Legal Tsunami Accompanies Custody Battle

GEO_edited-1The level of vitriol, anger, and violence that finds its way into child custody litigation is beyond frightening, as common sense is displaced by exaggerated allegations, bizarre threats, and all too often, bodily harm or death.

The case of Tiffany and Eric Stevens of Connecticut represents the thin edge of the wedge, a story replete with allegations of infidelity, drug abuse, domestic violence, failed stints in rehab, mental health evaluations, child protection issues, harassment leading to a restraining order, exorbitant gambling debts,a hit man, and police intervention. Whew!

All it took was a five-year marriage and one little girl to create a legal tsunami that saw the Stevens’ in court on 200 occasions, the last being Tiffany Steven’s trial for hiring handyman cum hitman, John McDaid, to kill her husband for a fee of $5,000. When Mr. McDaid told Mr. Stevens of his assignment, the jig was up, and Tiffany was arrested for the attempted murder-for-hire.

But believe me, neither Tiffany, age 39, or Eric, age 49, qualify as “parent of the year”. Mr. Stevens stupidly wrote to his estranged wife saying:

“”I am going to let you bury yourself with your lies and then I am going to shovel the dirt onto your body…I will be dreaming of you laying in our bed with your addict boyfriend, the one that your mom bought us for a wedding present, and wondering to myself if you’re in that bed when they come. Will the mattress be saveable or will it have to be thrown out from all of your blood?”

When will litigants ever figure out that written expletives and threats of violence are a ticket to doomsday? Eric’s behaviour resulted in a restraining order against him and a custody order in favour of Tiffany, while he was saddled with supervised access that apparently never occurred.

Ms. Stevens advised the family court that Eric detonated his Mercedes and her BMW for the insurance money to avoid the wrath of his Mafia creditors. She also said Eric told his insurance company that all of their jewellery had been stolen to access yet more funds to pay gambling debts.

While Eric disavowed the insurance fraud he admitted his gambling debts, and agreed he posted his wife’s contact particulars on a Craigslist sex page.

Ms. Stevens was released on $1 million dollars bail after her arrest and continued to parent their daughter. The jury deadlocked during her first trial in December 2014 but this week she admitted the lesser charge of inciting injury to person and received five years probation and a ten-year suspended prison sentence.

The prosecutors threw in the towel in light of evidence, albeit from a convict, that Eric Stevens “set-up” Ms. Stevens to take a fall for a murder-for-hire that never was.

The custody battle rages on as Mr. Stevens remains committed to ensuring a relationship with his daughter. Mr. Stevens’ last word is that his ex-wife “bought” her slap on the wrist, or rather her wealthy father did. He has been self-represented for some time.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

No Gender Bias in Family Courts Says Irish Academic

GEO CASUALA key finding in a new report on gender bias in family courts declares there is no indication of gender bias in contested cases about where a child should live.

The May 2015 report authored by Dr Maebh Harding, from the University of Warwick and
Dr Annika Newnham of the University of Reading is based on a document analysis of a retrospective of 197 case files from five county courts in England and Wales over a six month period in 2011. Of the 197 cases, 23 were custody disputes between a parent and another relative, usually a grandparent.

In the “two parent cases”, fathers initiated 70% of the applications, whereas only 30% of the cases started with an application by a mother.

The most common type of court application was for an order to allow contact or access, making up 41% of their sample. Fathers brought 96% of all access applications. The majority of these applications were made in order to initiate or restart contact.

Applications which sought a sole residence order made up 43% of the sample. Similar numbers of applications for sole residence were made by fathers (32) and mothers (30) but their reasons for going to court differed.

Joint custody and joint residence applications amounted to only 7%.

Notably, in 2011 there was no presumption in the British law that the involvement of a non-resident parent would further a child’s welfare. In 2014 this presumption was added to the governing statute, the Children Act 1989.

