FAMILY COURT NIGHTMARE – I grew up and into what I realize now was the calling and purpose of my life. I am a life-long southerner. I am sober-minded and law abiding and extremely loyal and proud of my Mississippi heritage and hometown. I have been a native “Coastonian” since 2005 (B.K. i.e. Before Katrina). I am a well-read,intelligent woman yet it took me over a year to fully absorb, accept, and define exactly what family court nightmares are. I am as expert on the matter as anyone south of the Mason-Dixon and that thought horrifies me. I wish to share this horror with others not to degrade our State or tear down …. I wish only to build up what is broken. First I must draw a line and paint a picture because it doesn’t appear broken at first glance or second look.
I wish to share this in order to see my children be noticed and freed from the invisible glass barrier that has separated them from the world. I will continue to pester, persist, write, call, mail, file, cry, and scream any words I can until I get them noticed and recognized. I have to. I am their mother, I am proud of them, I cannot help them myself as I too am invisible. I have been rendered useless so far. But, I am still breathing. And I can pester, persist, write, call, mail, file, cry, and scream. That’s what Mississippi Mama’s do.
Please let me know if you would like to know more about my children and more about Mississippi’s children in need of justice.
(Excerpt, Writing For My Life, June 2013)
For over two years, since the beginning of our most recent of family court battles, I have sought to get help for my family, my four children, especially my two youngest children, now ages 15 and 13. We have been forced to live our lives according to the whims of an angry man who, for nearly a decade now, has manipulated the legal system and used our two equally dysfunctional extended families to further isolate and victimize me as well as each of our four children. Manipulating chaos and discord and stirring conflict has only perpetuated the cycle of violence we continue to live with, ten years after a finalized divorce that my ex-husband initiated.
My children and I have had no choice but to make the best of a no-win situation and have tread new ground in unfamiliar territories, alone, afraid, but bound by simple, basic, human love. We have far exceeded all expectations and are no longer only a story of simple survival but of success. We successfully maintained bonds, loving bonds, albeit fragile and still smarting, but we are the epitome of “love knows no bounds”.
This is a very long time to live adjusting to what is easily seen and clear to read as an obvious pattern of abuse that is marked by repeat, return-trips of endless back to back court appearances and custody hearings that began in July 2005. We had no choice but to appear and answer to at least one, sometimes two and three per year since. That summer in 2005 my ex-husband filed this first emergency legal action, an emergency separation and for emergency custody of our three minor children who had been in my care and custody since birth. The three children at that time were ages 14, 7, and 4. He filed this suit in a jurisdiction that was 200 miles away from the jurisdiction in which we resided and he filed his petition immediately after he abandoned us, leaving me and the children penniless. Shutting down our mutual checking and savings account was actually the first action he took. In that very first legal action of July 2005 my ex-husband claimed that I kidnapped our the three (3) minor children against their will and moved with them to another county in an attempt to hide them and keep them from him (their father). It would be careless to omit the date of that very first hearing, August 29, 2005, and the impact it too would have on our future. The day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (landfall actually within 10 miles of our home). At that moment I was standing on courthouse steps 200 miles away waiting for a hearing that would be reset due to bad weather. This was a pivotal and defining moment in me and my children’s lives in more ways than one. So, although the blatant and outrageous lies and accusations were never given credence and I was able to maintain the custody and care of our three children, these lies sat at the top of our “family file” and opened my own family’s new story, foretelling the tragedy to come and that lead us to where we are today. I didn’t know it then but the very fact that these very serious claims, lies and allegations were never addressed or curtailed by “authorities” of the people in charge, or, the inaction” by the court that day gave some sense of freedom from all accountability which is in essence nothing short of a green-light to an abuser. That day a new pattern of torment emerged and a whole new pattern of torment began in the form “legal abuse” by my ex-husband. Money and the ill-equipped court system were used by my ex-husband as new weapons to punish me since he was, in fact, no longer legally allowed to do so as my spouse.
I can state that although I knew what was happening to us and that I was fully cognizant, horribly aware, that what we were going through was abusive, I did not fully understand how much damage this abuse could and would inflict upon me and my children nor did I have any idea that this would ever be allowed to continue as it has for so many years. I have to live with that ignorance and what it cost me and and my children. We lost basic freedoms and minimum rights yet managed not only to survive but somehow thrive despite impossible circumstances. I am proud of them and proud of the example I have set for them.
Not only do all of my children have years of emotional damage in which to cope with and heal from, they have only very recently been allowed the chance in which to try begin the painful process. They also carry the added pain and scars from so much suffering they had to endure for so long in plain sight. The entire community around them failed to them because it has not yet even recognized, identified, or acknowledged what exactly “It” is. This has only intensified their pain and sense of worthlessness, further isolating and violating them. They have had to cope with the constant rejection and abandonment by the similarly dysfunctional extended families of origin of both of their parents … how could they possibly avoid feeling worthless and unimportant? No one will ever really know how much damage all of this perceived apathy and rejection has done to them. It is certainly understandable that most communityleaders, neighbors, and friends assume extended families, if there are any, will step up and in to help if there are valid emergencies. Sadly, that is not always the case, and these days it is a very dangerous assumption to make. There are no villages anymore.
