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Money a Potent Factor in Thomas Custody Case


He spent more than $100,000 in legal fees on the bitter custody case. She blew her savings on a single $6,000 retainer fee.

Kevin Thomas' lawyer is a prominent paternity-rights specialist. Catherine Thomas has relied on lesser-known attorneys working virtually for free.

He won sole custody of her 5-year-old daughter, Courtney, and lives with her in Van Nuys. She faces prosecution for felony child stealing.

In the unusual Thomas case, many complicated factors led to the birth mother losing custody to a former family friend. Among other things, she twice violated court orders by running off with her child. But money has been a big piece of the puzzle, say Catherine Thomas and her lawyers, just as it is in many custody cases where women face opponents with greater financial resources.

The link between money and building an effective legal case is nothing new. But experts say it is particularly acute in custody disputes--where emotions, endless hearings and dueling psychiatric evaluations can quickly ratchet up fees.

When one side is able to hire witnesses and conduct background checks that the other is not, experts say, it can skew the facts judges see and how they ultimately perceive the competing parents.

"I would say that in most family-law cases the advantage is to the person who can pay for representation," said Los Angeles attorney Sheila Kuehl, a founder of the California Women's Law Center.

One measure of the formidable cost of custody disputes is the number of people braving the courts without lawyers. In California, four out of 10 people in custody cases appear pro per , or on their own behalf, according to a 1992 report by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

In some courts, the pro per rate for custody matters was as high as 53%, the report found.

Another study, by the state Commission on Gender Bias in the Courts, found that the majority of the lawyerless are women, many of them single mothers living in poverty or divorced women whose husbands earned more money and controlled the family's assets.

The same 1990 study reported that 36% of judges surveyed said that pro per litigants received "unfair results or treatment."

Although judges can order the richer person to pay the other's legal expenses, actual awards rarely cover costs and usually do not come until the end of the case, practitioners say. And while defendants in criminal cases are entitled to free lawyers, there is no blanket protection in civil suits.

Men's groups argue that 90% of children in single-family households live with women, according to government figures. That's evidence, they say, that women still prevail in the courts.

But women's rights advocates say those numbers, though technically accurate, are misleading because they do not reflect cases in which the men fought for custody.

"The truth of the matter is, most of the time men don't want custody of their children, and even if they say they do early on, they're using that as an economic ploy," said Nancy Polikoff, a law professor at American University.

Moreover, women tend to lose custody disputes more often than men, feminists say, although there have been few scientific studies on the subject.

One study of 60 custody disputes in the United States and Canada described by feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler in her book "Mothers on Trial" found that men had prevailed 70% of the time, even in traditional households where women had been the primary caretakers.

A 1977 study based on a random review of Los Angeles cases that is still cited today found that men won 63% of contested custody cases.

Men win not only because of the economic advantage they generally enjoy over women, Chesler said, but because "men are still seen as more credible witnesses than women ever are." There is also a double standard at work, Chesler and other feminists argue.

"Men can be OK parents," Chesler said. "Women have to do everything, and perfectly, and if they do not, they are damned forever."

Fathers' rights activists say the costs of litigation hurt everybody, and they deny that men have an advantage. It is women, they say, who still enjoy the courts' paternalistic sympathy and are presumed to be the better parent.

"Women have victim power, and they're not subject to scrutiny in the same way men are," said state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), who went through a messy divorce and custody suit. "Money doesn't make a bit of difference except in helping men overcome that presumption."

"Even if you have a financial advantage, you're still fighting a mind-set that's so great that money can't overcome it," said Dave Whitman of Bakersfield, who is president of a statewide group called COPS, or Coalition of Parent Support.

But women's advocates say that, more often than not, the lack of money colors, if not decides, custody disputes.

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