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Not So Happily Ever After

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s spring in the city and people everywhere are falling in love. Surely few are thinking that someday they might wind up in Los Angeles Municipal Court’s Division 82 as a result.

But here they are, dozens of them, men in business suits, boys in baggy pants, new girlfriends, old wives, all waiting on hard benches in the windowless room for news on their criminal child support cases. There’s a take-a-number air as clerks and attorneys buzz about, occasionally shouting out a name, or instructions.

Many of them, like the 51-year-old mother in a pantsuit and leopard print scarf, have become way too familiar with the inside of courtrooms.

Out in the hall, the woman tries to impress on the deputy district attorney the years of injustice, indignity and frustration she’s gone through since divorcing her attorney husband.

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She carries reams of papers. She’s been to court 41 times in six years. She says she hasn’t been able to work at her real estate job because of litigation. She’s living on credit cards.

It’s not that the district attorney doesn’t care. It’s just that this is a criminal case. She’s just a witness. He’s busy and has to leave.

The woman turns to an attorney friend and continues. The $10,000 she is owed in past due support isn’t even the half of it, she says. A few years back, she was worth $500,000. Now, she’s afraid she and her 11-year-old daughter will lose their house. Everybody’s afraid of her ex because he’s an attorney, she says. He even sued her for racketeering.

Losing focus, she rifles through her papers. Her last attorney hung up on her when she called because she owed him $30,000. She’s representing herself now.

The attorney shakes her head. “That’s our system,” she says, “and it sucks.”

In California, a state with one of the worst child support collection records in the country, an estimated 600,000 women need welfare as a result of their separations or divorces. To be sure, many were poor to begin with, but many others slid out of their middle-class existences because of a legal system that continues in many cases to reward the most tenacious, well-heeled and connected--often but not always men--in family matters.

Some, like a 40-year-old executive from Carmel, get pushed to the edge. This former wife says she contemplated ending it all in December after a nine-year court battle with her ex-husband, a Los Angeles attorney, ran her out of money. He represented himself and won custody of their son.

She has since adopted what she calls “the Ghandi approach” to save her sanity. “I’m not reading any documents that come my way. I don’t go to any appearances,” she said. “I’m refusing to participate to get him to see the injustice of his actions.”

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Others are joining support and protest organizations to speed up reforms.

“There needs to be an end to the adversarial system,” says Kathy Justi, a noncustodial mother who recently started a Santa Clara County chapter of the National Coalition for Family Justice, a nonprofit self-help organization that hopes to bring attention to abuses in family court. A major problem in her area involves arbitrary psychological evaluations in custody cases, she says. “If mothers are 10 minutes late, they’re accused of parental alienation syndrome.”

Her group quickly organized, picketing courthouses and taking calls from all over the state. On Thursday, the group will host New York journalist Karen Winner, author of “Divorced From Justice--the Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges” (ReganBooks, 1996). Winner will also appear Saturday in Los Angeles, hosted by the Committee to Recall Judge Nancy Wieben Stock, the Orange County judge who awarded custody to O.J. Simpson of his two youngest children.

According to Winner, “This is an industry without any independent oversight. As long as women aren’t organized, they will be taken advantage of by lawyers and the system.” More information can be found at https://www.divorcedfromjustice.com.

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Lynn Smith’s column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.


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