My children have been completely “invisible” in plain sight and as their mother I can’t rest until they are noticed. Because I myself failed to comprehend, accept, and define what was happening to us there was no possible way to explain it to others, let alone ask for help. I carry the full weight of this, knowing I have been the biggest failure of all to my children and I carry it with me like the weight of the world on my shoulders every day. There are so many caring people who have looked on helplessly, uncertain how to help. My children have completely lost their childhoods and I have completely lost the years in which to mother and nurture them. I wish very much to make this the time for change, the beginning of the end of this destruction. Maybe, in the process, we can shed some light and knowledge on this most terrible of human atrocities. It is occurring every day in every community in our civilized society. If left unchecked it will undoubtedly catch up to each and every family in one way or another. Maybe we can avoid further unnecessary and senseless suffering. Maybe we can help other “invisible” children and parents. This is a senseless shame that has invaded our homes, steals childhoods and robs memories and leaves everlasting scars. This is tearing families apart and is dividing communities.
Would you please help me with this, for my family and for yours?
Mother’s Day has not been anything real for me since the beginning of PAS of my 21 year old daughter, in 2007. All these years later, my 16 year old son has fallen into the alienation, WITH the help, or lack of help from the so-called court-appointed professionals, and, I now face my 1st Mother’s Day that my youngest, 13 year old daughter is showing solid signs of PAS and distancing herself. I do not know if I will visit with her at all this Mother’s Day. One child was like a surreal blow that I went into shock over, second child was agony and long-held scream of protest that kicked me into reality, frantically educating myself with how to battle PAS while battling courts, ex, etc., … the third and youngest child?… feels worse than death. idk … it’s worse than a nightmare and very hard to avoid feeling as if you have failed them all miserably. Divided we fall … the irony. I hope and pray for awareness and education in order to unite, RE-UINTE so many of us, the broken, severed families wandering around in so much pain. Prayers to all who are experiencing this same pain. It’s indescribable. And, many thanks, deepest gratitude to those who have been paving the way, forging ahead through all of this confusing nonsense ahead of us these many years, writing, studying, educating. Without them, without their putting a name, definition, to these atrocities, I believe I would have fallen through the cracks many years ago. God Bless You!
1. Accept that there is absolutely no such thing as a guarantee of speedy trial, representation, protection under the Law in Family Court.
2. The practice of debtors prisons is very real and is being carried out every day in Family Court Systems across America. You can be jailed for professional fees (i.e. appointed guardian ad litems, psychologists, special advocates, mediators, evaluators, etc.) even if you are a safe, fit, and loving parent, regardless of whether or not these professionals even perform their duties … more on this topic later.
3. Be prepared to learn more about Family Law (Federal AND State) than you ever dreamed possible. By the time you are through you will likely know more than your own attorney but it will have been worth it, especially if you do so BEFORE any final hearing.
4. Understand at the outset that a large proportion of family courts and court professionals across this nation who have been appointed, elected, and entrusted with protecting your and your CHILDREN’S rights, ARE corrupt and that this has been the norm rather than the exception for a very long time. The sooner you accept this sad fact the more ahead of the game you can become. Not ALL are corrupt, but many more than the average citizen is aware of. You have only to google topics such as bias corrupt family courts, abuse child custody, report complain lawsuits against attorneys, judges, guardian ad litems, court appointed psychologists, family court reform, etc. and you will find a WEALTH of information regarding these matters. It is rampant in every State in our Nation. This has now become a worldwide, human rights issue. Research headlines, personal stories, articles, lawsuits … knowledge is power.
5. Do not allow the opposing attorney, or, even your own attorney to strong-arm, influence, rush or shame you into accepting an appointment of a guardian ad litem, psychologist, or ANY COURT APPOINTED PROFESSIONAL WITHOUT first gathering referrals, credentials, running your own background checks, and, even checking into OTHER cases of said guardian ad litem, and/or psychologist … thoroughly review the list of the names offered you (it will very likely be a SHORT list!) – your life depends on this. You have the RIGHT to to take TIME to do these things, it’s a very important decision that you should be a part of. YOU EVEN HAVE THE RIGHT TO ALTERNATE NAMES OF PROFESSIONALS. Do these things before the gavel hits … please do not underestimate the importance of this.
