New Utah Law Makes Interference with Visitation a Crime

Not long ago, I posted a follow-up on the Jeffrey Ruggiero case. He’s the Coast Guard Petty Officer who was falsely accused of abuse, harrassment, stalking, etc. by his ex-wife, Kristin. Kristin Ruggiero is now in prison doing a 7-14 year stretch for lying to the police and courts.

But what really caught my attention in that case was a casual remark by an assistant district attorney who prosecuted Kristin Ruggiero. Kristin had begun her campaign to kick Jeffrey out of their children’s lives where most such campaigns are begun, in family court. The family judge swallowed her blatant lies hook, line and sinker, dutifully issuing the no-contact order Kristin requested. As is so often the case, Kristin offered no real evidence of abuse beyond cell-phone messages that came from a phone she had purchased and from a location within two blocks of her house. That it was she, not Jeffrey, who had in fact sent the messages managed to escape the family court judge, but when Kristin decided to gild the lily, she got into trouble.

She decided to have Jeffrey prosecuted in criminal court for “violation” of the no-contact order, and that of course involved the police and prosecutors, who shortly figured out what should have been obviouse to the family court judge – that the wrongdoer in the whole affair was Kristin, not Jeffrey. That occasioned the remark by the assistant DA that got my attention:

“She didn’t realize she wasn’t in family court anymore.”

As I said at the time, it’s a statement that speaks volumes and should shame family court judges across the country. What the DA was saying, as matter-of-factly as if he were commenting on the weather, was “In family court, mere allegations will suffice, but in criminal court you have to prove your case.” It’s that thing-y called evidence. It’s that technicality called due process of law.

The United States Supreme Court has said time and again that parents have rights that states can’t take away absent a showing of unfitness, but family courts do that every day by resort to a number of expedients. One of those, as Jeffrey Ruggiero learned, is the temporary restraining order issued in response to mere allegations of physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence. Those are often issued with no opportunity to rebut the charges by the target of the TRO. Once issued, they set up a barrier between the targeted parent (usually the dad) and his child that often proves all but insuperable.

Another way family courts keep fathers from children is the non-enforcement of visitation orders. Fathers have been complaining about this for decades; book-length essays have been written on the subject, legislatures have been lobbied, all to little avail. When it comes to enforcing child support orders, courts are ruthless and backed by massive state bureaucracies and oceans of federal and state money. Visitation orders? They’re routinely ignore as a matter of court policy. Australian historian John Hirst wrote a scathing piece on that topic that I reported on here.

Simply put, in all other situations, courts understand the need to enforce their orders via their contempt powers. That is, if a person disobeys a court order, that court has the power to hold the person in contempt and punish the miscreant by fine, civil penalty or even imprisonment. Only when it comes to non-custodial parents’ (usually fathers) visitation rights do courts demur. It’s not that they can’t do anything; it’s that they refuse to do anything to ensure that non-custodial parents get to have a relationship with their kids.

Well, in Utah at least, that looks like it’s about to change. Read about it here (ABC4, 10/2/10). According to the article, Utah Rep. Carl Wimmer inserted some new language into a bill that would require police and prosecutors to pursue interference with visitation by a custodial parent as a criminal matter. Wimmers office released a statement that read in part,

The amendment I made to the law makes it absolutely clear, that refusing visitation is indeed a criminal offense, and should be prosecuted.

I’ve written before about the unnecessary expansion of criminal law. I’m against it because I find it usually unwarranted and the equivalent of using a bomb to attack an ant hill. In this case, I’m for it. Wimmer’s law shouldn’t be necessary; family courts should enforce their own visitation orders, but they don’t. Across the United States, Canada, Australia and the U.K., fathers’ complaints are the same: “My ex cuts me out of my child’s life and family courts do nothing.” Far too often, family courts have failed to protect the father-child relationship. If that failure now requires the intervention of the police, prosecutors and criminal courts, so be it.

Then maybe in Utah, custodial parents will start hearing what the assistant DA said in Jeffrey Ruggiero’s case, “She didn’t realize she wasn’t in family court anymore.”

Thanks to Louis for the heads-up.

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