By Alison Bowen
Friday, July 4, 2008
A family court activist in Michigan is training volunteers to observe family courts. The goal is to reform a system that many women who lose custody consider unjust. Latest story in our "Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses" series.
(WOMENSENEWS)--After crisscrossing the nation and speaking to divorced women for nearly a decade, Renee Beeker realized family courts were creating a spider web of pained parents and irregular rulings rarely revealed outside courthouse walls.
The family court system mold varies in each state, but the common story line Beeker heard from women was a feeling of elusive justice.
Family courts--where cases range from custody disputes to divorce decrees to foster care--are a hidden world of broken families, advocates say, whose futures hang on rulings by an overworked judiciary. Women's accounts of injustice can pass undetected by a society where many have never witnessed a family court proceeding.
A big-picture view provided by a watchful eye was in order.
So in 2004 Beeker, a mother of six, founded the National Family Court Watch Project in Milford, Mich., which she continues to direct.
The group launched a pilot effort by eight volunteers who observed 201 hearings held by 24 judges in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Rhode Island.
Since the pilot, Beeker has traveled the nation to speak about the project and recruit volunteers to expand into all 50 states.
The next phase includes adding seven New Jersey counties in November and streamlining the six-page questionnaire, although the questions--specific probes about who is present and general queries about whether abuse is involved in the case--will remain the same.
"My goal was to go out, throw a bigger net and pull in more and more samples," Beeker said. "The bottom line is that this has to get bigger."
Beeker hopes large-scale data will reveal national trends and ignite a call for change. She says the project is a conversation springboard and a "quiet observer" to get a sense of what's happening in the family courts, report those findings publicly through a new conduit and work with judges and the public to find solutions.
Beeker and other advocates believe it is the first national effort to watch family courts. Volunteers attend hearings and flag problems such as women having no legal representation, defendants not showing up and so-called neutral court evaluators who sit with litigants on one side of the courtroom.
Mo Therese Hannah is a professor of psychology at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., and organizer of the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, a major annual gathering for women and activists.
Fear of the court experience among battered women is so intense they often tell each other to "never go to court alone." Beyond the data, the project might offer comfort to litigating women, she said.
"I believe even on a psychological level, it's a very good thing for women," Hannah said.
Data collected from February through April 2004 showed 64 percent of plaintiffs were female and they brought 89 percent of motions, of which 42 percent concerned safety issues, often restraining orders. Visitation rights, divorce and child support were also common court matters.
Because the volunteers sat in on random hearings instead of following the same family, they did not track custody decisions. About 56 percent of cases were not heard or completed at the observed hearings.
About 85 percent of the time defendants were not present, something Beeker says hurts parents who have taken a day off work, found and paid for child care only to have the hearing rescheduled. In two-thirds of those situations, a judge issued a ruling even though one parent was absent.
These rulings, advocates say, can decide a child's primary caretaker for years but they may be based on brief encounters with a family and unduly influenced by hospital records or a child's stated preference.
In this atmosphere, Beeker says, even when abuse claims against a spouse or children are proven, an abuser who does appear may still convince a judge of competence. Often, advocates for battered women say, abusers paint victims as unstable because of their frantic attempts to secure custody.
Beeker's project takes a cue from anti-violence advocates, who monitored court proceedings and whose recorded victim-blaming or unfair decisions were not always accepted by the justice community.
Dale R. Koch, an Oregon circuit court judge and a past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in Reno, Nev., is among a group of judges working to improve family courts and systems.
A court watch project in his home Multnomah County a decade ago studied domestic violence.
"Initially, the reactions of the judges were, 'Who are these people to tell us how to do our job?'" Koch said. But because systemic problems were addressed rather than individual judges criticized, the conclusions were well received in the end.
"It is nice to have somebody else's eyes on what you do in the courtroom," he said. "Lots of times you'll do things, and you think you're responding to someone in one particular way, but somebody else out there might view it differently."
Beeker, who is president of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women, feels strongly about involving judges. "I want them to see it as an instrument to help them improve their work," she said.
Beeker went through a custody case, represented by several different attorneys who either quit or were fired. She does not like the label "formerly abused woman," she says, because "the truth of the matter is, that's not empowering to women."
But because of the emotional nature of the cases she does not recruit volunteers who previously engaged in family court cases. Court watchers are often paralegals or law students, senior citizens or women's studies students.
One volunteer is Paul Holdorf, a former commercial litigation lawyer, who heard Beeker speak at the 2006 Battered Mother's Custody Conference and now attends hearings in New Jersey.
"It's too serious a situation for the public not to be involved intimately, somehow," Holdorf said.
Court watchers, who fill out a six-page pamphlet with dozens of questions about what they observe, told Beeker a big hurdle was getting inside courtrooms.
Some require weeks of advance notice. Once inside, volunteers were sometimes asked to explain their presence or to leave. One had to ask the judge for permission before using a pencil.
Some of the data have surprised Beeker, such as the equal split between men and women representing themselves, which occurs in about 65 percent of all cases.
But overall she says the data confirmed her impression of a system that raises particular obstacles to women seeking custody decisions from judges. A majority of judges are men but women at the custody conference reported similar or worse treatment from female judges.
Activists say the backlogged and chaotic nature of family court, where judges have stacked cases and rushed schedules, is not the best setting for adjudicating families' futures.
In 2006, the New York State Matrimonial Commission, charged with finding answers to the state's beleaguered divorce courts, suggested more training for judges, a tighter selection process and shorter appointment time frames.
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women's eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.
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