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Archive for the ‘Family Justice and the Media’ Category

Circe Hamilton (Photo Angel Franco, the New York Times)

Non-custodial fathers know too well how inflexible the justice system is regarding their  rights and their duties. Seeing your children more? Having more input into the life or your children? Yes, if it suits the custodial parent, i.e. Mom. Loosen child support payments so that you can make a living? No way man. For support magistrates, child support payments’ rules – the percentage of your income you pay in child support- are like the second amendment for the N.R.A. Ain’t no exception, no extenuating circumstances. A good father is a father who pays.

But justice is no different than education or health care in the US. There is the bare minimum that commoners get and there is what rich folks have access to. That’s actually quite amazing how the justice system can become imaginative and creative with the law when you fuel lawyers with cash.

Take Circe Hamilton and Kelly Gunn’ story from Ian Parker in the May 22 issue of the New Yorker. In 2016, before Labor Day, Hamilton was about to move back to the UK with her adopted son, Abush. But her project did not happen as expected. She was contacted by the lawyer of her ex-partner, Kelly Gunn, who had asked a New York court to recognize her as one of Ambush’ parents, grant her joint legal and physical custody. In the interim, Gunn was seeking a restraining order and Hamilton could forget about going back to England.

In their wildest dreams, New York State divorcing fathers would think of getting joint custody, let alone preventing their ex to travel so that they could see their kids. But Gunn had deep pockets, and that certainly helped to unleash the creativity of Chemtob, her lawyer, who saw the case of Hamilton versus Gunn as “Kramer vs Kramer 2016.” Yet Gunn’s claims to be recognized as a parent are not far from frivolous. She lost interest in adoption after Hamilton and her separated. However Hamilton and Gunn remain friends and keep in touch and  when the boy appears, Gunn starts growing feelings for him and as Hamilton puts it, “she wants ownership.” She also has the means to assert her influence in her ex-partner life. She provided an apartment and a car, which Hamilton perhaps made the mistake of accepting.

In any case, Gunn’s petition was denied at the beginning of this year. The judge argued that “the preconception plan (of adoption) could create a path to parenthood but that plan had not continued unabated.” Gunn is appealing this decision because she says this is a case of discrimination against gays. I think she would not be receptive to the fact that there has been an ongoing discrimination in family courts against fathers whose parenting plans were “abated against their will.”

Hamilton and Abush still cannot travel to England.

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I saw Gad Elmaleh’s show, “Oh My Gad” last night at Joe’s Pub. Elmaleh is  a very

gad-elmaleh-jpg_203462

Gad Elmaleh (www.madamesioux.fr)

successful stand-up Moroccan French comedian who decided to make it in New York. Why New York? Gad knows. As I was thinking of the show, one of its main themes came to me.  America has mostly good people but bad institutions, like health care policy,  justice and gun laws. In France, or in Morocco, where Elmaleh spent part of his childhood, people are perhaps not so good, but institutions are much better.

Let’s leave Gad Elmaleh and let me take it from there. In New York for instance, we have the ethicist and his column in the Sunday Times. Each week, a bunch of good people are asking Kwame Anthony Appiah what is the right thing to do, because they care about it. Like this woman for instance, who asks the ethicist if she should tell her boy about his biological father (her ex). She cannot stand having his son learn about his biological father by anybody but her. That’s a woman thing: she wants to control the narrative, totally. The ethicist goes right to the point: tell your son. Now.

The surprising thing is that somehow, all these good intentions have come to be lost in the process of designing institutions, justice for instance. As this group of fathers demonstrating in front of Toledo family court on May 28 to ask for the basic right of having a role in the life of their children shows, there is little ethics in the working of family courts. It is a custodial- mother- take- all game.

Also let say it again. We need to seriously improve our narrative. No, “we are not -all- deadbeats- dads.” The deadbeats dads are those who have been bled by unreasonable child support payments. We want family courts not to mess up with us being dads.

