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September, 2004

Another Family Court Horror Story
By Jim Scanlon


   Even though V. conferred with counselors at the Marin County District Attorney's Victim Witness Assistance program for two and a half hours, before she left the state with her two special needs children, and even though her advisors there saw fit to make and retain a tape recording of the session, and even though she stayed in a succession of protected family shelters for victims of domestic violence or abuse, the mother was arrested, confined, extradited under extraordinarily cruel and unusual conditions, back to Marin County where she was confined under excessive bail for another three months until she relented in her demand for a jury trial. She admitted to a misdemeanor violation of the father's right to visit his children.
   For the last three years she has been marginally employed, and is homeless. Because she now has a criminal record she can no longer work for California schools where she once taught English as a second language. If she wishes to travel by using commercial airlines, she has to get to the airport early because Homeland Security screeners have her name in their database and subject her to a special examination which requires her to remove all of her clothing while her possessions are searched.
   Her relationship with her children has been devastated. Judge Smith, the Family Law Court Judge even denied her permission to see her children on Mothers Day. Only recently Judge Goldfine authorized supervised visitation over the objections of her ex husband and his attorney. These visits, however, are hard to arrange with her ex husband and complicated by her living and working 200 miles away.

A Perfect Disaster
   This mother's situation is a perfect example of how destructive and inhuman Family Law Court/Conciliation Court can be, when family violence, emotional abuse, child abuse and neglect, and child sexual abuse are dealt with, not as crimes, but blended in with custody issues to be negotiated by lawyers. That is suspected crimes are not taken seriously.
   As in mostly cases in California, the mother in this instance had a more limited income and income potential, than the father, and, as court proceedings progressed, she was forced to represent herself in court without legal assistance. Money and not being honest about money, are usually important issues between divorcing couples, but it become crucial when one parent cannot afford to hire an attorney and the court does not require the party with the money to pay for the one who does not have the money. When only one party in a divorce is represented by council, an imbalance is created which inevitably results in inequity and eventually in a miscarriage of justice.
   Although there was a history of threats, violence, abuse and neglect in the home documented by agencies outside Marin County, the custody of V's three children was ordered placed with the father. There is nothing in the case record to indicate that the Family Law Court Judge at that time, John A. Sutro Jr. deliberated in any thoughtful way about what he was doing or that he sought any clarifying information or professional guidance, or even mentioned the fate of the children. He just did it, just like that! No reason given or asked. No background. No clarification. The mother was not in court, the father was. With that action the mother's link with her three minor children was irrevocably altered. An honored judge can not make a mistake.
Justice Based On Willful Ignorance
   In the two volume court record covering six years or so in the life of this family there are no problems with claims of bias on the part of evaluators or therapists since there aren't any evaluations of any kind. One wishes desperately for a report from a school official, or a family therapist or a social worker or a police officer, someone-anyone-not directly involved in the conflict. They are just not in the court file. There are no attempts to verify any of the mothers complaints or confirm or reject or interpret her concerns: for example, over the father's alleged carelessness with firearms and whether one or two of the children need psychotropic medication. Just lawyers talking to lawyers in lawyer-talk ad nauseum.
   The court file does contain an interesting letter no one seems to have noticed from Contra Costa County Children and Family Services dated 11 May 2001 (one month before the mother moved to a family domestic violence shelter outside California). The Social Worker writes:
   "After interviewing [the children] individually, talking with school personnel, speaking with the children's psychiatrist, and with medical personnel, the Department has sustained the allegations of neglect [by the ex husband].
   "Because of [the children's] severe mental health issues, it is strongly recommended that you take the necessary steps to protect your children from any further neglect [by the father] and ensure that they continue to receive the appropriate mental health services".
   The writer goes on: "If you are unable to take the necessary steps to protect your children from their father's behavior and ensure that their mental health and medication needs are met, the Department... may be forced to take action. This may lead to your children being placed in foster care and a petition filed under Welfare and Institutions Code Sections 300 (b)and (c).
   To a mother of three children facing foreclosure and dispossession from her home because of a reduction in child support, this letter, which completely supports her concerns, is paradoxically threatening her with loss of her children if she doesn't do something about their contact with the father. Following the Social Workers advice and the advice of the Victim Witness Assistance Program of the Marin County District Attorney's Office (the two and half hour tape) she files a "Parental Abduction 'Good Cause' Report" in Martinez where she and the children last resided.
   Her actions in this extreme situation, with no home, little money, children with emotional problems and conflicting advice from officials in two different counties, would later be examined minutely by Superior Court Judge Terrence Boren and Deputy District Attorney Kelley Vieira as to whether or not she complied with the law in filing a new proceeding within ten days of filing a "good cause" order. The mother's failure to do everything just right, eventually resulted in the prolongation of her month long detention on a felony charge of violating a custody decree that the father had a right to have custody no matter what he might have done. In other words, he was presumed innocent she wasn't.

