Gender Wars In Family Court Undermine Child Safety

 

gender wars

“There is no accountability or oversight in Family Court today.  There is no integrity.  Who is looking out for our children while everyone is getting rich at their expense?”  -  Kelly Rutherford, Actress and Co-Founder of The Children’s Justice Campaign

 

Last week, The Good Men Project posted an article about non-custodial fathers.  The article discussed how a man named Marc Hudson was creating a documentary about how non-custodial fathers face terrible stereotypes and an unfair system of custody.  While I found Mr. Hudson’s brief video both interesting and important, one of first things I noticed about what these men was that none of what they said needed to be painted as gender specific.  Many of the things that these fathers talked about, I have also heard from women when they are discussing the terrors of the Family Court system.

This week, I raise this issue because I would like to challenge those of us who have been touched by this broken system to break down gender barriers.  A person could walk into any given court and see a father who is being mistreated and stereotyped.  Then, that same person could walk into a courtroom down the hall or even in another state, and see a mother being stereotyped and mistreated as well.  Even though these two courtrooms might have very different gender politics occurring, they both have one thing in common – a complete and utter disregard for the civil rights of the child.

We often get so hung up on which gender is being mistreated on a given day in court (trust me when I tell you that Family Court does not discriminate when it comes to the poor treatment of men and women alike), that we completely miss the point.  Getting caught in gender wars and trying to argue about which gender is treated worse, is the same as throwing those small circle bandaids at a huge gaping wound.  It might make you feel better to peel open the package, and stick that useless bandaid to your terrible cut; however, almost as soon as you stick it on, it is going to fall off and continue to bleed.

Real Life Examples:

Many of you are likely still reading this post thinking, ‘This Cappuccino Queen has no clue what she is talking about!  I am in the middle of some crazy sh*t and I know my gender is treated worse when it comes to Family Court.’  To you folks, hang in there.  I have compiled the list of below anecdotes and quotes, and I have intentionally withheld the gender of the individual this happened to.  As you read through this list, I ask that you try and guess the gender of the person speaking before you look at the reveal beneath each quote.

1) “My son told the social worker that “Daddy” sexually abused him.  I need to get him out of that house.  I am afraid he is going to be hurt, but I don’t have custody.  I am living pay check to pay check just to make sure I don’t fall behind on child support.  I can’t afford a lawyer.”

Reveal:  This quote came from a non-custodial father.  His son’s mother had asked the child to call his step father “Daddy”. So when the child reported that “Daddy” abused him, everyone initially thought it was the child’s biological father.  When this father found out that his son was being abused by his ex’s new husband, he fought many years in court trying to protect his son.  In addition to fighting for his family attorney, he was placed under investigation for sexual abuse before the authorities were able to clear up that it was the stepfather and not the biological father who had abused the child.

2)  “I now have supervised visits because the family court system would not protect my children. One evening, I called my son, and he was ordered by father to get off the phone. The phone was never hung up and I sat there on the other end of the line listening to my son getting beat up, my ex screaming, my son crying.”

Reveal: This story comes from a woman who was placed on supervised visits for eight years. Her children sadly endured years and years of abuse before she was able to regain custody of them.

4)  “I don’t have primary custody of my children, even though my ex frequently has to be hospitalized for mental breakdowns and tries to hurt herself.  When my ex has a breakdown, Social Services takes my children from the house…then they call me.  I have fought to get custody, but have run out of money and now just try and do the best I can for my children.”

Reveal:  This story came from a father.  Even though his ex-wife had a clear history of being a danger to herself and potentially her children, the court refused to protect the children by putting them in the custody of their father.

5)  The final story is an anecdotal one:  Two parents had shared custody when one parent began to act erratically and started to speak about committing suicide and killing the children.  The healthy parent pleaded with the court to get a protective order against the parent who continued to make threats.  The court stated that a protective order could not be issued until the threatening parent proved that he/she posed a threat to the children by actually physically hurting them.  After the protective order was denied, the threatening parent brought the three children to a hotel, and drowned them one by one.

Reveal:  This happened to a woman named Amy Castillo.  Her ex-husband is now serving multiple life sentences in prison for the murder of their three children.

 

I have heard many people throw out amazingly ridiculous comments like, “99 percent of women who come to court lie about abuse” or “most men are deadbeat fathers”.  Outlandish  comments like these ones are sexist propaganda.  When dealing with the health and safety of children, such statements undermines child safety.

