THE BLOG
07/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dysfunctional Family Court System may be Doing More Harm than Good

This is my Sunday column, while it specifically addresses Alameda County, chances are others may find similar experiences in their area.

The family court system has, in theory, operated on the question, "What is in the best interests of the child?"

But the findings articulated at a one-day workshop hosted by Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele and the Center for Judicial Excellence suggest that question is more theory than practice.

If the statistics are accurate, the frequency with which children are allowed to have unsupervised contact with physically or sexually abusive parents after divorce in this country is alarming and worthy of the public's attention.

According to the Center for Judicial Excellence, "Not since the Catholic Church pedophile scandal has the United States seen this level of institutional collusion and corruption harming innocent children."

This may sound like hyperbole, but the comparison holds if, in fact, most family court professionals know the system is broken and are allowing the most vulnerable members of society to potentially suffer lifelong consequences.

It is indeed a broken system that allows 58,000 children each year to be placed in harm's way simply because the abusive parent also possesses the resources to hire a bevy of professionals who plead his/her case to judges, mediators and other family-law professionals.

Heavy caseloads, bad judges and unqualified mediators, who evaluate families sometimes based on no more than a one-hour meeting, can add up to decisions that permanently affect families.

As one parent shared with me, "I wouldn't believe my own story if I didn't live through it. We trust the courts to do the right thing, but it's just not that simple."
Those who are not directly involved trust the system to work -- but there was a consistent message at the workshop that it does not work, and children are paying the price.

Are these simply the musing of parents and attorneys who did not get their way? No, there is more than enough data to suggest there is a problem that warrants investigation. The primary charge finds that many judges, for reasons ranging from being overworked to becoming jaded by the system, have placed an inordinate reliance on court appointees such as mediators, evaluators, investigators, and minors' counsel, who may or may not act in the best interest of the children.

This has created a scenario whereby individuals who have no understanding of the law often sway the individual who is appointed to administer justice.
Steele also cites a level of dishonesty that she states is pervasive throughout the system. "It's not just mediators but social workers who are not telling the truth," she said.

The workshop featured experts in the field and parents sharing their gut-wrenching, first-hand testimony and offering solutions to the problem-plagued system in California.

State Sen. Mark Leno and other members of the Legislature are calling for an audit that will evaluate the magnitude of the concerns expressed over a number of years.

A number of participants also made it clear the problems they cite are not emblematic of the whole, maintaining there are indeed a number of good judges within the system. But there are enough bad ones who are not held accountable, causing the system dysfunction.

Steele should be commended for her willingness to bring attention to an issue that has flown under the radar for years. Investigation is long overdue.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his website: byronspeaks.com