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California Family Courts Helping Pedophiles, Batterers Get Child Custody 

Wednesday, Mar 2 2011
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Karen Anderson, who now lives in Manteca with her daughter and son, still looks back ruefully on her experience in the Santa Clara Family Court. Her allegations about her husband were met with skepticism not only by Packer, she says, but by the attorney, Miki Minzer, whom the court had appointed to represent the interests of her children. "They didn't believe me," she says. "The children's attorney, I was so angry with her ... she treated me terribly during the whole thing."

(Anderson's case is distinct from that of California Protective Parents Association executive officer Karen Anderson, a resident of Amador County and well-known activist on family court reform. The two women are not related.)

Minzer now practices law in Colorado.She declined to comment on the Anderson case. "I am not in a position to speak with you about that case," she wrote in an e-mail. "I have no authorization from my former client to do so. I am sure you understand."

Packer likewise declined to comment, saying in an e-mail, "The ethics of client confidentiality are such that I cannot speak to you about this case, or any other case." Stewart retired in 1999 shortly after hearing the case; he died in 2004.

If the way events unfolded in the Anderson case sounds odd, it should. Despite the enormous impact of family courts' decisions, they are in many ways unrecognizable when compared to other branches of the judiciary, particularly in their lack of mechanisms for due process.

Family courts have no juries, and litigants who lack the money for a private attorney have no right to counsel. (As a result, many parents without financial means must represent themselves.) In the place of the traditional fact-finding apparatus that operates daily in criminal and civil courtrooms — dueling lawyers, and jurors charged with determining the facts of a case from available evidence — family court substitutes a cadre of individuals who make decisions in concert. Foremost is the judge. And it is with the judges, in some ways, that the problem starts.

Few aspirants to the bench relish the idea of refereeing the roughly 20 percent of divorces that are hostile enough to end up in family court. As a result, many assigned to this branch of the judiciary are rookies — paying their dues for a year or two before moving on to the more genteel arenas of civil or criminal law — or lifers without the aptitude to move on. "Family courts are the ugly stepchild of the law," Oakland family law attorney Kim Robinson says. "It's considered the bottom of the barrel. Almost no one wants to be there as a judge. The judges come in with a major attitude about it from the get-go."

Family law judges are aided by a range of subjudicial officials, including psychological evaluators and minors' counsels, attorneys appointed to represent the children in disputed custody cases. The courts also rely on mediators, who attempt to arbitrate custody agreements between parents. Failing such an agreement, they have the authority in many California jurisdictions to make a recommendation about custody rights.

Complaints about how all these people do their jobs aren't new, and in light of their high-stakes, high-conflict work environment, some amount of dissatisfaction among litigants is to be expected. But officials in state government have begun to take the sheer volume of those complaints seriously.

Last year, the California State Auditor's office conducted reviews of two heavily criticized family courts in Marin and Sacramento counties. The audit, released in January, presented troubling findings. Among them were the observation that seven of the Sacramento court's 20 mediators "appeared not to possess the minimum qualifications and training requirements" for their jobs, and that in Marin the court "did not verify that the mediators had met the initial training requirements" during the hiring. The report also noted problems with record-keeping at both courts, particularly with regard to written complaints about court personnel.

Auditors did not address the prevalence of cases where child custody is awarded to a spousal batterer or child molester. But as they were conducting their work, one such case was unfolding in San Francisco.

On April 14, 2010, Shari Rivers appeared before San Francisco Family Court Judge Lillian Sing to ask for a restraining order preventing Derrick Perryman, the estranged father of her 5-month-old son, from contacting her or her family members. The previous month, Rivers said, he had struck her during an argument, leaving her with bruises on her face.

Rivers was also requesting a restriction of Perryman's custody rights for Derrick Jr., the pair's child. In light of Perryman's actions, she asked that his visits with the baby be supervised by court-appointed professionals, a standard practice in custody disputes involving potentially violent parents. "I would rather him get some counseling for himself, do whatever it is he has to do," she said. "But, for now, I will be happy with supervised visits for an hour a week."

During the hearing, Perryman admitted to the judge that the incident took place — "I slapped her, yes," he said — though he denied he had hit her with a closed fist. He said he "didn't see the need" for a restraining order, "because there is no issue of violence at all."

Sing agreed to issue a restraining order — protecting Rivers alone, not her family members, and issued for one year, instead of the customary five — "so that you both can cool down and calm down and hopefully be better to each other and the kids." The judge refused to modify Perryman's joint legal custody of his son. "It is good for the child and it's in the best interest of the child to have continuous and frequent contact with dad and with mom," she said. She also denied Rivers' request, made out of concern for her own safety, that custody exchanges take place at a police station. Instead, she ordered that the child would be handed off between parents at the home of Perryman's mother in San Francisco.

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Peter Jamison

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