Throwing around those types of stereotypes are dangerous, especially when mentally healthy fathers and mothers have to then face those very stereotypes playing out in their personal custody case.

While I can certainly understand how one can become bitter after a terrible experience in Family Court, it is dangerous to try and paint an entire gender or an entire system based on your individual experience.  If I did that, I would assume that all men killed their children just because my ex has been charged with drowning my son.  Even though my experience was unimaginably terrible, I understand that it was just that – my experience.

Finally, Family Court Judges are people too.  Given that there is little to no oversight in our flawed system, many families are at risk of terrible court decisions at the hands of biased judges.  I have spent many hours thinking about how to reform the Family Court system in America.  One of the first things I wish for is that good parents could come together for reform, and recognize that these gender wars cloud the issues and stop real progress from happening.

 

 

Family Court – Nuke And Pave

The Family Court system in America is a disaster area.  My personal experience has been on the Family Court battlefield in the State of Maryland, but I know Maryland is not alone in its level of chaos.  It is certainly not alone in the number of children who are abused and die as a result of decisions made in these courts.  While I understand that not every case ends as poorly as mine did (with the unnecessary and brutal murder of a child), the courts as they stand are breeding grounds for sociopathic people to terrorize both their children and their former partners.  Since the murder of my son, many desperate parents have sent me letters asking me for advice.  I have also gotten letters from fellow Children’s Rights advocates who seek my input on how to best change the system.  In my best attempt to remain as positive as possible, given the dire realities that we face, my best advice for the change that needs to happen on a systemic level is as follows:

NUKE AND PAVE

(Note:  I don’t mean literally “nuke”.  I am not a violent person, and would never suggest blowing something up.  By “nuke”, I mean “get rid of the failures and start with a new foundation”.)

This might appear pessimistic, however, it is my strong opinion that an institution that fails so many children to the degree of sanctioning murder – needs to be completely overhauled.  A friend of mine, and follow advocate for Children, recently sent me the following link:

MD Commission on Child Custody Decision Making

To spare those of you with only a mild interest (or not a ton of time to read legislative crap) the time it takes to go through this lengthy document, I will summarize:  The State of Maryland is creating a “Commission on Child Custody Decision Making.”  This sounds great right?  On the surface it sounds like progress; however, it could also serve as a temporary bandage on a system that needs open-heart surgery.

 

The Commission:

The commission has 14 areas it is going to be reviewing.  Five public forums will be held (The county where my son’s murder was sanctioned has been left off of this list) so that the commission can take under advisement public opinion on these issues.  Below are the issues the commission is set to address where I will focus my attention:

1)   To ensure custody orders are more uniform, fair, and equitable.

My comments:  This statement screams “parental rights”.  It shouldn’t be about what is equal for the parents.  It should be about what is the best environment for the child.  If one or both of the parents is unstable, and shows a history of abuse and poor decision making, why should that parent be entitled to equal access to the child?

2)   Study and consider the adverse effects of child custody litigation and ways the court system can minimize those effects.

My comments:  It should be common knowledge in the legal community that the cases that make it to court most certainly involve at least one parent who suffers from a personality disorder.  If the court wanted to minimize the effects that litigation has on the child, it should focus on how the parents got to court in the first place.  Just trying to get the parents out of court is not going to save the child from the negative impact of dealing with a sociopathic parent.

3)   Study how to promote and ensure that children have ongoing relationships with each parent.

My comments:  This is similar to point number one.  In a perfect world where sociopathic people didn’t have children, both point number one and this point would be a non-issue.  Instead of “ongoing relationships”, how about focusing on “healthy and safe relationships”?  Many children have ongoing relationships with abusive parents.  Many of these children either require extensive therapy to try and reverse the damage or become abusers themselves.

4)   Study how to maximize the involvement of both parents in each child’s life.

My comments:  It continues to baffle me how the government often believes that it’s in the child’s best interest to try and get a deadbeat parent involved in his/her child’s life.  I have seen so many odd cases where the court will try and “encourage” a parent to spend more time with their child, even if it should be clear that the person’s involvement is not in the child’s best interest.  It is better to have one good parent than one good one and one abusive one.  News flash:  Good parents don’t need to be encouraged to be involved with their child.

