NOW Group Cites Child-Custody Bias in Family Law Court

Times Staff Writer

Women upset with their divorce and child-custody proceedings complained about alleged discrimination in Ventura County Family Law Court at a state judicial committee hearing this week.

Their complaints drew a sharp response from Ventura Superior Court Judge Allan L. Steele, who blamed a small group of women for stirring up hysteria.

Women in divorce or child custody cases "are convinced after going to meetings with these people that there is no justice in Ventura County and they go into the attorney's office almost in hysterics," Steele said.

The group to which he referred is NOW Court Watch, a task force of the Ventura-Oxnard chapter of the National Organization for Women founded last summer to monitor the county's family law courts.

But the judge acknowledged that the women have some valid complaints. Laws governing family courts make it difficult for women with limited resources, he said.

'Humongous Gaps'

"It irritates me. I understand how they feel. There are humongous gaps in the system that can't be addressed by the judiciary and must be addressed by the Legislature," Steele said.

NOW Court Watch has received more than 200 calls from women who claim that they have encountered difficulties with judges, mediators and psychologists in the Ventura County Family Law Court, said NOW spokeswoman Lucianne Ranni.

NOW also wants family law cases to be heard exclusively by the county's family law judges--Steele and Superior Court Judge Melinda A. Johnson. The judges are appointed by the presiding judge of the Superior Court, usually for two-year periods. But because of the high caseload, family law issues are sometimes decided by judges without expertise in this area, a practice that NOW says puts women at a disadvantage.

"When women have taken the initiative, they have had their paper work ignored by judges and have been chastised for coming into court without an attorney," Ranni said at Monday's hearing in Los Angeles of the Judicial Council Advisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts.

The committee is holding five hearings throughout the state and will compile testimony in a report to the Judicial Council of California, a group of judges, attorneys and other experts appointed by two successive chief justices of the state Supreme Court. The report might then will be presented to the Legislature.

NOW has urged those involved in such cases to contact the media. Local newspapers have been flooded by such letters in recent months; The Times has received about two dozen.

Publishing Book

Typical is a letter from Faith Johnson O'Leary of Ventura, who says she is publishing a book about the psychological trauma suffered by families under the judicial system.

Decisions made in the Ventura County Family Law Court "are so patently illogical, counter-factual and contrary to well-established state and federal laws that they would be laughable were it not for the emotional and financial suffering inflicted on people who are victimized by this system," O'Leary said.

Many who echo O'Leary's comments cite the case of Pamela Besser, whose 6-year-old son Joshua was ordered by the court to spend three weeks each month living with his mother in San Francisco and one week each month living with his father in Ventura.

In September, on the recommendation of the family court's senior mediator, Ventura Superior Court Judge Charles R. McGrath ruled that the child should remain in Ventura County, forcing Besser to move and leave behind a fledgling health-care newsletter that she had started.

However, a family law attorney who practices in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said the gender bias problem is no worse in Ventura than elsewhere.

"The problem is systemic and institutional--it's a problem in the whole state of California," Hannah-Beth Jackson, a member of the state Senate Task Force on Family Equity, said at Monday's hearing.

"The guidelines that exist today are wholly inadequate. At the end of the divorce, the woman, if she's lucky, is going to tread water and will probably be moving backwards," Jackson testified.

Although Steele and NOW differ on many family law issues, the judge agrees with the group that women with children usually are the financial losers in a divorce case.

Both sides also believe that the courts should provide experienced legal counsel to women who lack the means to hire lawyers. Presently, women embroiled in custody or divorce battles must hire their own attorneys.

Costs of $100,000

"We have cases of women having $100,000 attorney fees and court costs over the course of a custody dispute," Ranni said.

In some cases, women with limited funds hire attorneys who lack the experience necessary to argue a custody hearing.

"There are many lawyers who are practicing family law who should not be," Steele said.

On Monday, NOW's Ventura County chapter submitted a list of five recommendations to the committee.

The NOW recommendations include:

Mandatory training for all judges and mediators so they can recognize and overcome bias based on gender, culture and race.

A sliding scale for legal costs, requiring the partner with more money to pay a greater share.

Increased child support awards.

A study on the effects of joint custody.

The appointment of more female and minority judges.

Steele pointed out that he and Johnson teach continuing-education courses in family law for judges in Berkeley each summer.

'Gender Neutrality'

Their two-week seminar includes a section on "gender neutrality," he said.

Steele added that the Ventura Family Law Court is willing to meet with any organization or person, and he denied the claims of some mothers that an "old boy's network" in the courts discriminates against women.

"Would an old boy's network include a female judge?" he asked. "It's untrue; it does not exist. This kind of condemnation of the system and court does a disservice to the citizens of the community who rely on this court to provide them with justice."

Despite their differences, both sides say they are concerned about the effect of prolonged court battles on children.

"I've had kids 2 years old with ulcers who have attempted suicide all because of the stress of two parents who hate each other while the kids love both of them," Steele said.

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