 

 

 

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Every four years, I am amazed that important issues are left out of presidential campaigns. Justice for instance: Nowadays the

Han Tak Lee (Photo An Rong Xu)

Han Tak Lee (Photo An Rong Xu, NYT)

media is all about the unfortunate opposition of Senators Cruz and McConnell to President Obama’s prerogatives to nominate a new justice. I am not denying that the issue of who is in the highest court of the land is important (and that everything should be done to avoid having another crusader of the universal American human right to bear arms). Yet to me, this buzz about the nominee in the highest court eclipses one more important problem: the fact that the American justice system incarcerates a lot, and incarcerates the wrong guys: mostly African Americans but more generally the poor across racial lines.

I cannot recall the number of innocent men wrongly convicted I have come across since I live in this country. In this blog, I spoke of Herman Wallace, who always claimed his innocence and spent 41 years in solitary confinement.  Last week, two other cases were in the same Friday March 11 issue of the New York Times: Han Tak Lee, 81 and Andre Hatchett, 49. Until 2014, Han Tak Lee was serving a life sentence for murdering his daughter in a fire; Andre Hatchett served 25 years in jail for the murder of Neda Mae Carter. Two years ago, a judge exonerated and set free Mr Lee, acknowledging his conviction was based “on theories of arson that had later been discredited” (You have to read it to believe it). On March 10 2016, a judge vacated Mr Hatchett’s conviction and dismissed his indictment. Both men spend close to 25 years in jail. Sorry, have a nice day!

The Innocence Project folks point to safeguards that could be put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice. They are certainly right. I also would argue that for the justice system, all in all, innocence does not matter much. Putting an innocent human in jail is yet a worse error than failing to put a criminal in prison. The problem is that the first type of mistake, the gravest, weigh zip in the assessment of the efficiency of the justice system. No judge and no politician is ever going to claim credit and advance his career for not having put the wrong guy in jail. Moreover, in the sad conservative era we live in, when the taxpayer is by definition robbed by the government – the source of all our problems, as a famous President taught us-  a dime spent on a crucial public good such as justice is to be accounted for. And people behind bars, for the right or the wrong reasons, that’s results.

We divorced fathers experience with family justice the same breed of misdeeds that plague the criminal justice system. Family courts go for cheap and efficient. Our rights to play an equal and meaningful role in the life of our children? Man, let’s get real. Here we use an easy gender-biased marker for decision-making purpose. Male? Non-custodial parent status and child support for you. You contest it? An accusation of abuse by sweet ex-wife takes care of it. Efficiency? On the rise; Child support collection keeps making progress.

What makes me think that reforms are not around the corner is the sick of obsessive attention that the media and the public pay to the O.J. Simpson’s case. I was in this country 22 years ago when the race behind the Bronco took place and O.J. was acquitted. Like everybody else, I learnt hat a knife had recently been found in Simpson’s property. Folks that have not slept for 22 years over the possibility that a guilty man was at large are now dreaming of seeing the bastard in jail, already.

I have no clue as to whether the man is innocent or guilty. But in any case, I think the American justice system has more important problems to fry than O.J. Simpson.

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Kelly Rutherford and Children (Photo New York Post)

Kelly Rutherford and Children (Photo New York Post)

In the Fish Market store I usually go on Sunday, on 144 street and Broadway, I overheard an interesting conversation in Spanish. A customer – a Dominican man I would say- was ranting about child support with the two Mexican employees of the store. He owed back child support payments and was at risk of having his driver license removed. I did not catch the whole thread but at some point, I heard him say : “pago poco porque gano poco” (I pay little because I earn little). This man did not seem exactly pleased with New York State family court justice.

How strange, truly! This man obviously did not read Sheila Weller’s article in the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, titled “Irreconcilable Distances;” Otherwise he would know that family justice has changed a great deal. Let me say a few words about Weller’s story, whose estranged protagonists are Kelly Rutherford, star of the TV series Gossip Girl, and her ex-husband Daniel Giersch, a wealthy German business man. I skip the details of the custody battle and go directly to the outcome: Giersch was given residential custody, and as a result, Rutherford has to visit her children- her son Hermes and her daughter Helena- in Monaco. A lot of tears, and famous ones, have flown for Rutherford: ABC News Legal Analyst Dan Abrams tried to raise awareness of Rutherford’s lot and her children’s, in a September 1 2012 broadcast, “Two American Kids shipped to France in One of the Worst Custody Decision, Ever” (Abrams does not seem to bother that Monaco, whose Princess was Grace Kelly at some point, is not part of France). Also, with the initial help of Alan Dershowitz, “Boston-based Murphy- , a women’s -, children’s-, and victims’ rights lawyer filed a civil rights lawsuit in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on behalf of Hermes and Helena, claiming their life abroad is a form of ‘involuntary expatriation, which is unconstitutional,” tells Weller.