6. BY INVESTIGATE … start by running a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) Request on ALL professionals involved in your case in the county of your jurisdiction. The purpose of this is to find out if, and what they have been paid as private vendors from county funds … you will very likely be surprised at how fruitful, and shocking, these requests are. This is an important way of following the money, finding serious conflicts of interest, improprieties. This is an easy request to perform, is not complicated for a lay person to do – more on this later. It’s also easy enough to run all professional’s names through your State’s Secretary of State database for corporations they own, are officers or holders in … again, it’s following the money. Please take these steps very seriously – it can change the tide of your entire case very QUICKLY and easily BEFORE any FINAL HEARING.
7. It is very important to go to your county court records and pull your own court file and go through it with a fine tooth comb … look for missing documents, evidence, incorrect or missing official stamps and/or dates on documents, hidden documents, stapled, etc. You’d be surprised how few attorneys take the time to go through your court file, and, you know your own file and case history better than anyone. Make notes, or better yet, ask for a complete copy of your file, and update it every few weeks, days even, if you can. Documents turn up missing, added upon, misplaced, out of order, “hidden”, etc. ALL THE TIME. This is less likely to happen if you keep up with your own case file and are constantly aware of any new or unusual additions, surprises. Also, keep an eye on motions, orders, etc., that are “quick-tabbed” and labeled by clerk’s, judges, attorneys, court appointed professionals … these are usually tabs put in place for quick review and give clues to the documents hurried “professionals” flip to automatically without taking the time to read your entire case. After all, that would require a lot a time and effort on their part … it’s just your life, and the lives of your children depending on them to do so … are you willing to take the chance that they are THAT invested in you and your child’s (children’s) rights, lives, treatment, case?
8. Find out how, when, yes, even IF, the court appointed professionals are communicating with YOUR attorney (again, you’d be surprised how often they communicate with only ONE side). Insist on copies of all communications between your attorney and the court appointed professional … you can dissect this information on your own time and will surely have more invested in it than even your own attorney. Very often, even “good” attorneys are naive to the manipulative, underhanded tactics “biased” professionals use in order to leave a party out of communications, correspondences, etc. and often end up blindsided, surprised, in court … leaving you, and your children, no recourse (aside from time-wasting threats of appeals, reversals, re-considerations … you’ll likely all be too old and tired to make it that far …. very few do, believe it).
9. Addendum to #8: It is also not unusual for court appointed professionals to make costly “mistakes”, hide communications and/or documents, or, send documents ”by error”, as in … “OOPS … I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT HAPPENED?… I THOUGHT I WAS USING YOUR/YOUR ATTORNEYS PROPER EMAIL ADDRESS?” … or, “I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT HAPPENED, LET ME CHECK WITH MY ASSISTANT”, or, “I DON’T KNOW HOW/WHY WE MISSED THAT?!” or “I DON’T KNOW HOW/WHY YOUR EX RECEIVED COPIES OF REPORTS AND YOU DIDN’T?!”. Also, it’s not surprising for the opposing counsel, or, your ex, to be on the receiving end of copies of your personal, protected, confidential emails, medical records, etc. which is extremely unethical, illegal, and gives reason for review, reversals, reporting, oversight, investigations and lawsuits. These are the only ways to change, for everyone. As you can tell by now, the list of excuses, errors, corruption, can be infinite … I just listed a few I have experienced personally. This section simply means, do not be surprised by ANYTHING, ask questions, find out who’s talking, who received what, what is going on, and, what they (court appointed professionals are doing, teaching, counseling, advising your children) … do NOT allow yourself to be shamed into thinking you are being overly pesky or paranoid. Easier said than done, I KNOW, but, I assure you, the alternative is much worse, much more final, much harder to bear, years and tears later. Ask the questions, even if they make you feel STUPID for doing so … remember what we teach our children? … There ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS!
10. KNOW the HIPPA laws and do not fail to use them in your conversations with the court appointed professionals (this should be a given but turns out it is often a slam-dunk in getting their attention). It’s hard, but you’ll have to learn early own to stop letting these so-called “professionals” intimidate you into silence … you will not win them over with good behavior – remember, your good reputation and good behavior did not help you in the first place. And, it’s also possible the whole matter has been, or is being, decided well before you even enter the courtroom. This, too, happens ALOT. Again, do all of these things BEFORE any final hearing or it will likely take YEARS to get back on any solid ground with your children and, lawsuits, reporting, ethics, commissions, review boards, only come AFTER you’ve lost your children’s childhoods. You’d much rather have their childhoods.
11. Tape record any and all conversations with court appointed professionals. It will come in handy one day, and, this is the dawn of a new age … change is a-coming, faster now than ever, thanks in part to the use of newest technology and faster information sharing sources. Protect yourself at all times. Put everything in writing. Journal, diary, take notes as often as you can. Document, document, document.
