made diagnoses (of me) based on your very interesting perceptions of my posts. I’m pretty sure David and DP are going off the court transcripts and proceedings that DV has sat in for.

    All of my allegations have been corroborated by irrefutable evidence. Even the Deputy DA had to verbally acknowledge that (whilst downplaying it as much as possible).

    Eric has provided zero evidence of anything, and in fact has at different points promised forged documents, used pictures of his other children trying to pass them off as mine… commits perjury nonstop and I just pull up more documents to prove that. This is totally absurd.

  9. skeptical

     
    Mama Bear, stop posting to this site!!! 
    Your attorney should already have advised you of this.  Whatever you post will only be twisted against you in court, and it will be much worse than what is happening here.  And, don’t put any faith in Kathleen White or any of the “judges” in Yolo County.  Through her horrific “decisions” Ms. White has maimed and killed; she has damaged people physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially; she has destroyed families, homes, and careers; she has driven people to drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide… and she shows only the signs of pride in her abuse.
     

    1. MamaBear

      Skeptical, I appreciate the advice. This court has proven to be so outrageous that my words, and those that witness them, are my second records. They can extract and twist what they want. The whole of the truth is still here.

      This court has made it impossible for anyone with an IQ over 80 to trust anyone working in their jurisdiction. I will trust a closed file.

      This is an unlawful administration of justice. And I do respect the law too much to respect what is happening here in my case.

  10. Tia Will

    quielo

    They interview three year olds and perform diagnostic evaluations all the time.”


    While it is true that 3 year olds are interviewed and do 
    undergo diagnostic evaluations, these are not used in the determination of who should gain custody. Until adolescence, the testimony of children is routinely disregarded in family court situations according to the Family Law specialist I spoke to, again not because the court is indifferent to the well being of the children but rather because the court does not have the ability to sort out whether or not the perceptions of the child are accurate or whether the child has been manipulated into favoring one parent over the other. If MamaBear’s accounting of the facts surrounding this case is even close to reality, then it would seem that the court would have the ability to check on the veracity of her statements, consider the evidence of suitability for parental rights of the biological father and come to a logical conclusion about which parent has best served the well being of the children without having her return to the US.

    1. quielo

      Hi Tia,

       

      Of course you are completely correct. I was trying to avoid making the point that the test would be not be to determine custody but to evaluate the children s development in their current situation. I am less concerned with the He/She issue and more concerned with the safety and well being of the children. It may be that neither parent is in the best interests of the child at this point in time.

  11. Tia Will

    MamaBear and hpierce

    I am sure that you are both aware that there are some circumstances in which foster care is the best option available even when there is a loving parent who for whatever reason ( illness, financial instability, need to care for a dying parent while still working) may not be able to care for their children in the short term. These children may not come from an abusive or neglected background but may still need temporary shelter and care. It is not a certainty that they will be traumatized by a stay with a good foster family.

    I am sure that your are also both aware that not all foster families are created equal and that some may provide suboptimal care which might traumatize children who are coming from a capable supportive parent but are removed due to some legal technicality from the care of the parent.

    What I do not understand is why you have each chosen to dig in your conversational heals and pretend that this is not a complicated situation with many possible outcomes, some substantially better ( or worse) than others.

  12. MamaBear

    Everyone is different but my dying parent would be going into a nursing home before my children would be placed in a foster home. If a parent is too financially unstable to feed and shelter his/her kids, there should be a program to provide that for them, especially since foster home placements are hardly free.

    I am not sure I understand what hpierce is taking offense to. I think it is great when foster parents provide good loving homes to kids who did not have that before. I believe the human spirit is resilient with every cell built to heal. That said, most kids in foster homes are (and should be) from circumstances of extreme abuse. I am very good to my kids, everyone who knows us is aware of that, I have never seen a foster home that would on any level feel like an upgrade. Not to say there are not foster parents who cant offer some great virtues I may not have. But only to say that the trauma of being separated from their mom and siblings would not be bandaged by a critical need being met that was not met before. A kid has to be hungry or hurting to appreciate what a foster home can offer at its best, otherwise it IS a wholly traumatic experience. Duh. And with the shortage of foster homes available, it is a serious disservice to kids right now sitting somewhere in Yolo county watching their parents do drugs; that Judge Arvin has CPS researching whether he can spend money to send some henchman overseas to take my kids from me, to traumatize them with a foster care placement, or place them with their violent mentally ill, totally deadbeat (unless motivated by control and spite) father.

    The judge’s adjudicated reasons for doing this are so frivolous that he actually has to waste CPS staff hours in advance to see if it is even possible. This is not out of concern for the welfare of my kids. This is a power trip, a CYA, and a retaliatory action being waged by the collusive officers of that court. All starting at the behest of Eric, who cannot furnish one legitimate printed word that paints him anything short of a monster. The Deputy is on transcripts as having referred to my children as “leverage” before. That is what they are using them as now.

    This court is undeserving of respect at this present time. And if anyone belongs behind a cell (and a few people here do), it is at least one judge AND deputy DA that should be sitting next to Eric for a good while in one.

    Anyone who disagrees has totally forgotten the American spirit of justice – what is happening here is not it.

    I do not respect any authority figure more than my own human rights.

    I do not value any bureaucracy above the welfare of my children.

    based on their actions, not their titles, these guys are criminals in a dangerous position of power.

  13. MamaBear

    ***And the problem with any evaluation of me at this point is that it is not possible for this court to execute one without extreme bias. Their conduct needs a lot of justifying in order for it to appear even remotely close to appropriate. Their very motivation for ordering the evaluation is clearly a means of retaliation and punishment for my “failure to comply” with orders that at one point placed my children in the care of a man who injected himself with anti-freeze on the day our daughter was due to be born. (And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of craziness with him).

    So why would I subject myself to an evaluation knowing the very basis of it is a means of punishment. And if the results come back squeaky clean… The DA and this judge may be in a pot of hot water. I am sorry I am not conveniently stupid enough for them.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      MamaBear’s post of 12:01 am is a clear statement of the essence of the problem. This court cannot be trusted to be honest or competent, nor can the DA’s office. Even if an evaluation produced “squeaky clean” results, what possible basis is there to believe that the truth would ever make it out of the interrogation room?
      The solution to this disgusting court system problem – that has been festering in our community for far too long – can be achieved through the combined power of a free press, an honest and competent (I hope) court of appeals, and a few citizens, like MamaBear, with the guts to stand strong against injustice and legal criminality.

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