Courts Without Justice: Dads On The Custody Battlefront
Jim's wife served him with divorce papers -- and a temporary protection order based on allegations of domestic violence. It took him 15 months to be allowed to see his son, even though his wife never claimed that Jim had ever hit or threatened her or their son. Nina Shapiro writes for the Seattle Weekly:
Had he been charged with domestic violence in criminal court, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and the standards of due process are high, this might not have happened. But Jim's fate was decided in a very different venue: family court.
It's a court like no other--a hugely busy and rancorous place where the most personal aspects of people's lives are not only on display, but judged and reshaped in proceedings that often last no longer than 20 minutes. Appointed commissioners, rather than elected judges, make many of the most crucial decisions. And the standard of evidence (known as "preponderance of the evidence") is the lowest allowed by law.
For years, dads'-rights groups have claimed that family court overwhelmingly favors women, particularly when it comes to custody. In former times, when dads generally did far less hands-on child-rearing than moms, those claims tended to be viewed as the ranting of bitter misogynists.
But parenting roles have changed. And the "judicial system," says veteran family-law attorney Deborah Bianco, "is way behind the culture." Bianco is one of a number of mainstream family-law attorneys--representing both women and men, and often female themselves--who now say they too see a bias against men.
Rhea Rolfe, an attorney who once taught a "women and the law" class at the University of Washington, recalls sitting with a male client in a commissioner's courtroom one day. There were maybe seven or eight cases heard. "She ruled against every single man," Rolfe recalls, "and two of them were unopposed."
"In any other arena, the evidence gets you the ruling," observes attorney Maya Trujillo Ringe. "But in this particular arena, the dad has a much bigger uphill battle." So much so, she says, that she and other attorneys often joke that "if you put a skirt on the dad, same facts," he'd win primary custody. "You can overcome the bias," Ringe adds, "but it takes a lot of work and a lot of resources."
Check out the evaluation of one of these guys:
Given their extremely rushed proceedings, family-law commissioners often punt to such "expert" evaluations to make recommendations that can be heard in later hearings. Smith did that in Richard's case, ordering a "risk assessment" from a counselor who specializes in domestic violence.
Richard says he welcomed the assessment. "OK, great," he says he thought. "Now I'm going to go to somebody whose job it is to ferret out the truth." He says he didn't even mind paying the $1,000-plus fee.
But when counselor Doug Bartholomew came out with his report a month later, Richard was even further in the hole. The counselor did say that he couldn't determine whether Richard had assaulted his wife. Yet Bartholomew still recommended that Richard attend a domestic-violence treatment program, as well as a class called "DV Dads."
Why? For one thing, he held out the possibility that Richard was dangerous. He attached extreme importance to the engineer's attempt to have the counselor look at a mental-health self-evaluation his wife had done. "Since submitting someone's private records against their will is so inherently antisocial, it raises the question of whether or not he's capable of similar 'stop at nothing' behavior," Bartholomew wrote.
Richard's personality and background were also suspect, according to Bartholomew. For one thing, he was successful. "The downside of success, and he's been very successful, is that we tend not to learn compassion, empathy, or insight." Richard, he wrote, "has never experienced tragedy."
Imagine being evaluated this way -- and having your ability to see your kid depend on that evaluation.