12. Day of the week actually matters — Cry as you might, even if your child is in the hospital critically injured or seriously ill you will be a lucky one if you get even a notification from much less a callback from attorneys, etal. So it is highly unlikely to expect that you will ever even see the inside of a courtroom, even if there is a bona fide emergency situation that affects your children and their health, safety, wellbeing. I was given this very important piece of advice early on in my own court-nightmare and it has served me well in the years since, helping me conserve my precious energy and focus on other matters at hand. Learn, comprehend and accept, early on, that you will not be effective in getting anyone’s help or attention on a Friday and let yourself off the hook until Monday. If there are Motions or other matters pending before the court, you can pester your attorney all you want but they too, in most cases, are at the mercy of waiting on responses and callbacks, notifications, etc. none of which will likely not happen for them either on a Friday. I did not readily accept this bit of advice initially, but I kept it in mind, and after weeks of observation I learned that it was indeed applicable in my case and jurisdiction. I urge everyone to experiment with this, see if it is true nationally. Years ago I dubbed Fridays “golf-day” in order to regain some sense of control, inject some humor, in order to cope with the agony of the condition of waiting. Only others who have experienced the agony of waiting helplessly while your child is hurt, hurting, injured, abused, sick, crying for you, etc. can truly understand that it is hell on earth to endure. Accepting, for the meantime, the imposed limitations of the court and personnel will help you focus on what you CAN DO!
13. Have you asked how many appointments each family court industry professionals involved in your case (i.e. guardian ad litem, psychologist, expert, visitation supervisors, evaluators, etc.) handle in your jurisdiction. Not many of us are aware, at the outset, that this information is not reported but it is available and vital information for you to have.
14. Ask if court appointed mental health professionals, (i.e. psychologist/psychiatrist) are appointed in accordance with your (your children’s insurance provider). All too often this is not the case, forcing parent(s) to pay out of pocket, leaving many literally bankrupt, and/or eliminating one parent altogether from participating in counseling sessions, as happened in my own case, when the court appointed psychologist was paid, in cash, by my ex-husband. I was not privy to counseling sessions my young daughter received as I was not in any position to pay for this private psychologist’s steep hourly fees for “counseling” my daughter. This psychologist was chosen and appointed by the presiding judge. Another very important and damaging fact was that my ex-husband was paying the bill – and he was in a position to, and did, bar me from participating in our child’s counseling session. The psychologist concurred, which was definitely not in the best interest of my daughter.
15. Request, and be prepared to make numerous requests, regarding billing by court appointed professionals … they are often difficult, or next to impossible to receive, and are almost always inaccurate. Follow the billing, hourly rate, diagnosis code, etc. The importance of “billing” and how to use itemization of in checking for errors, provable facts for trial and/or complaints cannot be underestimated.
16. Ongoing Work
… It is vital that, from the very early stages of the case, protective parents do the following:
Rely only on attorneys, physicians, and mental health professionals with documented training and experience in domestic violence and child abuse cases. General family court experience for lawyers, and general child custody and family therapy training for other professionals, is woefully insufficient for these cases. Attorneys who represent the abusers should be avoided, as their experience with abuse cases is generally counterproductive. Look for attorneys who truly understand the constitution, the rules of evidence, and the mental health field, and who are willing to challenge the system when it is failing. Stay away from lawyers who believe that the wise psychologist and the experienced guardian ad litem will always make the right decisions and we just have to trust them.
Object to any process where written reports are submitted by guardians ad litem, custody evaluators, or mental health professionals. Insist that all rules of evidence be followed, and fight to keep bogus theories such as parental alienation syndrome and the like out of evidence.
Always depose any professional who is going to have an impact on the case.
Insist that any attorneys who purport to represent the interest of the children, such as guardians ad litem, minor’s counsel, or law guardians strictly comply with the American Bar Associations 2003 Standards of Practice for Lawyers Representing Children in Custody Cases and any state rules with similar provisions.
Never waive objections to unlawful procedures, and always argue that the court must decide the case based only on evidence properly admitted where your due process rights of notice and the opportunity for a fair hearing before an impartial judge are preserved.
Never waive your right to appeal an adverse decision.
Where children are old enough to testify about facts and events crucial to proving the abuse happened, their testimony should be presented, but in a way that minimizes the stress. However, continued abuse is much worse than the trauma of testifying.
Always use the testimony of fact witness who have direct knowledge of the abusive events, the aftermath of the abuse, and parenting quality. Do not expect the experts to be sufficient.
Never ask the court to require the accused abuser to submit to a polygraph, a psychosexual evaluation, or any other such evaluation. These devices are incapable of determining if abuse occurred and this strategy will backfire.
The first step in protecting children is controlling the process by which their fate will be determined. Where the integrity of the process is maintained, the opportunity for the court to know and understand the facts is maximized. Thus, an unbiased judge who considers only what is permissible, should then apply the law correctly with good results ensuing. While there are certainly no guarantees here, to ignore these guidelines will almost certainly invite disaster.
