Lieber seeking audit of family court system

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, is circulating a letter asking the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) for an audit of California's family court system and the way it handles child custody disputes.

The letter, addressed to JLAC chair Nell Soto, D-Pomona, raises numerous issues. It asks the JLAC to look into court appointees, such as mediators, investigators, therapists, and attorneys assigned to work on custody cases. It also cites "increasing evidence" that children are being placed with parents who are committing sexual abuse or domestic violence.

"This is something there have been concerns about over a number of years," Lieber said. "With the audit request, we're really trying to make sure we have a handle on what's going on in these cases."

The letter also cites eight counties where "large numbers of problematic cases appear to arise." At the top of this lists, are Sacramento and Marin, which is also the home of a group pushing for the audit. The Greenbrae-based Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) has been circulating a 42-minute film called "Family Court Crisis: Our Children at Risk," to try to drum up interest in reforming family courts. They've also been testifying about the problems they see, most recently at a hearing last week in San Francisco of the California Commission on the Status of Women.

Attorney Beth Jordan, co-chair of the Family Law section of the Marin County Bar Association, characterized the CJE as a group of "disgruntled litigants" who are trying to use to political process to get the results the courts wouldn't give them. She represented the father in the case of litigant Rama Diop. Diop testified at the Women's Commission last week about the "bias, corruption and blatant disregard for the Law" that takes places in Marin.

Jordan does not contest that Diop was a poor, African-born mother fighting a case against a well-off American father. But she said Diop was represented by multiple attorneys through trials and appeals, was given adequate resources to state her case and made multiple attempts to get the judge thrown off the case. Diop now has joint custody.

"I'm sure she feels she was taken advantage of because she's a woman and she's poor and she's a person of color," Jordan said. She added, "I don't doubt in any way that the litigants believe what they're saying. I also think they make up a lot of things."

One of the things women often "make up," according to Jordan, is allegations of sexual abuse. This is often done with "questionable timing" as the mother is about to lose her case.

Attorneys and others associated with the CJE paint a very different picture. Kathleen Russell, a staff consultant to the CJE, said that you can find examples of the way things should be done very close to Marin and Sacramento counties-just go to next door to San Francisco or Yolo counties, respectively. In both cases, they said, these counties have far better records of following the law, taking all evidence into account and keeping children out of abusive situations.

"We have terrific laws and procedures put in place for the protection of families and children," said Barbara Kaufman, a family law attorney active with the CJE who represented Diop. "They're not being followed."

What's missing in many counties, both women say, is oversight and accountability. Russell said that in some counties the family courts have become "a racket." Testimony compiled by the CJE abounds with accounts of parents have to pay out tens of thousands of dollars to an attorney appointed to represent their child, who then meets with the child for a just a few hours over several years. Others tell of expensive "co-parenting" session with a therapist, in which a woman must pay to sit in a room with the man who has beaten her or her children, following the rules in hopes of getting their children back.

In rich counties like Marin, a well-off parent can use the courts to systematically destroy their ex-spouse, she said. Through repeated orders for expensive mediation, counseling and legal representation for their children, they are "systematically stripped of their resources." Contrary to Jordan's claims, Russell added, many women hold back from raising abuse or violence allegations, lest the other side charge them "parental alienation syndrome" and try to use the charge to seek full custody.

"By the very act of raising these allegations, they're losing their kids," Russell said. The audit, she said, it merely trying to "create a culture of accountability."

Judge Verna Adams-who is Presiding Judge in Marin County Superior Court and Supervising Judge of their Family Law Division-said that her court is already audited regularly by the Judicial Council of California. Adams, who presided over Diop's case, said she is confident an audit will find no major problems.

"In Marin we have a long history of well-funded special interest groups who are trying to exert political pressure on judges to rule in favor of parents who belong to these groups," Adams said. "This group (CJE) has been trying for months to find a legislator to carry legislation to change the family court structure in California. They're trying to influence a small number of cases in Marin. I can assure you that our judges are not going to succumb to this kind of pressure."

Lieber said that she is close to having several co-signers for the letter. Then the JLAC, which consists of seven Assemblymembers and seven Senators, would have to vote to approve the audit. The resulting work by the Bureau of State Audits would then take several months-by which time Lieber will have been termed out the Assembly.

But she said she has submitted bill language the Legislative Council in order to give a head start to any legislator who might like to take up the cause in the next session. This text focuses on changes she said would ensure accountability in the system, particularly when it comes to court appointees and allegations of violence or sexual abuse. If the audit does show major problems, Lieber said, a resulting bill could get widespread support.

"I think there could be republican votes for it, definitely," Lieber said. "And the governor has shown a real willingness to take on children's issues and domestic violence issue. So I think there is an open door there."

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