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Archive for the ‘Manhattan Family Court Sucks’ Category

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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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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Photo cbc.ca

Photo cbc.ca

I love this Pope. Actually, I don’t ever remember to have been fond of a Pope in my lifetime. He talks about issues of poverty and wealth the way some Latin American theologians ( e.g. Leonardo Boff) I liked to read, did. Recently, he delved into a more domestic issue: spanking one’s children.

That brought me back to a conversation I had in 1996 in the smoking room of the World Bank, in Washington DC. Yes, in these dark times, there were smoking rooms in DC buildings. Then a fellow smoker of mine, a man of Erythrean origin, fumed about his neighbors, who had reported him to the cops, because they had heard noise in his house as he was disciplining his kid. I could not fathom it. The kid had misbehaved, he had to discipline him. I told him, jokingly: “Use other means. Tell your kid: No TV for you! Or no gun for you!”

I hope my friend did not have to cope with a trial in family court. I did. There, in this little world, men are suspects, especially foreign men. All have anger control issues. That’s why family courts ask them to take parenting classes and have them waste their time and their children’s with supervised therapeutic visitations.

In a country where mums are given a free pass to alienate at will, or buy their children a gun for Christmas, one can only hope that the Pope’s message that “spanking is ok if it’s not demeaning” is going to become a water-cooler discussion in family court.

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Two days ago, as I was waiting for the train on 96 street going back home, there was a young black lady on the platform, carrying a baby

D. Robinson and M. Gibbs (Photo Yana Paskova, NYT)

D. Robinson and M. Gibbs (Photo Yana Paskova, NYT)

in a snuggly and pulling a toddler, who was at most 2 years old. The little boy was crying. He was carrying an enormous backpack with Mickey Mouse on it, which he kept dropping on the floor. Each time this was happening, his mother was telling him to pick it up. Her tone of voice was crisp and authoritative. There was clearly no room for bargaining, yet the toddler kept crying, hoping perhaps her mum would comfort him. But his mum had her hands full and she did not have time to compromise. She was in the business of bringing everybody home. Maybe because I was coming back from Aznavour’s concert, and had Aznavour’s voice in my head, I felt vaguely uncomfortable by the way she asserted her authority. I noticed my discomfort was shared by people in the train.

Now that I think about it, I feel discomfort about my discomfort.  I guess this mum is the type of folks that work several jobs, cannot make it with what she earns,  and cannot afford a babysitter. She is therefore not the target of the nauseating commercial of Care.com, but she is the likely victim of the “budget cuts” of public housing in New York City that Mireya Navarro reported about in a New York Times article. Thanks to these cuts, family of two that were living in two bedrooms have to move to a one bedroom or pay more, and family of three in two bedrooms etc…  Consider now the predicament of single parents ( single fathers for instance) with a teenage kid in a one bedroom apartment, the likelihood of a surge in accusations of child abuse/domestic violence, and all these cases handled by those sensitive watchdogs of the families of the poor that populate family courts: law guardians, and private “Comprehensive Family Services” of all sort. That’s going to be interesting quality time for those families in public housing.

Meanwhile last week, the news was all about Ray Rice’s assault of his wife Janay.  It takes a “hero” to fall for exquisite sensitivity (belated on the NFL’s part) and awareness about domestic violence to be displayed.  The incident prompted a flow of reforms all over the nation.  The great State of New Jersey (Rice played at Rutgers) passed a package of six laws, the gist of which being enhancing control of the bad guys with a registry of restraining orders. Such conspicuous waste of efforts and taxpayers money, which would better spent on public housing …

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Four days ago I was on the bus to Laredo (a charming resort on the Spanish Atlantic coast) to see friends, having departed from Bilbao, in the

Cantabria shore

Cantabria shore

Spanish Basque country. I was enjoying the landscape, with mountains overlooking the ocean, when I saw, painted on a bridge in white letters, the words: CUSTODIA COMPARTIDA (Spanish for shared custody). They were impossible to miss, but the bus was too fast for me to grab my camera and take a picture.

Two thoughts, a good and a bad one. The good one first: Fathers’ movements have come a long way all over the world. When I was in the midst of my child abuse trial, there was zip going on in the US in terms of fathers’ rights. In 2005, the only glimmer of hope was what was going on in the UK (I learnt about it thanks to a Susan Dominus’ article in the New York Times Magazine, which had Jason Hatch from Fathers 4 Justice on the cover). Now among others, there are fathers climbing cranes in France (and getting their voices heard) and even in USA Today, Sharon Jayson talks about dads demanding equal custody rights all over the US. Now for the bad one; this current rise of the fathers’ right movement is like the D-Day: a blessing if you are not dead by June 6 1944, or to be at little less tragical, if New York State Laws and Manhattan Family Court have not destroyed your relationship with your children.