A very learned and goodhearted parent once gave me some advice, a long time ago, at the start of my family-court nightmare, … “don’t take it personally”. I, of course, found that impossible to do at the time, being a newbie and all. This Veteran Mother, Parent of “the system” understandably, instinctively, knew how hard and long it takes to actually follow this advice, and kindly followed up with, WHEN the time came that I WAS able to do this, accept that the horrible treatment given to me, and to my children, by the court, and the court appointed professionals, and, just as painful and unbelievable, by the “apathetic bystanders”, whether they be the attorneys stymied by the outcome or those just plain out corrupted into “buying the outcome”, and that it was, in fact, NOT personal to them, just business, then I would be able to move on to the next level and try to begin fighting BACK.
I state with all sincerity and not just a little shame, that this piece of advice was the hardest thing for me to accept. How can it NOT be personal … when it IS personal? When it’s your life being destroyed, your children being ripped away with no voices, as if they are worthless orphans .. the outrage, horror and grief of this is at times unbearable. The sad fact is it remains unbearable to many who capitulate, in total despair. Why and how some of us survive these horrors and traumas is inexplicable to me, even now, years later. I mourn those who did not make it, envy those who made it out and ran for their lives, and even resent (sometimes) those who made it out seemingly without a trace, having signed gag orders, etc. leaving no trail for those of us left behind to follow, like cracker crumbs to help guide us into finding OUR way out of the dark forest of this unspeakable hell. I then console myself and forgive, knowing that there were MANY times during our nightmare had I been offered any reprieve to rewind, get out with my life and my children’s lives and childhoods intact I would certainly have jumped at the chance.
Parents – try, try, and try again, to NOT take it so personally simply in order to be able to see the great forest despite the trees in order to see the bigger picture. And there is a bigger picture. Try to console yourself that although it is very much personal to you, and to your precious children, if you can only find a way to survive You WILL, one day, get to speak up and out and make it personal. In the between time, while you feel invisible, do everything you can just to survive it in order to live to fight another day.
My day has arrived. I don’t have my children back, and am dealing with the aftermath, and the secondary horrific crime of alienation, but, we are officially out of the system, by agreed order, not by any help from the courts and finally all court appointed unprofessional “professionals” officially discharged from our case, my ex finally haven gotten a mere hint of a taste of their wrath, it was, after all, ALL ABOUT THE MONEY, and last fall he began to run out of money, actually losing custody himself just a few short months ago of the very children that these same “unprofessional” professionals granted him some three years prior. It’s important to note he lost custody for the very reasons, grounds, that I had for many years tried but been denied from exposing to the courts, and their court appointed professionals.
I, the mother, ran out of funds after 6 years and $45,000 into the system while my ex had enough funds to continue on an extra three years. It cannot be a coincidence that was this the three year period of time in which he was not only given custody but was assisted in his campaign to block access and visitation between me and my children. These were the barriers my children and I faced these long years.
This January 2014, I was able to begin the long and scary road of coping with and accepting the pointless, unnecessary tragedies that wrongfully separated my children from me for over three years due to an abusive ex who simply used a corrupt system as a means to continue to abuse and denigrate me. Our children are the real victims.
I begin my journey back to them … God only knows if or how we will reconcile with one another, and, if or how we will ever be able to accept and triumph over all that has happened to us while everyone around watched and did nothing to help us. It takes a great deal to overcome feeling that powerless and unimportant. One thing is certain … we are not unscathed.
I pray every day that we will find a way to use our tragedy in some positive way to help others who are suffering similarly.
It has to begin somewhere. This is my beginning, and I am now, finally, able to make it personal. I am speaking up, and out, for my children and for all children and their protective parents.
From Writing For My Life: (051912):
There is a new epidemic that has infested our nation. The shocking dreadful details of it, the misinformation associated with it and how it is consuming lives, not just of those we used to deem deserving of it but of those most innocent and undeserving of its punishing effects … our children.
I am reminded of the time in the late ’80’s when the Aids virus rumors sprouted and grew, it’s tiny limbs of whispered tales and taboo that suddenly became accepted topics of conversation in the homes of high society and the morally superior. … whispered questions and fearful doubts bloomed into acceptable subject matter as it wound its way into the smallest communities and began to kill off babies and pre-adolescents… those that were obviously above society’s reproach and judgment. Then and only then did we began to question the stamp of “deserving” on the afflicted. It calls to my mind the leper outcasts of Bible Story times.
These limbs snaked into everyday conversation filled with what we now know to be ridiculous misinformation. Horror stories about wrathful curses sent down by God Himself to wipe out the promiscuous and the whole of the homosexual population, to urban legend tales such as the lipsticked message “WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS”, left to be found by the pitiful one unlucky enough to have been deceived into having a one night stand with an angry, tainted person who appeared perfectly normal the night before! These tales and others placed fear and dread in the hearts and minds of everyone from 10 to 100. you were stricken with fear of catching this horrible disease. It didn’t matter that you may have been a sexually pure, healthy individual prior to… if you contracted aids or even had a whisp of doubt that you should need testing, your credibility and reputation was subject to public debate and gossiped scrutiny forevermore.
