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Maybe We Need to Give Family Court a Time Out

September 01, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Anyone who has been through the emotional meat grinder called family court, who has submitted to the court-ordered psychological evaluation of a stranger, who has been forced to sell the family home to pay the legal bills, will understand what Paula Sharp means in this passage from her new novel, "Crows Over a Wheat Field":

The law is a miraculous water that flows upward, that seeks the high places, the craggy pools where power collects, the source of the spring. Energetic, shamelessly swift, or suddenly slow, stagnant and deadening, it destroys with indifference, like an act of nature, or an act of God: a blizzard or flood.

Normally, Sharp says, her readings attract a literary crowd. But when she reads from this novel--about the lengths to which a battered woman goes when the court fails to protect her child from his abusive father--she is constantly approached by people traumatized by family court battles. They come for simple validation, they thank her for getting it on paper, they tell her family court is an even worse hell than she portrays.

"And it's not just bad for women, it's bad for men too," says Sharp, 38, a former New York City public defender. There was a New York case, she says, in which a man who had fathered two children in two marriages was ordered to pay more in child support than he had ever earned.

"This guy was de facto in contempt of the court orders because he couldn't pay," Sharp says. "And that's the kind of story where you think: 'only in family court.' "

Or how about last week's news story about the father of Cecil Turner, the toddler who was found dead near his home in Mission Viejo? The father, who lives in Indianapolis, was given custody of Cecil's 4-year-old sister, Bryttnie, by an Orange County judge, but when he took his daughter to Cecil's funeral in Texas, he was handed a court order giving temporary custody of Bryttnie to her maternal grandparents, who live in Austin. Only in family court.

"In criminal court, judges know they'll be reversed if they make a bad decision," Sharp says. "But in family court, judges get out of hand, and there's no oversight."

The judge in Sharp's novel is spectacularly bad: "My courtroom is my own private country," he announces. "I am the president and vice president and secretary and treasurer here, do you get my meaning?"

The judge refuses to believe the protagonist's husband capable of violence. "I'm not prejudging the case," says the judge, "but I do find it a little hard to believe allegations of this kind against a man of this caliber. Yale Divinity School! . . . And a father's supposed violence toward the complainant is not relevant to the issue of custody."

Sounds a little hyperbolic, doesn't it? A novelist exaggerating to make her point.

But if such an attitude were only fiction, battering husbands--such as O.J. Simpson-- wouldn't have a snowball's chance of getting custody of their children. But they do, and even last week, a custody battle over the Simpson children quietly raged . . . in an Orange County family court.

Nearly every week, my phone rings with yet another plea for coverage by someone--usually a woman--who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, bankruptcy, or both because of an experience in family court.

Days ago, it was a desperate Ventura woman, mother of a 5-year-old, with a typically tangled tale. In July, an appellate court gave her permission to move to Arizona, but sent her case back to a lower court to settle logistical issues such as visitation arrangements and child support.

For six weeks, she says, and for reasons mysterious to her, the case has bounced between judges, none of whom will set a trial date. In the meantime, she says, her ex-spouse claimed their daughter had "regressed" and asked the court to order a new set of psychological evaluations.

This woman has been litigating her divorce for 3 1/2 years and has spent $70,000.

The delays in her case may simply be due to the fact that, like criminal courts, family courts are overburdened.

In Los Angeles last year, 12,281 of the 37,224 divorces, annulments and legal separations that were granted were contested. This means the parties were legally required to enter mediation before they were allowed to go to trial. (Even battered women must face their batterers in mediation.) Well over half--64%--of those contested cases were settled, but the rest ended up in the county's 32 courtrooms devoted to family law matters. Those courts also disposed of 27,858 matters involving restraining orders, changes in custody and child support.

"There aren't enough resources, courtrooms, judges and commissioners," says David Kuroda, who runs the family court mediation service for Los Angeles County Superior Court.

There is a powerlessness that is almost unimaginable involved in taking a custody battle into family court. I hear it in the voices of the people who call begging for newspaper coverage of their cases. I hear, too, the way it makes them feel crazy, as if they are being destroyed by indifference, swept up in a blizzard or away in a flood.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

Nearly every week, my phone rings with yet another plea for coverage by someone--usually a woman--who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, bankruptcy, or both because of an experience in family court.

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