Mom's Records Better Than Court's
   What is bizarre about this case is that despite having been incarcerated for four months and living out of shelters and at times out of her car, the mother's records are infinitely more informative and complete than the official file regarding essential information about the children.
   She has a detailed investigative report from Contra Costa Social Services. A deposition from the Branch Manager of a Title Company declaring that the ex husband prevented the sale of the mother's home in Contra Costa county.
   There is a letter from Contra Costa County Social Services to the father advising him in bold faced type to "...[keep] all your guns locked up and inaccessible to your children at all times." A letter from a Kaiser Permanente clinical psychologist confirming the mental health status and medication of one child. There are also several reports of referrals and hospitalizations of one child for threatening to kill his teacher on one occasion, his mother on another, and on another, his father and himself.
   One would think that a parent with a troubled child who was careless with firearms and ammunition would be arrested and the guns confiscated, the NRA notwithstanding.
   Another interesting scrap of information in the mother's possession but not in the court file is a hand written piece of paper on Superior Court stationary by Court Commissioner Randolph Heubach stating "Matter is set for hearing in Co. Co. County [Contra Costa.] 12/15/00. No concurrent jurisdiction". If the mother was confused, she wasn't the only one.

No Protection In Domestic Violence Shelters
   During the summer of 2001 (that fateful summer) the mother and her children, without a home, traveled to Connecticut and entered the Thames Valley Family Shelter where she would be near the home of a sister. Because her ex husband spoke with the children and allegedly made a threatening statement about the mother, the family had to leave that shelter and was moved to the Family Crisis Center in Knoxville Tennessee close to where another sister lived.
   Perhaps it was unwise of shelter staff to move the family, perhaps not, but anyone who has ever had any experience with domestic violence shelters, or with people who have suffered from violence, or threats of violence, knows how protective staff and relatives are towards the residents and also how fearful and distrustful and, at times, how chaotically everyone can behave when threatened.
   This is what V's caseworker at the Knoxville Tennessee Homeward Bound Shelter had to say about her:
   "She [V.] has been receptive to being connected with any agency that would provide information and help for her. [She] has worked with agencies such as Alternative Counseling, Knox County Health Dept., TN Care, Child and Family, Knox County Schools, etc. She always followed through on any agency referral that I suggested to her. She was very involved with her children and appeared to have excellent parenting skills. [She] had an excellent rapport with Knox County Schools that her children attended. She attended all meetings and worked on an ongoing basis to insure that all of her children had a proper environment for education, counseling and mental health treatment."
   It can never be known if Judges Sutro or Boren might have cared to know what kind of a mother-child relationship they were destroying when they acted as they did. But they irrevocably deprived three children of the loving care of their mother. Loving care seems like something worth preserving.

The Long Horrible Journey To Marin County Jail
  In late November 2001 investigators from the Marin County District Attorney's Office traveled to Tennessee and took the children into custody at their school. V. was also arrested at the school and jailed by the Knoxville Police. The Marin peace officers came to the mother to ask her to help them calm down and reassure the children, which she did. She provided them with medications and instructions on their use, including where to find the original prescription containers. That was the last time she saw her children together.
   She remained in the Knoxville jail for almost thirty days until she was picked up on the last day that the local authorities could legally hold her. She was taken by a contract police officer who she said was polite and considerate. He covered her hand cuffs which were shackled to a large leather belt around her waist. She was stripped naked and searched at the Knoxville Airport and in Kansas City. There were no intrusive searches of her body cavities.
   After arriving in Los Angeles she was transferred to a prison transportation van and, over the next two and a half days, the van zig zagged across southern and central California between various state prisons and jails, picking up, and dropping off prisoners. The van was operated by police officers who only drove within certain zones until a new crew came on. She said these officers were kind and considerate to her: they loosened her handcuffs so she could move her wrists freely so they wouldn't hurt so much.
   The van never stopped to allow sleeping. If someone had to urinate or defecate the officers stopped at whatever construction outhouse was available alongside the road. Every now and then they would stop at a Burger King and get everyone a dollar burger and a cup of water. She stopped eating after a few burgers so she wouldn't have to defecate on the trip.
   She did not make conversation with the male prisoners (there was only one other woman during the trip) and they did not bother her at all. She said that one young man got on her nerves for constantly talking about how much money he made selling drugs. She told him if he had worked at MacDonalds at minimum wage during the years he had been in prison he would have made more money at MacDonalds.

Her One Complaint
   She had no idea why she had not been flown from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a trip that takes one hour, rather than transported by a van over two and half days. V. said , "Some [inmates] said it cost more money by air. Others say it's their [those in control] way of letting you know that they are angry at you and you are being punished." It could also be indifference.
   Her only real complaint was the intrusive body cavity search when she entered the Marin County Jail. She didn't mind stripping naked for she was getting used to it, but she said she felt humiliated by having to bend over and spread her buttocks with her hand and expose her anus and vagina. The matron kept telling her bend over further, and you are not doing it right and the process really upset her. She admitted that she was grouchy for not having slept in so long, but it really upset her.
   She said the female guard at the Knoxville jail was nice about it. The matron told her, "I can see you have never done this before, so let me tell you what I am going to do" and the woman explained the procedure and why it was done.
   V. made a formal, written complaint about the search in Marin and was told by the deputy sheriff  receiving the complaint "It won't do you no good!"
   But, other than that, she said she didn't mind the jail that much. The staff was nice to her and so were the inmates. She said she complained about one guard who seemed to needlessly provoke a woman who was mentally ill and as a result the woman screamed and bothered and upset everyone.
   But other than that she used her time in jail productively.

