January 25th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Family courts in King County, Washington are so busy and the rules of evidence on claims of domestic violence so lax, that the wholesale removal of fathers from children’s lives is inevitable. Here again is Nina Shapiro’s fine piece (Seattle Weekly, 1/18/12).
I’ve written a series of pieces about Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer, Jeffrey Ruggierro in New Hampshire. His ex-wife Kristin managed to deprive him of all rights to his daughter by her false claims that he threatened and stalked her.
Too late to save his parental rights, the police figured out that the threatening email messages she used to destroy his parental rights had actually been sent by Kristin herself, not Jeff.
So she was eventually hauled into criminal court where she continued to lie to police and prosecutors. Eventually, Kristin was convicted of 12 felony counts of perjury, lying to police, etc. After that trial, the assistant District Attorney who’d won the convictions said an interesting thing. He said “I guess she didn’t realize she wasn’t in family court any more.”
In other words, Kristin’s mistake was to believe that the criminal courts of New Hampshire operate under the same lax evidentiary standards as do the family courts. They don’t, and she was sentenced to 7 – 14 years behind bars because of her mistaken belief that they do.
What more damning indictment of a court system could be made than that ADA’s offhand remark? He knew full well that the state’s family courts accept a mother’s bare allegations as fact and daily turn a blind eye to perjury. And so they do, both in New Hampshire and in Washington State.
Here’s Nina Shapiro again.
Had [Jim] been charged with domestic violence in criminal court, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and the standards of due process are high, this might not have happened. But Jim’s fate was decided in a very different venue: family court.
It’s a court like no other—a hugely busy and rancorous place where the most personal aspects of people’s lives are not only on display, but judged and reshaped in proceedings that often last no longer than 20 minutes. Appointed commissioners, rather than elected judges, make many of the most crucial decisions. And the standard of evidence (known as “preponderance of the evidence”) is the lowest allowed by law…
Commissioners preside over hearings on what is called the family-law “motions calendar.” Technically, the decisions reached—on custody, child support, maintenance (what used to be called alimony), and who gets the house—are temporary. Either a trial before a regular Superior Court judge or a settlement will yield the final decisions.
But, concedes James Doerty, assistant presiding judge for King County Superior Court, “Once the tank is moving in a certain direction, it’s very hard to turn it.” And even if it does turn, it takes a long time. The wait for a trial currently averages 14 months. What’s more, the vast majority of cases never make it that far—one lawyer estimates that “95 percent” settle beforehand—meaning that the commissioners’ rulings are often first and final.
This wouldn’t be a problem if hearings in family court were comprehensive. But they’re not. In a single morning, a commissioner might handle as many as 14 hearings—as did Les Ponomarchuk, the lead family-law commissioner, one day last month.
Consequently, King County imposes strict rules to keep these hearings short. Each side is only allotted five minutes to speak. There are no witnesses, beyond the parties themselves, and no allowed cross-examination. There are even limits on what kind of documents a party can submit before a trial to bolster their case. At a recent hearing, Commissioner Meg Sassaman fined an attorney two hours of his opposing counsel’s time, a net loss that amounted to $500, for writing too much in defense of his client.
In other words, the most precious relationships in people’s lives—relationships that impact not only the adults standing before a commissioner but the unseen children used to being around both parents every day—are reconstituted according to whatever spin embittered spouses can put forward in the time it takes to walk around the block.
So if you’re a dad in King County, your attorney has five minutes to make your case for you. That’s five minutes to rebut a claim of domestic violence your soon-to-be-ex-wife has already used to get a no-contact order against you. That’s five minutes to make the case that you’re a good dad, entitled to custody over the anti-father biases of the commissioner that various female attorney’s detailed in Shapiro’s article.
[Family attorney Rhea] Rolfe calls herself “a very strong feminist.” She believes domestic violence and male denial are big problems. Yet considering the way women can “use the system,” she says, “It absolutely infuriates me.”
“I have always seen gender bias,” says [Deborah] Bianco, who has been practicing law for more than 20 years. “What’s changed is that it’s no longer gender bias against women—now it’s against men.”
As Shapiro correctly points out, those five minutes are likely a father’s entire “day in court” in King County. That’s because, although the commissioner’s orders are nominally temporary, in the vast majority of cases, they’re not. If you want a full trial before a judge, you wait 14 months, during which time the status quo of the temporary orders remains in effect. That means a father has to have an unusually strong case in order to convince the judge that he/she should overturn that status quo. It also requires the man to have the money to pay a lawyer, a private investigator and various and sundry mental health professionals to make that unusually strong case. Small wonder that only 2% of custody cases in Washington State go to trial.
A few more things about the anti-father bias of King County family law commissioners. First, Shapiro says that 80% of requests for no-contact orders are granted. Second, four of the five family law commissioners in King County are women. Last, here’s what one veteran of the family law system says about Commissioner Meg Sassaman.
“I have been a family law paralegal in King County for 24 years. I have never seen anyone as obviously biased and hateful towards men as this woman.”
Keep in mind, this is what we do to children. This is the elaborate mechanism called family courts whose inevitable result is the removal of fathers from their children’s lives.