My heart bleeds at my ignorance of such a case. Yet, did I miss something, or these noble knights of the rights

Cirilia Balthazar Cruz (Photo Sharon Steinmann)

Cirilia Balthazar Cruz and Child (Photo Sharon Steinmann)

of mothers and children – Abrams, Dershowitz, Murphy- were nowhere to be found in support of Encarnacìon Bail Romero or Cirilia Balthazar Cruz, two undocumented (Guatemalan and Mexican) mothers who were deprived of their respective son and daughter by family courts in Missouri and Mississippi?

But let us not be sidetracked here and let us return to American motherhood in Monaco. The cause of Rutherford’s predicament, according to Weller, is “the friendly parent criterion,” which allegedly now guides the decisions of judges in the courts of this land. What is it? You need to appear supportive of your ex’s rights and ability to see the children. Don’t mess up with them, or at least, don’t behave in a way the judge could interpret you intend to. That was indeed the source of Rutherford’s troubles: she left Giersch’s name off the birth certificate of Helena’s. Critical mistake, which basically cost her custody of her children. Folks, that’s now the law of the land, we are told: Rich, poor, white, black, straights, gays, don’t even think of interfering with your ex’s rights. From New York to LA,  family court judges, these new heroes, will not allow it. You end Weller’s article, and you wonder how come the US family court system, after Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi in 2014, is not even considered for the 2015 Nobel Peace Price.

Now, let’s get real. Weller’s article is telling us that Giersch’s super lawyer Fahi Takesh Hallin (a partner in the prestigious L.A. firm Harris Ginsberg, mind you) were successful at pointing at Rutherford’s “excessive gatekeeping” during the trial; in other words, Hallin was good at blaming Rutherford’s sick tendency to overprotect her children and overstate the risks of spending time with Giersch. I am no Fahi Takesh Hallin, but let me tell you something: in the family court trial of physical abuse I was dragged to a few years before the Rutherford-Giersch case, there was plenty of evidence of “excessive gatekeeping” on the part of ex. The judge sat on it, and the law guardian did not lose one minute of sleep over it. Both cared about mum, and not at all about mom’s “excessive gatekeeping.” I believe that readers of this blog share this assessment about family courts.

Sometimes, when you come too close to the rich and famous, you lose sight of what goes on in the world of common folks. That’s actually a serious mistake for a journalist.

 

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Father'DayIt has been a long time that Father’s Day has not had any meaning to me. My girls don’t phone me, and I guess the very thought of it would make them feel disloyal to their mom. I rejoice with some of my relatives or friends who post pictures of them with their dads on Facebook, but for me, Father’s Day is like National Doughnut Day.

I happened to have caught Jasmine Hernandez’s opinion piece in the New York Post, on June 18, titled “Stop Stacking the Legal Deck Against Dads.” A timely, well-intended call inviting moms to be nice with their ex, because, you know, there are men who really want to play a role in the life of their children, let us not lose sight of that on Father’s Day.  Since Jasmine Hernandez is a family court lawyer, the reader is given a short digest of New York State family laws.

That’s where her piece gets questionable, as it ultimately justifies one of the most unfair family laws in the country. Take her distinction between “physical custody” and “legal custody” for instance. Hernandez want us to believe that when “a dad has relinquished physical custody,” he nonetheless has plenty of room to exert a meaningful role in the life of his children, because he is not deprived of legal custody. Truly, legal custody is a legal fiction if mom wants ex out the life of the children; Of course, dad can resort to the services of good lawyers like Hernandez to prevent it…

Obviously, non-custodial dads would be much better off without the flimsy legal custody they have now, and if joint custody were to be the default option in divorce in New York State.