In my view, the analysis of the data in the report suffers from the absence of real-life experience in the family law trenches. Let me give you some examples:

1. The authors discovered that in 51% of cases the father had been cut off from contact with the child and that in almost half of the parent cases (86 out of 174) mothers had made allegations of domestic violence against fathers. However, in only 45 of the 86 cases was their sufficient evidence of family violence.

The report reads “Court investigations into the truth of domestic violence allegations were rare and took place in only 21 of the 86 cases in which allegations of domestic violence were made.

Where fact-findings were held, few ended in a clear determination on the alleged facts. Instead, the question of domestic violence tended to be reconceptualised as being primarily about reducing the risk to the child and facilitating as much contact as was possible in the circumstances.”

In other words, even unproven domestic violence was used to minimize a father’s role in parenting.

THESE FACTS ACCORD WITH MY EXPERIENCE THAT MANY FATHERS ARE MARGINALIZED AFTER MARRIAGE BREAKDOWN AND ALLEGATIONS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ARE USED AGAINST GOOD FATHERS TO THWART A CHILD/PARENT RELATIONSHIP.

2. The authors found that many of the cases took two years to resolve but expressed little concern about the delay saying:

“Time taken in the court process should not always be viewed as unnecessary delay. Cases need time to build trust between the parties and reach a workable child-centred conclusion ensuring contact was safe.”

THE REALITY IS THAT IF FATHERS BRING MOST OF THE APPLICATIONS FOR RESIDENCE OR ACCESS AND A RESOLUTION IS TWO YEARS AWAY, THE STATUS QUO CARRIES ON TO THE DETRIMENT OF THESE FATHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN.

3. The authors opine that going to court did not amplify or entrench the conflict between the parties finding that the vast majority of cases were resolved by consent orders. Only 25 of the 174 parent cases ended in a contested final hearing.

THE NAIVETY EXPRESSED IN THE AUTHOR’S FINDINGS ABOUT CONSENT ORDERS IS DISAPPOINTING. THE TRUTH IS THAT FATHERS ARE COMPELLED TO GO TO COURT TO OBTAIN RESIDENCE OR CONTACT ORDERS, AND MANY FATHERS SETTLE FOR WHAT THEY CAN GET AFTER YEARS OF FAILED NEGOTIATIONS WITH ADVICE FROM THEIR LAWYERS THAT FAMILY COURT JUDGES WORSHIP AT THE ALTER OF THE STATUS QUO.

Perhaps if academics conferred with family law lawyers when analyzing court data they would gain insight into the dynamics between feuding parents; understand the nuances and strategies employed by parents who seek to discount or eliminate the other parent; understand that children need both parents in their lives; and resist the attraction of the “primary parent” philosophy that is no longer relevant in today’s world.

The report is titled “HOW DO COUNTY COURTS SHARE THE CARE OF CHILDREN BETWEEN PARENTS?” and can be found at http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang


Court Takes Evidence of Parental Alienation Seriously

_DSC4851A Court in Belgium has ordered a 13-year old girl to check into a psychiatric facility so that experts can figure out why the young girl refuses to look at or speak to her father, after her parent’s high-conflict divorce.

Father’s lawyer said that both parents lashed out at each other during their tense separation and divorce, and ultimately, their daughter lived primarily with her mother and maternal grandparents.

But nobody can point to an incident that would cause a child, who otherwise had a loving relationship with her father, to turn against him. Even the mother’s lawyer agreed that he was a normal father, with no evidence of personality issues or sexual abuse.

Respected psychotherapist Lut Celie opined:

“The father and mother parted on bad terms during the divorce battle with each parent trying to blacken the other. This went so far as to affect the child whose character was not fully developed.”

The Court was told that during a four-year period father and daughter had over 100 visits and each and every time, she refused to interact with him.

During the girl’s first communion at church, she became upset that her father was present and made such a public scene, he was forced to leave the church.

