A Task Force created to address alleged widespread problems in the state family courts system is taking flak from the same groups who have been calling for reforms.
Such criticism was widely expected when the Elkins Family Law Task Force was created last May. Men’s and women’s groups have been fighting a highly-politicized battle for years over problems in the courts that decide divorce and child custody proceedings.
While advocates on both sides agree that there are numerous serious issues in the family courts, they often have opposing views on what those problems actually are. But they do seem to agree that the process has been too closed, that there have been problems with a series of focus groups and that the Task Force includes far too many insiders. The 38 members include 16 judges, 12 attorneys, 10 staff members of various family courts—and no advocates or family court litigants.
“When you ask that same entity to investigate itself, and then you put on the panel judges who have historically protected the institution and themselves over the public good, how much substantive change is really going to occur?” said Patty Bellasalma, president of the California National Organization of Women (CA NOW).
Fred Sottile, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Fathers for Justice, referred to CA NOW as a “hate group.” Yet he said basically the same thing when asked about the Elkins Task Force.
“The Task Force is made all of judges and prosecutors,” Sottile said. “There are no people who have been victimized by family law. The Task Force is a group of people with no perspective. These people are all in the business who get paid by the business.”
Both Sottile and Bellasalma said they did not become aware of the Task Force until after the January deadline. Several advocates from women’s groups applied or were nominated, including Jean Taylor from the Center for Judicial Excellence and Connie Valentine of the California Protective Parents Association.
Katie Howard, special consultant with the state’s Center for Families, Children & the Courts, said that several litigants, both women and men, did apply to be members of the Task Force, but a decision was made to confine the membership to professionals.
“Many people who applied for the Task Force were, of course, disappointed not to be appointed, and I can understand that,” Howard said. “But I think that the many ways the Task Force is seeking input.”
The Elkins Task Force grew out of a California Supreme Court case decided last summer. It’s named for one of the litigants, a Contra Costa County father engaged in a custody battle whose attorney argued that the evidence code required in all civil cases was not being properly used in family courts.
As part of the ruling, Chief Justice Ronald George ordered the creation of the Task Force to look into use of evidence and other issues in the family courts. He asked William Vickrey, administrative director of courts, to choose the Task Force members.
The Elkins Task Force has now convened three times in San Francisco; in June, September, and November. Whether or not these meetings were open to the public caused more confusion with the advocates. The Protective Parents Association’s Valentine said she tried to attend the Nov. 19 meeting at the Judicial Council headquarters in San Francisco, but was given conflicting information about the schedule and was told part of the meeting was closed.
Valentine said the closure was an apparent violation of Proposition 59, the 2004 state “sunshine initiative.” Having already been denied a place on the Task Force itself, Valentine said it was important that advocates be able to track the proceedings and provide input.
“If they knew what the problems were, they probably would have fixed them,” Valentine said.
Howard said that Prop. 59 does not apply to the Task Force because it maintained previous exemptions to the Public Records Act for the judicial branch. She said the Nov. 19 meeting consisted mainly of small break-out sessions, with a public comment period later in the day.
“The Task Force needed the opportunity to throw out all sorts of ideas they weren’t ready to go public on,” Howard said. “Going forward, we will have open Task Force meetings.”
More criticism has arisen over a series of focus groups arranged via an outside contractor to help the Task Force assess problems with the courts. Eight focus groups of current and former family court litigants have been conducted in six counties, two of them in Spanish; 39 women and 18 men have given testimony.
The focus groups were arranged by Santa Cruz-based Ceres Policy Research. Women’s groups have raised objections to a Nov. 12 focus group in Pasadena that interviewed only six men, all members of various “father’s rights” organizations—a fact which leaked out onto the active and contentious online communities on both sides.
In a letter to the Task Force, Bellasalma charged “The solicitation of known advocacy group members is a breach of research protocols, if the intent was to solicit as unbiased a sample as possible.” She went on to call the recruitment “blatantly one sided, as no women’s rights groups were noticed,” and said it brought all the work done by Ceres into question.
Some of the men interviewed were members of Sottile’s 250 strong Father’s for Justice chapter. While he said they were initially “very excited” about participating, their enthusiasm was quickly tempered by the tone of the questions, which he said focused on subjects like how to more easily get money out of fathers.
“The impression was that the interviewers were looking for ways to exploit the fathers even more,” Sottile said. “The questions were very slanted.”
Howard said that while they have generally been happy with Ceres work and plan to continue using them, though it was never intended that there would be a focus group consisting only of father’s rights activist. She said they were planning on two additional focus groups in January to address the imbalance of known advocates, including one in San Francisco to consist of women’s groups. But Bellasalma said her’s and other women’s groups were unlikely to participate. A call to Ceres seeking comment was not returned as of press time.
Howard also provided what she said was the list of questions used by Ceres. It contained eight questions about the court experience and how it could be improved, with no mention of child support.
In many ways, the battle over the Task Force mirrors the larger battle between men’s and women’s organizations. Both sides say their members are victimized by a system that doesn’t follow proper procedures, ignores evidence and seems to be designed to drag out the process and bleed participants of their resources. Standards and operations are not consistent between different counties, a key factor Howard said the Task Force is designed to address.
But Sottile charged that men are essentially silenced in proceedings, given little chance of getting child custody and specifically targeted for their wealth with court-mandated psychological evaluations and other expensive services. There is little or no investigation into false child or spousal abuse charges in what he characterized as “war on fathers” conducted by “the domestic violence industry.”
Women’s groups, meanwhile, say that children are routinely placed with men who physica
lly and sexually abuse them—especially when the fathers are wealthy and well-connected.
A particular battle is going on over the concept of “parental alienation syndrome,” a term generally used to describe a mother allegedly turning children against the father with lies and pressure. The term is not officially recognized in psychiatry, despite efforts by men’s groups.
Bellasalma said it was far more complicated than a battle of the sexes—something she had to witness firsthand when her brother was “totally destroyed in New Jersey family court.”
“When you don’t have an open process, whatever you believe the courts are conspiring towards, that’s what you’re going to believe is happening,” Bellasalma said. “Personally, I just believe the courts are going to protect the courts over anything else. There are judges for men, judges for women, judges who don’t work at all, and good judges. It’s Russian Roulette.”