It’s taken over two decades for society to catch up to scientific knowledge. Only when Aids began to take the lives of innocent children did our judgmental minds began to question its origins. The love of a mother for her young son, and their personal, heartbreaking story is my own earliest memory of the beginning of change. We all began to rethink gossiped, secondhand knowledge of this disease and opened our minds to the other possibilities we now know to be other causes of this disease and how it spreads.
I use this horrible time, and how society took on the “herd” mentality to pass judgment on and withhold sympathy for those afflicted. This ignorance came at a great cost. Scores of lives were lost and years of research and outreach assistance were wasted because of it.
There is another disease that has wound its way throughout our nation. It is not new… it is not well known because its been kept quiet and it is as unbelievable, difficult to understand the destruction and shame it brings to those afflicted. But it is very real and is as lethal to our families and communities as any epidemic. And, it is destroying our nations most precious resource and valuable asset … our children.
Since the 1980’s a movement — separating children from loving, protective parents, courts, un-professional “professionals” profiting from the dissension and chaos, misery and confusion of divorce, child custody, PAS becoming well-known behavior unrecognized, still to this day.
Guardian ad Litem, Law Guardian, Legal Guardian … Who exactly are you?
Arielle Schacter, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of bf4life-hearing
Posted: February 23, 2011 11:30 AM
Guardian ad Litem is a fancy legal term that is quite difficult to define. People may be confused and believe that it is a parent who is given custody; others may believe that it is a cross between a Guardian and a lawyer. The true definition of a Guardian ad Litem is murky at best. Through my research, I have come across countless names, definitions, and ideas on the role of a Guardian ad Litem with each contradicting the other.
From my own experience, I understand the frustrations that relate to the usage of theGuardian ad Litem. When my parents began their divorce in 2007, I was in the eighth grade. Within the first several weeks, I met my Guardian ad Litem and was so confused about what I would need a lawyer for. I wasn’t the one getting divorced; my parents were! It would take writing this article to understand the role of a Guardian ad Litem.
In brief words, a Guardian ad litem is a fancy legal word that is synonymous with a LawGuardian–a lawyer appointed by a court to act in a lawsuit or a divorce case on behalf of another party, in this case a minor. When I first met my Law Guardian, I explained to her my situation, my desires and my dreams of how I wanted my life to be. My lawyer explained to me that it was her role to convey these desires to the Judge.
I never realized how complicated my life was going to become over the next two-and-a-half tumultuous years of my parents’ divorce. I found myself lost in an ocean of confusion with no one to guide me. My situation at home had become complicated. I often communicated to my lawyer that I wanted less time with my father and she, my Guardianad litem who is paid by my father, passed on to the Judge not my interests, but rather contradicted them with my father’s and her wishes. Furthermore, I was faced with my lawyer no longer acting as a lawyer, but rather a parent, a psychiatrist, a travel agent and an enemy trying to hurt me every step of the way.
As a parent, my lawyer tried to decide where I shopped. As a psychiatrist, she diagnosed me as suicidal and told that I should be placed in an institution. As an enemy, my lawyer told me that “I would be responsible for my family going up in flames … My mother lost $10,000 because of me … I am using a giant ax to swat a fly … [I was] not a sane person … My father could institutionalize me.” I am not suicidal, nor am I having suicidal thoughts; however, it is hard to prove such a thing when my lawyer tells the court that I need to be placed in an institution.
After one too many impossible conversations with my lawyer, I realized, after a year of filing complaints with the Bar Association and trying to learn what a Law Guardian is supposed to do, I still had no idea what the role of a Law Guardian is and nor did my lawyer. Clearly, they do not teach lawyers how to be psychiatrists in Law School. There is no legal training oversight; no one is watching to make sure the law guardian acts ethically. Also, if the problem at the end of the day is Person X, who also pays the bill for the lawyer, the lawyer may feel inclined to represent Person X rather than her client.
In order to deblur the fuzzy lines of the role of a Guardian ad litem, I decided to interview Janet Fink, The Deputy Counsel of the New York State Unified Court System to answer the questions that puzzled me:
What is the specific role/ job of a law guardian?
The specific role/ job of the law guardian is to represent the child’s wishes and convey them to the court. The exception is if the child is unable to understand anything. Then the lawyer’s judgment will be substituted for the child’s. Another exception is when the child has “special needs.” This is decided case by case. In 99% of cases the lawyer represents the child similar to a lawyer representing a client.
What age does a child no longer need longer need a law guardian?
There is a growing national trend, where a young person is beginning to be able to represent himself/herself in court. This is taken for granted in juvenile court. The age that a child should be considered unable to understand anything is approximately 3 or 4 to 7 or 8.
Can a law guardian make decisions?
No. The only exception is when the child is unable to understand anything and then the lawyer’s judgment will be substituted for the child.