Have you ever heard about a lawyer who wants to change the law, not just walk you through it?

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Hillary Clinton stepped in the Presidential race yesterday, Sunday April 12 2015, stating that “when family is strong, America is strong.”

Exactly the kind of line that gives me the creeps. The topic of family in politics is indeed always and everywhere sulfurous; It is the favorite topic of the far-right, who sees family as the repository of traditional values; it is for sure the topic of those who do not have much to say about policy in general, except that the essence of government is not to interfere with individual liberty.

The problem with family champions of all kinds is that they have to come from “above-reproach families” or be hypocrite. That makes life difficult for a lot of good folks who have interesting ideas beyond “making family stronger,” like Chuy García for instance, who is running for mayor in Chicago. Two weeks before Hillary’s official launch of her presidential campaign, Phil Ponce, a WTTW’s anchor, was rubbing into Chuy García’s face, the strong- family argument:  “Your son has been a gang member. Is he still one? If you could not control him, how dare do you pretend to lead us?”

I also wonder in what way policies aiming at “making family stronger” would help the cases of Michael T. Slager and Walter L.Scott. The former, a cop coming from a divorced family according to an April 13  New York Times article, shot the latter eight times in the back as he was escaping arrest. No reason whatsoever to shoot the man, Walter L. Scott, who happened to have the bad luck to owe $18,104 in child support, was facing an arrest warrant for it since 2013, and was scared to be arrested.

Why doesn’t Hillary Clinton leave the “strong-family thing” to the guys running against her?

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Fathers in Jail (Photo Carmine Galasso)

Fathers in Jail in NJ (Photo Carmine Galasso)

On paper, New Jersey is far from having the worst child support laws in the US. Both parents’ income are used to determine the financial obligations of each, unlike in New York State, where child support is a percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income, irrespective of the custodial’s one. Yet stories of  New Jersey fathers in jail for default of child support payments pulls your hair up out of horror: fathers are rotting in jail with no end of their ordeal in sight. There is obviously something wrong with the way the law is enforced, and Governor Chris Christie seems quite oblivious of it when he travels to England in search of international exposure.

What goes wrong for fathers in the Garden State?  Colleen Diskin, in a July 26 2014 posting in New Jersey.com, locates the origin of this mess in New Gingrich’s cracking on “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads.” He forgets to mention that Bill Clinton, with the dismantling of welfare as we knew it, is the one who cast the first stones of Gingrich’s reactionary project of returning to a pre-New Deal conception of the role of the state. What is this vision about? The poor are poor because they did not seize the plentiful opportunities available to him; if they are poor, it is because they are either trying to cheat the system, like deadbeat dads (then we can spare the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars), and they are therefore losers. In the later case, the state might condescend to help him, for a -short- while.  Rogue judges, such as judge Bonnie Mizdol in Bergen County family court, whose understanding of the obligations and responsibilities of parents squares with nineteenth century England at the time the Poor Laws, grants a once-a-week drug addiction counseling session to parents who cannot meet their financial obligations.

The problem with most states  implementing this grand vision is that they don’t have a shinning justice system, because they are, like the great state of New Jersey, cheap and/or lazy.  Here, access to food stamps or housing is conditioned upon granting the right to the county to sue for child support money, which goes to repay for these services; Technically, this is a transfer of income to poor custodial parents (mostly women) from non-custodial parents, who cannot afford it and end up in jail;  That’s a great victory for the state, which is in the clear, and can point to easy scape goats: deadbeat dads trying to escape their parental responsibilities.

As Krugman puts it today, “nobody understands debt,” or nobody understands that debt entails two parties, the debtor and the creditor, whose claim may be totally unreasonable; when you have a debtor who owes more than six figures in back child support, it may mean that 1/(dad’s) income) may have changed over the years (after all, the Great Recession reminded as that capitalism is a very unstable system, and that people lose jobs) and 2/ mum’s expectations as to what child support is to pay for has nothing to do with a child’s real needs, but what mum thinks they are.

The State of New Jersey has to face it: such debt is never going to be repaid, and owed not to. Putting dads in jail won’t change it.

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