Rather than suggesting that mother and grandparents try to persuade their daughter to engage in a normal father/daughter relationship, a judicial direction that is often futile, the judge removed the girl from her mother’s care and control and into treatment.

Mysteriously, the teenager refuses to explain her behaviour. Kudos to the judge for his determination to get to the bottom of her conduct.

Mom, of course, is furious with the judge’s decision, saying:

“My little girl is being taken from the warmth of her home and away from her school where she is happy and has many friends. This is so heartless… It’s just because her father is insisting. She’s 13 years old now and old enough to know her own mind.”

Sure sounds like parental alienation syndrome…and if it is…it’s despicable, but hopefully not too late.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Rampant Sex Discrimination in Saudi Arabia

_DSC4179 - Version 2To be born female in Saudi Arabia is to endure a life of discrimination…on many fronts. First of all, it is legal for men in Saudi to have up to four wives who may be as young as 10-years old, as long as they can afford to support them all. It is reported that polygamy is increasingly popular with younger generations, bolstered by their oil wealth.

Saudi women cannot leave their home unless they are escorted by a male guardian, usually their father, brother or husband. They cannot marry, divorce, travel, open a bank account, or consent to elective surgery, without the approval of their guardian. They also are not permitted to drive a vehicle and women who disregard this law have been subject to punishments like flogging.

Photos of Saudi women show them covered up with only their hands and eyes showing, a custom/law that is enforced by the “religious police”.

It was not until 2005 that women were entitled to vote or run for political office, and in 2008 they were finally allowed to initiate and engage in educational studies on their own.

Family law in Saudi Arabia is equally demeaning and restrictive. A woman who socializes with a man who is not a relative can be accused of adultery, fornication, or prostitution. Sex segregation is the norm, with special female entrances and sections in banks and other public institutions. Women must sit with other women when they dine in a restaurant. It is reported that men’s sections in restaurants are usually well-furnished and welcoming, while the women’s sections are sparse and uninviting.

Divorce laws are cruel and unjust. Men may divorce their spouses anytime they want for any reason or no reason at all, while women can only divorce if their husband consents, or they obtain a judicial divorce, but only if they can prove harm or injury during their marriage. Fathers obtain custody of all children over seven-years-old.

The only obligation a man has to his ex-wife is to provide financial support for a period of four months and ten days.

Two recent divorces in Saudi have gone viral in the west, because of their unusual capriciousness. In one case an arranged marriage, which is the norm, came to a sudden end, just after the couple were declared man and wife. The couple had not met prior to the wedding and the first time the groom saw his bride was when she lifted her veil at the conclusion of the ceremony.

Her groom was taken aback when he saw his new wife’s face and according to media reports said: ““You are not the girl I want to marry. You are not the one I had imagined. I am sorry, but I divorce you.” She immediately collapsed with tears and the marriage was over.

In the second case, a Saudi man text messaged his wife to inform her that he wanted a divorce, because she ignored his previous text messages.

According to a story from Gulf News, this couple were having marriage difficulties because the husband believed his wife spent too much time on her cell phone talking to her girlfriends and ignoring him. The last straw for him was his unanswered phone messages and text messages to his wife. He knew from the app on his phone that she had received and read the text message but had not bothered to reply.

It’s no wonder the divorce rate in Saudi is 50%, but with multiple wives I guess the loss of one is not a real hardship.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

5 Big Lies About Shared Parenting

_DSC4179 - Version 2Canada’s MP’s will continue their debate on Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott’ s private member’s bill C-560 on shared parenting on May 27, 2014, with a vote expected to follow days later.

Recent polls from Nanos confirm that 80% of Canadians want a change in the way custodial decisions are made and the chaos in our family courts has united parents, lawyers, and judges to insist on real reforms to eliminate the soul-destroying financial and emotional devastation wreaking havoc among Canadian families who dare step a foot into the litigation pond.