What oversight is there over the law guardian process – including recommendations and payment?
There are two forms of oversight on the law guardian processes in NY State. First, New York is divided into four departments; each department has an Appellate Court. Every Appellate Court has a law guardian program advisory committee, which screens the law guardians. Every year, the law guardian must be recertified. The divorce court will then appoint a law guardian for the child. Second, a law guardian may have a contract with Legal Aid Society or the Law Guardian Society, which hires, trains and disciplines lawyers on how to be a law guardian.
How can you ensure the law guardian is actually communicating/ representing the child’s interest, if the child is not present in the court?
The law guardians are given training. If there is a problem, a parent may raise an issue; however, the other parent or the attorney may tell the court that the real problem is parent is trying to gain control of the child. This causes a problem since it is hard to separate a positioning-for-power argument from an actual problem.
How can a legal a guardian deem a child impaired – is there a test?
No, there is no test. It is decided case by case.
Can a law guardian advocate for what they believe a child should have, if the child does not want it?
No, it is the Judge’s job, not the lawyer’s job, to decide what a child should have, even if the child does not want it. The only exception is if the child is incompetent to make his/her own decisions. The lawyer’s job is to assert the interest, not deem the child’s interest.
If there is domestic violence, does they law guardian have a responsibility of communication the issues to the court?
A lawyer’s personal ethics may not have any influence. First, if the child does not want the lawyer to tell the Judge, the lawyer cannot tell the Judge. A lawyer is not like a doctor who is required to report all incidences by law. Second, if a child is only three years old and there is child abuse, the lawyer should put the medical records before the court in the interest of the child’s safety.
Should the law guardian be allowed give input to ACS during an investigation (because if you feel she representing X, she could downplay the issue)?
The caseworker will talk to the child personally to investigate. The only time they may talk to the lawyer is when they want information on the case from the lawyer.
How could a child terminate a law guardian if the child feels she doesn’t represents him/ her and if the law guardian refuses to submit her resignation to the court?
A child may terminate their law guardian three ways. First, a child may write a letter to the Judge asking for approval on the resignation law guardian. The new lawyer, chosen by the Judge, will be paid by the State of New York. Second, the child can contact the Law Guardian director in his/her county and file a complaint and for a new law guardian. Third, the child can contact Legal Aid society and file a complaint. If hired by Legal Aid, it would say on their business card, “Legal Aid Society.”
In the future, there should be clearer guidelines on the role of the Guardian ad Litem. Curently, there is a movement in the Legislative Assembly to change the name from Law Guardian to Lawyer of the Child in hopes of ending the misunderstanding of the role of the Guardian ad Litem.
There should be clear rules on how to define a child who is “impaired,” rather than being case by case. Does “impaired” mean that the child is too little, unable to walk, unable to hear, has a mental illness, has autism? By having a blury definition of what it means for a child to be impaired, the lawyer may try to overule the child’s wishes with his/ her own judgement and then hide behind the child’s “impairment.”
The rules should be deblurred, so everyone involved can understand the rules better. How can I ensure that law guardians, such as my lawyer, will understand their role, so that they do not overstep their bounderies, like my lawyer does?
A MOTHER’S LAMENT, by B. R. Hardin, Attorney, Father, and Grandfather
(The following is a letter written by a mother who lost custody of her two children, reminiscing of the times they spent together, their life in Ocean Springs. Because her ex-husband could afford the children a larger home, and her inability to recover from her loss when Katrina swept the gulf coast, she lost custody of her children, and was limited to visits on an every other weekend basis, but only to the tri-county area of Rankin, Madison and Hinds, and no over night visitation, I suppose for fear she would remove the children from the jurisdiction of the court. She spent her life’s savings, over $45,000 dollars in attorney fees and the fees of Guardian Ad :Litems appointed by the court to investigate and report their findings to the court for the purpose of assisting the court in determining the best interest of the children and which parent would be more suitable for their care. The first Guardian Ad Litem gave her a favorable report and recommended to the Court that the children be placed in her custody, but the second Guardian Ad Litem, for some reason, chose her ex-husband over her, and the Court favored this last report and her ex-husband one out, mainly because, in her opinions, he had a large, lovely home in Madison County and had the funds to raise the children, whereas, due to her circumstances, she did not. That was seven years ago and she has been fighting to recover their custody since that time. This is a lament of her efforts and the pain that she has suffered in that pursuit. It is addressed to a dear friend and to her older daughter by a previous marriage. It begins with the ending of one of her visits with her young, twelve year old daughter.)