5)   Study whether or not there is any gender discrimination in custody decisions in Maryland and, if so, how to address such discrimination.

My comments:  While many times it appears as though currently there is a war on motherhood, in this back bending attempt to promote Father’s Rights, gender discrimination should be irrelevant if we are focusing on Children’s Rights.  Shouldn’t it?

6)   Make recommendations regarding the most effective manner in which to facilitate cooperative decision- making by parents involved in child custody proceedings as it relates to their children.

My comments:  Going back to an earlier point, most cases that end up in court include at least one sociopath.  The sooner the courts realize that it is impossible to negotiate or “facilitate cooperative decision-making” with a terrorist, the sooner they will realize this point is ludicrous.  During my custody case, both Luc and I were ordered to go to a two- day co-parenting class (6 hours total).  I attended this course at the expense of leaving my boob diva of a breast fed child (who was not yet used to taking the bottle and cried with Grandma for six hours straight); however, Luc chose not to attend at all. Those are six hours I will never get back with my son.

7)   Study how to ensure that child custody determinations involving parents with mental health issues are handled in a fair and even manner based on actual evidence and not presumed limitations.

My comment:  Now this one is an interesting point and scratches the surface of a major problem.  The issue with this point, however, is that it assumes that mental health assessments are done appropriately.  The judge in my case suspected that Luc had a serious mental health issue based on a preponderance of evidence; however, given that the judge was not a mental health professional, he ordered Luc to get a forensic psychological assessment.  Luc found a school psychologist, who specialized in child autism and was friends and co-workers with his older son’s therapist, and paid for what appeared to be a one-sided and negligent custody evaluation from a woman with no experience in adult forensic testing.  This test was the evidence the judge needed to protect my son.  Even after it became clear that Luc was disordered (when he drowned his own child for life insurance money), this therapist continued to practice and likely still appears in court potentially ruining the lives of other children and families.

 

What’s Missing?

After going through all 14 (yes, I excluded some of the ones that focused on cultural sensitivity issues and other periphery issues that I don’t believe are at the root of the problem), I didn’t see one point that talked about a review of the cases that went terribly wrong. Wouldn’t the commission benefit from local case studies that are right at their fingertips and a part of public record?  In addition to my own horrific case, they could review Amy Castillo’s case.  After begging a judge to pay attention to the deterioration of her husband’s mental health, Amy’s protection order was denied.  Her husband then went on to do exactly what he told Amy he would do – he drowned all three children to death in the bathtub of a Baltimore hotel room.

 

Children’s Rights:

 

Children have no rights in America.  Looking at the Family Court System, it often reminds me of slave times.  Laws were made that directly impacted the slaves, yet they had no voice in the process.  Slaves were treated like property, killed, and “owner’s rights” always came first.  Children are treated much in the same way.  Our laws are designed so that parents are given “the right” to do what they wish to their children.  It is only after the child is murdered when that parent faces any sort of loss in their rights, but by then it is too late for the child.

When I am asked what I think about this commission or the state of Family Law in general, I always think about Prince.  Prince never had a chance in this system because his father intended on killing him.  His father wanted access, would cry on cue on the stand when talking about how much he missed his son, and his father effectively gamed our broken system.  Prince should have had a right to live.  He should have had a right to be happy, healthy, and safe.  Prince didn’t have those rights, but the court succeeded in making sure that Luc’s rights were never in jeopardy.

 

Nuke and pave Maryland.  If you want to fix it, start over and make Children’s Rights your foundation.

 

Unrealistic Expectations

I couldn’t stop shaking.  I knew that every word coming out of my mouth would likely not make any sense.  This was the last time I would testify in an attempt to save my son’s life.  As I walked to the stand, I felt as if my legs would buckle beneath me.  Judge Algeo watched me closely and I knew this was going to have to be the show of my life.  Sadly, no matter how much I tried to “keep my emotions in check” as I had been coached many times by my attorneys – this was my son I was fighting for and I couldn’t shut off my maternal instincts.  I hadn’t eaten in a week, hadn’t slept in days, and probably should have been on some sort of anti-depressant medication (if, in fact, there are meds that can help a mother not feel as terrified as I felt in that moment).