So the passage of the bill should be a fait accompli, nest-ce pas? Not so fast….

It appears that both Liberals and New Democrats have changed their views on shared parenting since the 1998 Joint House of Commons/Senate Report entitled “For the Sake of the Children”, a much-heralded report commissioned during Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s tenure, where politicians of all stripes recommended that shared parenting be implemented to enable divorced parents and their children to maintain a close and continuous relationship after marriage breakdown.

That was then and this is now, and today the Conservatives alone stand to support an initiative whose time is well over due. You ask, if Canadians support shared parenting why wouldn’t their political leaders follow suit?

That puzzles me too because the psychological literature in the 1990’s regarding custody, access, and parenting was rife with findings that favoured a maternal preference, while today those old wives’ tales and custody myths have been demolished by cutting-edge, international research, such as American Dr. Richard Warshak’s 2014 treatise on shared parenting that has garnered the written support of another hundred experts in the field.

So what kool-aid are they drinking? It appears that many of the political naysayers are guzzling the views of the Canadian Bar Association, who purport to represent the views of Canada’s lawyers, who I say, have got it wrong. So what is the truth about shared parenting?

1. Shared Parenting Means Giving Up the Best Interests of the Child Test. NOT TRUE

-A rebuttable presumption of shared parenting does not abandon an examination of what is in a child’s best interests, it merely codifies the position that both parents, if fit, have a shared responsibility to parent their child.

2. Shared Parenting Focuses on Parental Rights Rather Than Children’s Rights. NOT TRUE

– Shared parenting permits children to have a real relationship with each parent, which is their right and a parent’s obligation.

3. Shared Parenting is Strictly a Men’s Rights Issue. NOT TRUE

-While men have been the primary victims of our custody laws, women are also affected as parents, grandparents, partners of parents and supporters of a fair and just system of family law. An American- based group “Leading Women for Shared Parenting” with international membership, voices women’s concerns about outdated custody assumptions.

4. Shared Parenting is Not What Children Want, They Want One Home. NOT TRUE

-Renowned American psychologist and parenting expert, Dr. Joan Kelly, dismisses the myth that kids want to live with one parent and highlights the negative consequences of one-parent homes.

5. Shared Parenting Only Works for Older Children and Teens. NOT TRUE

-Dr. Warshak’s research shows that the misguided notion that children under six-years-old are too young to have overnights with both parents has done a frightening disservice to children and parents alike.

If we had implemented the recommendations from 1998, Canada could have led the way down a path that is being adopted by multiple countries and many jurisdictions in the United States. Will we allow our lawmakers to miss the boat a second time? I hope not.

Legal Nightmare Documented in B.C. Judge’s Reasons

BarristerWhat would your life look like if you were engaged in protracted family law litigation requiring more than fifty court appearances before 28 different Judges and Masters of the Court, over a period of 15 years?

“Hell on earth” would be an apt description for Laura Koch and Graham Underhill, the divorced parents of two children who have used the British Columbia Supreme Court as their public battleground since 1997.

In reviewing Mr. Justice Grove’s Reasons (2013 BCSC 1889), several aspects of Koch v. Underhill are noteworthy. Firstly, their legal rollercoaster began with an ex parte or without notice application to the court, wherein Ms. Koch received interim custody of the children who were ages three and one. A variety of restraining orders were also put in place barring Mr. Underhill from any activity that involved his wife and children.

In numerous posts I have decried the damage done when parents go to court behind their partner’s back to obtain life-changing orders, a practice that in my opinion usually leads to ugly, soul-destroying litigation, just like it did here.

As is typical in cases such as these, a succession of court hearings quickly followed the initial ex parte hearing, resulting in a more balanced order that saw the ex parte order set aside, the interim custody order deleted, and joint guardianship ordered.

Ten months later the parties agreed to share joint custody and equal parenting of their children, but by this time they had been back to court seven more times.

