Child custody expert linked to lewd Web photos
A prominent Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has helped decide hundreds of child-custody disputes was thrown off one recent case and has been challenged in at least two others after posting lewd photos of himself on Facebook and allegedly promoting illegal drug use, unprotected sex and male prostitution.
Dr. Joseph Kenan, president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, is also being investigated by the Medical Board of California on at least four complaints by parents who hired him to do custody evaluations, according to records and correspondence reviewed by The Times.
Among the postings on Facebook and other websites under the slightly different names of “Joe Kegan” and “Joe Keegan” were photos showing Kenan baring his buttocks to the camera in public and another of him posing with a friend holding a cake that explicitly depicted a sexual act, court records state.
The litigation over Kenan’s fitness sheds light on a highly influential, but lightly regulated, group of experts — the evaluators who advise family courts in contested custody cases. Evaluators can earn fees of tens of thousands of dollars for assessing parents’ fitness.
Critics of the system say the courts do a poor job of overseeing the work of people who often play pivotal roles in the lives of vulnerable children. A recent state auditor’s report faulted two courts in Northern California for how they vet custody evaluators’ qualifications and training.
Kenan’s detractors have been particularly vehement.
“This man should not be allowed to determine whether any father or mother is a good parent,” said Deborah Singer, who persuaded a court commissioner to remove Kenan from her child-custody case last year after she discovered explicit postings on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet.
Singer and another parent who sought to disqualify Kenan, Deborah Zolla, say their concerns were sparked, in part, by his demands for tens of thousands of dollars, which they considered excessive fees, to develop custody plans for their children.
Kenan declined to be interviewed for this article. In a written statement submitted in Singer’s case, he said the Facebook page was never meant for public viewing. He closed it and asked other websites to remove photos of him, Kenan wrote.
“Ms. Singer misunderstands the bawdy humor I occasionally present to my friends, as evidenced by some of those pictures. I do NOT promote what she is concerned I promote. My comments are entirely in jest. In fact, my comments serve to educate the community’s problems through satire.”
Kenan’s lawyer, Donald S. Eisenberg, said the doctor’s private life had no bearing on his professional performance. He said Kenan’s detractors were unhappy with his evaluations or trying to avoid paying his fees. In court papers, he called the allegations inadmissible hearsay, conjecture and innuendo.
“His entire livelihood is being crushed by information … that is quite irrelevant to the work he does,” Eisenberg said. “These allegations show what lengths, in some litigation, that people will go to try to unwind unfavorable opinions expressed by qualified experts in their child custody cases.”
Singer and Zolla, who also cited the Internet postings, made their objections to Kenan before he completed evaluations in their cases.
At a hearing last Aug. 3, Family Law Commissioner Steff Padilla dismissed Kenan from Singer’s case after reading descriptions of Facebook photographs in her disqualification motion.
In at least one other case, however, a court commissioner in Pasadena ruled the other way, denying a mother’s request to remove Kenan from a case involving the custody of her 11-year-old daughter.
“You’re saying Dr. Kenan should be disqualified because of a goofy Facebook page. What on earth does it have anything to do with this court?” Commissioner Mary Lou Katz asked in denying the removal motion.
State law sets requirements for evaluators, but county courts oversee their appointments and handle any complaints. The Los Angeles County Superior Court requires private evaluators like Kenan to submit sworn declarations detailing their training and experience, including at least three years of working with families in custody disputes, but does not vet the information or conduct background checks.
Court records show that Kenan, 41, has been involved in at least 250 custody cases in the last 10 years. Kenan began working with the court’s custody evaluations office as a medical intern in 2002 and was a part-time employee there from 2004 to 2009, said Margaret Little, Superior Court family law and probate administrator.
When he became a private contractor, his name was added to a directory posted on the court’s website, Little said. The list is for the convenience of parents seeking a private evaluation and is not meant to be an endorsement, she said.
Court officials told The Times they had received no complaints about Kenan.
Unlike evaluators on the court’s staff, who work at a fixed rate, private evaluators set their own fees, which can be more than 10 times as much, sometimes leading to clashes with clients.
Singer paid Kenan a $7,500 retainer last May, court records state, and she and her lawyer said they were taken aback when he later asked for tens of thousands of dollars more to finish his report.
Her attorney, Dennis E. Braun, said in court papers that Singer already had custody of her daughter, now 5, and supported her financially. Singer’s estranged husband had barely seen the child in two years, was serving a one-year jail sentence for a probation violation and faced additional felony charges upon release, the records state.
When Kenan asked for an additional $35,000 and offered to send a “runner” to her house for a $20,000 check, she became alarmed and researched him on the Internet, leading her to the explicit photos, her court papers say. After he was removed from the case, Kenan voluntarily returned the $7,500 retainer to Singer, who later won full legal and physical custody of her daughter.
Some of Kenan’s Facebook postings — all since taken down — appeared to promote illicit drug use, including a picture of a woman holding a large straw while kneeling on a mirror with lines of white powder. Another was a photo of Kenan with a party banner that read “It’s snowing,” a phrase alleged in court papers to refer to crystal meth or cocaine.
Sheriff’s deputies have been called to Kenan’s home at least twice, records show, once in late 2007 to quell a raucous party and again last Oct. 23 on a report of a possible drug overdose death. The death proved to be from natural causes and no drugs were found in the dead man’s body. But coroner’s investigators found a burnt meth pipe in the room where he died.
“Dr. Kenan has no idea what that is, or where it came from,” his lawyer, Eisenberg, said of the pipe. “He is not a drug user, has never been a drug user and denies any drug use. Period.”
Many of Kenan’s Facebook postings were explicitly sexual and included ads for parties he co-hosted at nightclubs, including some that appeared to promote unprotected sex. One ad promoted a gay porn site and Rentboy.com, which features male escorts for hire.
“If any of my clients were doing what he’s doing, trust me, they would lose custody of their kids,” Braun said. “Yet, he is the one making recommendations to the courts — and which the courts have been following.”
Hours after he was disqualified from Singer’s case, Kenan took himself off the court’s directory of evaluators, although he continued to work on some custody cases and accepted at least one new one — Deborah Zolla’s — last October. Days before a March 2 disqualification hearing in that case, Zolla and her estranged husband settled their custody dispute, rendering Kenan’s involvement moot.
As word of his removal from Singer’s case has spread, however, other clients have complained to the medical board or sought to boot him from their cases.
Some lawyers who have worked with Kenan said he was well regarded.
Anja Reinke, a veteran family law attorney, said that although she hasn’t always agreed with Kenan’s recommendations, she’s had no major problems working with him on a half dozen or so cases. Kenan “quickly got a very good reputation” and was particularly knowledgeable in cases involving complex mental illnesses, she said, adding: “I think he’s competent.”
A volunteer assistant clinical professor at UCLA, Kenan is nearing the end of his term as president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, which has about 250 members.
Dr. Dean De Crisce, the president-elect, said that Singer complained about Kenan to the association but that it lacks the “legal, financial, and investigative power” to act on complaints and relies on investigations by other bodies, including state medical boards.
Kenan “is respected for the work he does” and his fees are in line for someone with his background, De Crisce said. As for Singer’s reaction to the photos, he said: “It’s understandable that those were not pictures of the kind of person she would want to determine the fate of her family.”
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