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California Family Courts Helping Pedophiles, Batterers Get Child Custody 

Wednesday, Mar 2 2011
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Under California Family Code Section 3044, findings of domestic violence are supposed to carry a "presumption" against any form of custody for the abusive parent. Sing confirmed at the April 14 hearing that Perryman had abused Rivers; he admitted as much in open court. Had there been any doubt about the question, however, it was quickly dispelled.

Later in April, Rivers hired Kim Robinson, the Oakland attorney, who discovered that Perryman had pleaded guilty just a week before the hearing to misdemeanor spousal battery in Alameda County, where Rivers had reported the incident to police. (He had originally been charged with one count of felony domestic violence, one count of misdemeanor battery, and misdemeanor child endangerment, since his son had been present at the time.)

In light of this further evidence, Robinson urged the judge to modify the custody order. Sing again refused, in what Robinson says is a violation of state law.

"She just did not care. I gave her a second chance, and she did not take it," Robinson says of Sing. "Her explanation was that she did not see the father as a danger to the child."

Ann Donlan, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court, said Sing was on vacation and would not be available to comment on the case. Even if she were available, Donlan added, "it is not permissible for her to comment on the specifics of any case."

Perryman, a soft-spoken man with a warm demeanor, acknowledges during a recent interview at his home in the Lower Haight that he struck Rivers. "I did make a mistake," he says. But he asserts it was done in self-defense, after she pushed him to the floor during an argument while he was holding their son.

"When I was pushed down, it put me in sort of a protective mode," he tells a reporter, with Derrick Jr., now 16 months old, perched on his lap and sucking from a baby bottle. "I did strike her. My thing is, I wasn't the one who started it." Rivers' facial bruising, he says, did not come from his slapping her but from a shove during the same altercation: "I pushed her in the face, and her eye caught the bottom of the palm, and that's how her face got bruised."

Perryman says he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence only so he could get out of jail — where he was held for more than three weeks after his arrest — to appear in family court, ensuring continued custody of his son. "I would have pleaded to murder as long as I could have gotten out to make the court date," he says.

"This is about the child," he adds. "Both parents should have custody. If neither parent is a danger to the child, why shouldn't they?"

What Robinson says was an unwillingness to appropriately weigh evidence of criminal behavior in the Rivers case is, according to court officials elsewhere, characteristic of the culture of at least some of California's family courts. In one instance that recently came to light, an officer of the court was actually punished for seeking to investigate such evidence too thoroughly.

Emily Gallup, a Stanford-educated mediator in the Nevada County Family Court, was fired after her supervisors criticized her for reviewing parents' criminal histories when making her custody recommendations. In a March 2010 written reprimand of Gallup prepared by Court Executive Officer Sean Metroka, and obtained by SF Weekly, Metroka states that it was "unprofessional and unacceptable" for her to have requested a criminal history report in a recent case she was handling. "I admonished you not to take the role of a court investigator," he wrote.

Research on parents is part of a mediator's job, as it is for evaluators, minors' counsels, and judges — no single court official is specifically designated as an "investigator." Metroka says that Gallup went too far, conducting criminal background checks in cases where they weren't relevant. "It's easy to violate [parents'] due-process rights if you try to make more out of a case than is there when it's presented to you," Metroka says. "Emily's position is that in every case a mediator should investigate and get every piece of evidence she can before the mediation."

Just last month, Gallup prevailed in a grievance against the family court system over her dismissal. Arbitrator Christopher Burdick found that she "had reasonable cause to believe that Court's Family Court Services department had violated or not complied with statutes and rules of court," and ordered an audit of the court to investigate the claims in her grievance.

"They're making these monumental decisions based on air," Gallup says. "They think if you have too much information about a parent, that makes you biased. My contention is, if you have more information, that will make you less biased."

In addition to mediators like Gallup, family courts make extensive use of psychologists in researching and adjudicating child custody. There is arguably no branch of the legal system where psychological theories — including some that are highly controversial — are more influential. And critics say the courts' less than rigorous approach to investigating allegations of child abuse is formalized in one such theory, which is widely used by evaluators and attorneys: the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).

PAS was coined by Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist affiliated with Columbia University, to describe what he believed was a form of brainwashing that took place in the context of divorce proceedings. According to Gardner, the condition arises when a parent — usually, but not always, the mother — "programs" a child to hold delusions of sexual abuse by the father. Armed with this theory, Gardner hired himself out as an expert witness in family courts across the country, appearing on behalf of men seeking to discredit sex-abuse allegations.

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Peter Jamison

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