I receive a number of heartbreaking calls from parents who are trying to protect their children from an abusive ex-spouse or partner in divorce/custody cases. Sometimes there are allegations of sexual assault or physical assault. Most of the time I hear stories of the non-custodial parent verbally and emotionally abusing the child. Occasionally the judge completely disregards psych evaluations or the recommendations of the Guardian Ad Litem and orders unsupervised visitation. Sometimes they order visitation even when the parent is known to be an abuser of alcohol and/or drugs.
To top it all off, sometimes the judge verbally abuses the protective parent for trying to keep the child safe.
A Seminole County judge allowed an abusive father to pick up his child from school in spite of a previous court order that granted the mother sole custody. This was done without the mother's knowledge. The father managed to take the child out of the country using a foreign passport. In spite of the fact that the child is an American citizen, the judge abdicated his jurisdiction to a court order from a foreign country. The judge, after the fact, never admitted his error and said there was nothing he could do. Given the increasing immigrant nature of our community, all domestic relations judges need some training to know what to do when presented with court orders from another country.
One judge in Orange County routinely tells mothers who plead for their child to have supervised visits with an unsuitable father "you should have thought about that before you chose him to be the father of your child."
Somewhere along the way, in the overwhelming caseloads they handle, I think some judges have lost some of their humanity. I understand the need to maintain a level of detachment when hearing a case. But does being detached equate with lacking compassion? I wish they could see things from this side of the bench and realize that the decisions they make will have an impact on the lives of real people and their children for the rest of their lives.
I've had several people tell me that they sometimes see a change in the judge's demeanor when they retain a new attorney. They've felt that their previous attorney was more worried about not getting on a judge's "bad side" than vigorously advocating for their client. I want to encourage anyone who finds themselves in this predicament to candidly discuss your concerns with your attorney. Put them on notice that you will take your business elsewhere if they're unable or unwilling to stand up for you in court. Remember, they work for you! You are not obligated to stick with the same attorney until your child becomes an adult and their services are no longer needed. Sadly, too many protective parents don't have the financial resources to hire an attorney.
At this time, CourtWatch does not have the resources to monitor these cases. But Lundy Bancroft, author of several books, offers some strategies (including establishing an informal courtwatch program with other protective parents) that may be of assistance. Please check out his website and blog for more information.