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Family Law Changes Needed

June 22, 1989

With the press surrounding the NOW Court Watch this past year and the recent request for reassignment out of the Family Law Court by Judge Alan Steele, we believe it is important to correct some misconceptions about NOW's position on bias in the courts.

NOW Court Watch began last summer as a response to the many phone calls that NOW receives from women alleging unfair treatment in the Family Law Court. NOW understands that the problems women face are problems within the judicial system and not the result of bias on the part of one or two judges in Ventura County. This was made clear to us during the gender bias hearings of the Judicial Council Advisory Committee, when many of the same problems that we were hearing about in Ventura County were echoed throughout the state.

We believe that these problems need to be addressed by changes in the law and changes in our society.

We live in a society where women earn 62 cents for every dollar earned by a man. This inequality becomes worse after a divorce. A woman's income declines by 70% in the first year after a divorce, and a man's income increases by 42%. If a woman has a contested divorce or child-custody situation, it often becomes prohibitive for her to stay in the process due to the cost of attorneys and psychological evaluations.

This puts women at a disadvantage, especially women who have not worked outside the home. While in the majority of cases women are awarded custody of the children, the results are reversed in contested custody cases. A 1979 study by Weitzman and Dixon published by the UC Davis Law Review indicated that in 63% of contested custody cases, child custody was awarded to the father.

The laws are made by men and enforced by men. Women make up about 15% of the state Legislature and 5% of Congress. Until women and minorities are more active participants in making and enforcing laws, the laws will favor those who make them.

Emotions run high in Family Law Court. In this highly charged atmosphere, people's everyday lives are often changed and thrown into turmoil. Many of the people participating in the Court Watch are victims of this unjust system and do not see the courts as instruments of justice but as the cause of injustice. Often individual personalities are easier to blame than the unjust laws and system that they represent. Family law is one of the most difficult courtrooms to work in. Seeing families torn apart on a daily basis is not easy.

NOW does not believe that the family law judges in Ventura County intend to be unfair to women. We believe that there are changes that can be effected locally and statewide that would bring justice to the Family Law Court. These changes have not yet happened.

LUCIANNE RANNI

DON CANNON

The writers both are officials of Ventura-Oxnard NOW.

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