By the way, things have been going on for a while in Cantabria, where joint custody was added to the divorce laws in 2005. A year ago, the Santander Supreme Court granted joint-custody to a father of two, breaking the decision of the family court which had given sole custody to mum. These fathers from Cantabria have a facebook page titled Custodia Compartida.

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Mark Sargent (Photo: the CT Mirror)

Mark Sargent (Photo: the CT Mirror)

The US family justice system is supposed to act in the best interest of the child. We all know that, we divorced fathers especially, whose rights to see our children are often sacrificed in its name. Fortunately, family justice is here to remind us that our miserable interests are to be trumped for this greater cause.

Reading about the State of Connecticut’s family court reforms in the baking, one is not certain any more that family courts are that sure about whether they are acting in the best interest of the child; or rather, there is some awareness that this might not necessarily happen. As divorces are becoming more litigious, custody dockets a judge has to handle pile up, and children suffer from prolonged custody battles.

The physical-abuse trial I had to go through after my divorce was a continuation of a custody battle by other means. I had a law guardian who did do zip to protect the interests of my children or mine. She was here only to serve as the good conscience of family justice system: when your case moves at a agonizingly slow pace like my trial (which lasted six years and half), the presence of a law guardian means that the interests of children are nominally protected, even though de facto they are not.

In Connecticut, they happen to have guardians ad litem. I went to the website of one, and frankly, I have trouble understanding the difference with law guardians. Guardians ad litem are “self-described” mediators in chief,  lawyers with shrinks’ talents that pretend to have a special gift in understanding the human soul and for parenting.  In Connecticut, the services of these folks might be quite pricey. Guardians ad litem bill by the hours, and face no cap. Mark Sargent, an attorney involved in pushing reforms to the Connecticut family court system, spent $130,000 in GAL(Guardian At Litem) fees.  Some parents empty their retirement account to pay their bill. In Connecticut, family justice provides another opportunity, besides serious health problems, to be faced with financial ruin.

My homeland does not have it all. Yet it has something I came to value as I reflected on the problems I had with Manhattan family court: a conception of justice that transcends a contract between parties. In the French criminal justice system, justice is supposed to be represented, and its interests are to be defended, by an investigating judge, who investigates a case before a judge rules about it. There are the parties, and there is justice which is supposed to be served by the state.

Connecticut’s family justice does not need one more substratum of mediators, the guardians ad litem, supposedly acting on behalf of the best interest of the child stuff and taking their cut until a judge hears the final mediators of a custody case. What is needed are impartial law guardians, with real investigative power, payed by the State, speeding up the process and acting in the best interest of justice. More surely than not, they may act in the best interest of the child.

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Rep. Joe Kleefisch (photo Wisconsin State Journal)

Rep. Joe Kleefisch (photo Wisconsin State Journal)

A month ago, I read about Assembly Bill 540, which Joel Kleefisch, Republican Representative of Oconomowoc, was planning on introducing to the Wisconsin State Assembly. I thought it was incomplete, but some ideas were not to be dismissed entirely: capping child support payments to $150,000 in yearly income, which the bill proposed, was not unreasonable to me.  As much as I am for the top 10% to pay their fair share of taxes, I don’t see why child support payments ought to guarantee a 10% life style to an ex-spouse who happened to have married into the 10%. The bill was also aiming at guaranteeing “an equalized placement of children into both families.” That resonated nicely to me; we non-custodial fathers too often are granted pitiful visitations of our children.

However the fathers’ rights rhetoric of bill 540 proved pure smoke screen. In fact, Kleefisch had one father in mind when he was writing the bill, his multimillionaire friend, Michael Eisenga, who is also a contributor to his campaign and to that of his wife, who is Lieutenant Governor of the State of Wisconsin. Even better, Eisenga, unhappy with his child support obligations, was holding Kleefisch’s pen. On January 15, the bill was withdrawn from committee hearing.

The saddest thing in this story is that there is a bunch of fathers besides Eisenga who really needed a break. Let’s be fair with Wisconsin Child Support guidelines: They are immensely more sophisticated than New York State’s.  Income subject to child support is determined as an arbitrary percentage of each parent’s gross income (wrong), yet a component of child support obligations (day care for instance) is adjusted for the time the child spends with each parent (right), and income disparity is stated to factor in the computation of child support obligations. Wisconsin Child Support guidelines also describe sources of income subject to child support payments, which include social security disability benefits and unemployment benefits. The folks that live off such income often need to have their child support obligations revised downwards or be exempted from child support obligations altogether. Obviously Kleefisch and his pal Eisenga were not thinking about them.

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Absolutely Uncommon Analysis of Family --and "Conciliation" -- Courts' Operations, Practices, and History

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