My testimony went by in a blur.  Everything I had planned to say didn’t come out right.  I begged Judge Algeo to wait until Prince was old enough to speak before he would consider unsupervised  visits.  As I sat there terrified and shaking, Luc sat back and smirked.  He knew he had checked all of the boxes (or at least lied his way through the court’s tests) and he appeared to enjoy my very visible pain.  Prudence Upton, Luc’s very aggressive attorney, seemed to also enjoy my suffering.  She spent a considerable amount of time chastising me for not making plans for Luc to spend time with Prince at chuck -e- cheese on his first birthday.  I remember thinking to myself, ‘seriously woman?  You are worried about chuck-e-cheese and I am worried about my son living to see his second birthday.’

Unfortunately it appeared as though Chuck-e-cheese was a bigger deal than I thought it was.  Judge Algeo and Prudence seemed to expect that it was my job that week to make sure that Luc didn’t have to lift a finger in order to spend time with his son.  I was supposed to contact the supervisor and request more time, plan for a party that Luc would enjoy, and make sure everything was rolled out on a red carpet.  Luc never lifted a finger nor requested extra time outside of court.  That day, however, Luc was the calm and collected father who could shed a controlled tear on the stand and I was the mother who had been painted as a basket case – a scorned woman – and over dramatic.

 

A reflection of myself:

 

A couple of nights ago, I received a frantic phone call from a mother who is going through a terrifying custody case with an abusive (soon to be ex) husband.  She has a two year old son whom she is fighting for.  As I spoke to her on the phone, I thought to myself, ‘this woman sounds like a basket case.’  After our conversation was over,  however, I realized that I may as well have just been speaking to myself  about seven months ago.  This woman had a right to be frantic – act crazy – be terrified – or whatever emotion her body allowed her to have.  She was in the fight of her life struggling through a thankless and helpless system that fully intended on harming her son for the sake of “parental rights”.

 

To give you some background, the father in this case had assaulted this two year old boy and this abuse was documented by Child Protective Services.  In fact, the CPS worker came into court to testify in the hearing when this mother tried to get a protective order against the father for her son.  After hearing the testimony of the abuse, the judge denied the protective order calling the bruises found on the boy “merely negligence” vice abuse.  The judge admitted that he called it “negligence” because he did not want to end all visitation.  This judge chose to  protect the father over this two year old little boy.

 

Upon hearing that the protective order for her son was denied, and visits with the abusive father would begin, this mother broke down crying in the courtroom.  The judge reportedly called her out publicly and told her to “put on [her] game face.”  He continued to tell her that he was watching her every move and that this sort of “behavior” would be used against her in his future rulings.

 

Unrealistic expectations:

Ever since I have gone through my own Custody War, I have learned many tough lessons.  One of the toughest lessons that I have learned is that the courts have turned into a war zone.  In this war zone, women are expected to stop being mothers who worry about their children.  In fact, showing fear in the courtroom could be one of the very things that will label you as a “parental alienator”.  We are supposed to forget about having been abused, turn our children over to men we know have abused and will abuse again, and we are supposed to do all of this enthusiastically and with a smile on our faces.

 

To expect a woman who has lived through the chaos created by a psychopath to “remain calm” in family court as the abuse continues, and while she is trying to protect her innocent child, is asking her to leave her humanity at the door.  Any woman who could walk into family court when the stakes are that high and remain calm – I would question her mental state.  I have heard that the family court used to be slanted toward women.  I sure wish I had been going through the system at that time. When I went through, I experienced what seemed like a war on motherhood.  I was told I wasn’t allowed to be a mother to my son, but that I was required to make sure that Luc could be his father despite what he had done that proved he was not capable of being a real father.

 

As absurd as it sounds, I am still waiting for the day when I get a call from my family attorneys telling me that Judge Algeo has requested that I provide Luc with some time to visit Prince’s grave.  I can also imagine that in this same phone call I would be asked to provide Luc with a car, since he doesn’t have one, and a packed lunch for the long trip.  Some of you might be thinking that sounds absurd, but not as absurd as the moment when I stood over my son’s dying body listening to nurses discuss how they wanted to create a hospital “visitation schedule” for the man who had just murdered my son.

While nurses were discussing allowing this man to visit, I was told that if I said a word to Luc that I would be taken to a psychiatric ward and kept away from my son in his final hours.  That – ladies and gentlemen – is the state of our society.