Excessive Bail Is Disgrace!
   Her bail set by Judge Boren was $500,000. He later reduced her bail to $250,000. She produced a bail schedule which notes that "Shooting at Inhabited Dwelling, Building or Occupied Car is $150,000. "Rape in Concert with Force and Violence is $150,000. Child Abuse Likely to Produce Great Bodily Injury or Death is $500,000. Child Stealing 278 PC (someone else's child) is $50,000 Her own charge 278.5 PC Violation of a Custody Decree which may be filed as a misdemeanor or felony, is not listed and would arguably be between $10,000 and $50,000 especially with no previous criminal record.
   It is unconscionable that Judge Boren would set bail at $500,000 for an indigent woman, without doubt a good mother, who made numerous good faith efforts to do the right, if not the precisely legal thing. Reducing her bail to $250,000 is equally absurd. Even after she relented in her efforts to get a trial before a jury-that two and a half hour tape would have made very interesting listening for a jury-and she plead guilty to her charge as a misdemeanor, and her bail was reduced to $10,000, she had trouble getting that paltry bail money for a week!
   What is so troubling about setting unattainable, unconstitutional bail for mothers of young children where there is absolutely no violence or neglect involved is that there is only an abstract, hypothetical, unexamined violation of a father's right. Something that is essentially a civil matter. And, no presumption of the mother's innocence.

Conflict of Interest
   What is worse is the obvious conflict of interest that existed within the District Attorney's Office. The District Attorney's Office does not examine reports concerning the father. There is evidence DA staff advised the mother before she left Marin, i.e. the tape recordings. An Assistant DA obtains a warrant from Judge Boren who was a Supervising Assistant District Attorney for many years. The Assistant DA has Judge Ritchie removed for prejudice (judge shopping). The Public Defender has Judge McGivern removed for prejudice (later he retires because of neurological problems). Finally Judge Boren a former Assistant District Attorney hears the case which involves-or should have involved-the internal workings of the District Attorney's Office. The isolated and emotionally exhausted takes a plea, no jury will ever hear her reasons for seeking domestic violence protection. The system is protected.
   For an alleged crime that is not intrinsically wrong, a half million dollars, or a quarter of a million dollars, or ten thousand dollars, or any dollar bail for a hard working, undeniably good, hard working mother yanked out of a shelter for victims of domestic violence is a disgrace on Judge Boren and the District Attorney. We should all be ashamed of what has happened to this mother and her children!

 Lawyers' Law Court Drones Roboticly On and On and On...
   This is how V's little family was destroyed. But she hasn't yet given up hope. She still makes court appearances. The dates come and go to no apparent purpose. Still no mention of the children. Judge Smith denied a visit with the children on Mother's day. The appearances come and go.
   What does she think of the different judges before whom she has appeared. She liked Judge Dufficy. She thought he was trying to be helpful. (Note; the Coastal Post has been highly critical of Judge Dufficy. Was he the best of the lot?). She is afraid of Judge Sutro. "He yelled at me for not faxing the court that I wouldn't be there. I didn't have a phone or a home!" She likes Judge Goldfine who handled her case once. "He gave me bad news" she wants me to understand. "He went against me, but he looked me right in the eyes and spoke to me like he wanted me to understand"

   She says she want to get a place and get custody of her children. She is an unusual woman. She speaks in a plain, clear, articulate voice. She answers questions directly, succinctly and without hesitation. She writes well in a open flowing cursive script. She doesn't smoke or drink. She used to be thin and athletic but since all the turmoil began with the divorce and losing her two homes, she has gained 100 pounds and she feels bad about it even though she caries her extra weight well.
   She doesn't speak badly about anyone, not even her ex husband." I don't know why he is always in such a rage about me," she says matter of factly. She acknowledges that her children love him. She never once mentioned being battered and beaten by her husband although a letter, presumably to the court in V's personal file mentions bruises, split lips, bloody noses etc. She only complained about her ex husband's threats and his bad example to the children.
   Her only passion besides her children is trout fishing in the foot hills of the Sierra. "I can get away from my problems and I get something to eat too." She takes children from the local school camping and fishing. She goes to church regularly. She wants to take her children to church with her some day.
   But once or twice during conversations with her, he eyes fill with tears and she admits to getting so, so ... tired, so... "disgusted," I suggest. "Yes disgusted... " And after a minute of silence she catches herself and smiles and the tears go away and her fragile, desperate optimism returns.


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