“Tonight, as I drove Miranda back to Madison, stroking her hair as her head lay over the armrest, stretching toward me as close as her seatbelt would allow like she always does on those drives ‘after the visit is over’, I vowed to begin writing, again. It is one of a few passions of mine for which I have slowly turned away from. My other favorites were put away much more abruptly. My present demeanor may be disheveled, at times, but my memory is as sharp as a tack, like it has always been. I recount my life events by dates, sometimes even down to the hour and minute, of ‘before’ and ‘after’ events. Fishing, which always included some form of beach walking and nature exploration (which meant cardio exercise and fresh air as a bonus), ended the last time I went with my youngest daughter Miranda. I haven’t allowed myself to recreate that particular memory down to the time and date, but I know it was with her, and I know that it ended as abruptly as the day we were separated by a court order that wrenched us apart in November 28th, 2011. Listening to music, especially bayou-zydeco and country-western, old gospel hymns, and really old country ho-down music that I was tickled to hear my kids sing to as well. I had amassed quite of collection of downloads, cd’s, and 2 great stereo’s that I wired together … my talent for setting up surround-sound and wiring “outdoor” speakers in nooks and crannies along the outside of our home was acknowledged and admired by even the most manly men of neighbors and teenaged boys with jack-up trucks and booming sound systems (my kids were quite proud of their mom’s sound-wiring skills), and every night, summer, spring, winter or fall, we enjoyed sitting outside by a fire …. for just a few minutes to a few hours, listening to, and singing along to “our” songs. We always seemed to have extra’s, company, whether invited or not … the kids friends, their friends of friends, their parents, our neighbors…. somehow, our music and outside supper’s became an international “welcome” sign in our yard and drew wanderer’s in like magnets. The kids loved it and I never minded. It was a peaceful, simple time and I take some comfort knowing with all certainty that I made mental notes all of the time to “stop, and ENJOY them”. I am grateful for that. My love of music listening, as well as my infamous “singalongs” was severely restricted after my 12 year old son, Philip, went missing, or, for a better term, was “parentally abducted and never returned”, June 4, 2010. I continued to enjoy some music with my young daughter, Miranda, after that date, but it was limited to music that would NOT remind me of Philip. It was difficult, but I made it work for the next 17 months, and Miranda and I found our “own” music that we belted out every day. The music ended completely, November 28, 2011, the date my daughter was taken from me as well. I have not been able to bring myself to listen, or sing, since then. The world became very dark, and very quiet, and remains that way. Music brought me great joy. Yard work, and gardening, of which I spent a great deal of time enjoying in all seasons and was quite talented in and for which I took great pride in, ended when I boxed up my belongings with the help of my oldest daughter Jessica, this past April 2012 when the decision was made to end the burdensome, tiring 5 months of travel that had been unavoidable since the day Miranda and I were separated and she was ordered to live with her father in Madison Mississippi. I struggled valiantly to keep up our home in Ocean Springs, waiting day to day, week to week, turning into month to month, chasing the “15-day reversal of opinion” I’d been assured was certain to happen due to the many errors and fraudulent claims made in court that led to the removal of both of my minor children, Philip and Miranda, from my lifelong care and into the care of their father. As the days and weeks turned into months, and the certain “presentation of the real facts” and the “testimony of real witnesses that would at the very least show his contempt of court and have the judge make good on his promise to reverse his opinion and return the children to me failed to come forward, and with these failures, my dreams for keeping our home, our very lives as we knew it, began to dissipate. In addition to the near-weekly frantic drives I made those first few months to Jackson to be near my youngest child due to her very real, very serious medical, emotional, and/or legal emergencies surrounding our case, it slowly became clear to me that I could not continue to “stay home” and keep house while driving to and fro.175 miles each way. Looking back, that is one of several things that astound me… that I even managed to hang on to the dream for as long as I did. Yes, the gardening was a great loss to my spirit and my body… but, the real joy in it ended the same time the music ended, November 2011. I continued to manicure my lawn, and fret over it’s condition after my daughters disappearance from our home in November 2011, but my heart was no longer in it and I gave it up completely when I boxed up our life and closed the door for good in early April 2012. Crocheting, which I recently picked back up due to the odd timing of a double urging and suggestion of two important people in my life who have never even met one another, yet who each brought up the topic within the same 24 hour period leading up to this past Christmas Eve. The urging was by a friend who coaxed me into attending a small Christmas gathering at her home the night before Christmas Eve, and the suggestion was made by my oldest daughter, Jessica, who mused about my ability to “create” the newest craze of baby beanie hats that is so popular and in demand among all her co-workers and friends. I have been a longtime believer of there-is-no-such-thing-as-coincidence so I paid heed to the sign before me and picked up my crochet needle, junk yarn from the back of my truck, and, with some help from Google, proceeded to crochet intently throughout this very difficult time of year… Christmas without my children. Christmas without my closest friends. Christmas away from home. Homesick, Heartsick, and … Christmas without my children. Thank you, Arlette, and Thank You, Jessica. Your blessing and gift to me put an idea and a desire in my mind that thankfully I did not turn away from. It helped me survive the most hearbreaking Christmas of my life. Little Blessings…. count them one by one:)”
Me (A Mother, Still, In Mississippi)