Another trigger that often leads to high-conflict in family law cases are allegations of mental illness and substance abuse. In 2002 the Koch v. Underhill litigation machine wound up again resulting in orders for production of psychiatric files, medical intervention, and a change in the equal parenting arrangement, with the children ordered to live primarily with their father.

The third significant factor in this case was Mr. Underhill’s longstanding refusal to provide proper financial disclosure, a situation that is often referred to as the “cancer of matrimonial litigation”.

Mr. Justice Groves remarked that despite Mr. Underhill’s “limited” disclosure it was apparent he was a very wealthy individual, which brings up the fourth element often found in marathon family law litigation, a litigant with “deep pockets”.

Through much of the litigation Mr. Underhill was represented by counsel, while Ms. Koch acted for herself, after her resources ran dry.

The Koch/Underhill saga is a textbook treatise that shows how warring spouses/parents can ruin their lives…and for what? To win? What about their children and the psychological damage they have inflicted on them? It is shameful…

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Eighteen Month Delay in Custody Decision Illustrates Glaring Problem

GEO_edited-1Just yesterday I was speaking to a group of lawyers about family law arbitration. One of the points I made was that arbitration has several advantages over court proceedings because private family law arbitrators, be they retired judges or senior family law lawyers, can be available on short notice, and most will guarantee their written reasons or “award” within 30 days after the arbitration hearing completes.

What better illustration of my recent complaints about the length of time it takes to receive written Reasons from our trial courts then the case of Madden v. Dahl 2013 BCCA 373.

Mr. Madden and Ms. Dahl lived with their two children, ages 5 and 3, in northern British Columbia. Their relationship broke down and Ms. Dahl, without notice to her partner, moved herself and the children to her parent’s home in the Okanagan, a 14-hour drive from the family home.

Mr. Madden commenced a court application for custody of the two children and the parties had a six-day trial in the Provincial Court-Family Division in March of 2011. Three months prior to the trial the parties had agreed on a two-week on/two-week off parenting schedule, which seemed to work as the children were not yet school-age.

Five months passed without a decision from the court so Mr. Madden, in contemplation of his 5-year old starting kindergarten, brought an application to the trial judge for an order of primary residence. The judge refused to hear him.

Mr. Madden took his 5-year-old to kindergarten during his two-week parenting time and during the two weeks she was with her mother she was “home schooled”.

Another year passed and still no decision from the trial judge, so the parties’ lawyers wrote a letter to the court asking for an “expedited” decision, as grade one was now beckoning. This is where I began to snicker and ponder whether counsel actually suggested that the long-awaited decision could be rationally characterized as “expedited”, albeit the situation for these parents and children in the face of apparent judicial apathy, is no laughing matter.

On September 4, 2012 the trial judge ordered that the children spend the school year with their father in year one and in year two, spend it with their mother, sharing school vacations equally, and exchanging the children on additional days, a result that would see the children miss about thirty days of school each year. The judge’s decision was bare-bones as the Reasons supporting the decision were not released until three months later.

It apparently did not occur to the judge to inquire as to the intervening circumstances, or to request updated information from the parties with respect to their children, so the court was not aware that the concept of two homes, 14 hours apart, was having disastrous effects on them.

Mr. Madden wisely appealed the trial judge’s decision to the British Columbia Supreme Court and not surprisingly, found a judge who agreed the order could not stand. The appeal judge ordered that the children reside primarily with their father in the former family home, finding that his circumstances provided the best situation for the children.

Ms. Dahl appealed the order of the Supreme Court judge to the British Columbia Court of Appeal where three additional judges also agreed that the children’s best interests favoured the father’s residence as their primary home.

It is shocking to think that a family would have to wait 18-months to get a judgment from a Provincial Court on a custody matter. It is even worse to see the apparent lack of concern about the delay, resulting in a decision that was flagrantly flawed and led to two appeals.

And one wonders why the public are disenchanted with the family justice system?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang