Until she logged on to the Internet, Deborah Hagen believed her story was unusual. After twelve years the court file documenting her child custody case had grown to fill four thick manila folders. And she was sure that the file contained enough evidence-psychological evaluations, child protective services reports, and letters from pediatricians-to convince any court that her two sons would be better off under her care. So Hagen was stunned when the family court commissioner assigned to her case declared that he was inclined to "send a message" by prohibiting Hagen any contact with her sons. The attorneys adjourned to the commissioner's chambers, and after they returned, Hagen followed her lawyer's advice to sign a settlement that gave custody of the boys to their father.
Hagen was numb with disbelief when she walked out of the San Diego court that morning. She felt that her attorney's demeanor had suddenly changed after he left the commissioner's chambers. According to Hagen, he firmly told her that if she didn't agree to the settlement, not only would she lose her kids, but he'd also quit as her attorney. As they walked down the courthouse hallway, she spotted a plain white business card sitting on a table. There was no name or number on the card, just the words "www.familylawcourts.com: Exposing the divorce industry one county at a time." She quickly put the card in her purse, careful to keep her attorney from noticing.
Hagen's case was unusual in that it ever got this close to trial-something that occurs less than 10 percent of the time in custody cases. No other litigation seems to elicit the messy and painful emotions that surface in custody cases. The truth often gets lost in the cross fire of a divorcing couple's accusations and counteraccusations. Indeed, sorting through the voluminous history of a case like Hagen's is like trying to examine a brick wall with a magnifying glass. Judges, lawyers, and mediators are theoretically trained and equipped to extract an equitable resolution that serves the best interest of the child. But in cases involving allegations of abuse, which have risen 129 percent over the past 20 years, the stakes and complications are multiplied exponentially. And for losers in custody battles, there's nothing but anguish-and the consolation of complaining that lawyers, judges, and court-appointed mental health and social workers are incompetent, biased, or corrupt.
So when Deborah Hagen logged on to familylawcourts. com, she tapped into a fast-growing network of wounded litigants who use the Internet to commiserate, trade information, and slam lawyers and judges. Most of these litigants appear to be veterans of family court systems throughout the country. In California, there are dozens of sites dedicated to denouncing the family courts. And it's not just idle chat: From Santa Clara to Sacramento, Salinas to San Diego, family court critics empowered by the Internet have altered court procedure, fueled judicial recalls, and publicized the names of allegedly bad lawyers. In short, they are beginning to force the courts to take their complaints seriously.
Each day familylawcourts.com gets more than 600 hits, according to the site's owner and operator, Bonnie Russell. The professionally designed site features diatribes about the dangers of the "divorce industry," useful links to news stories, and disparaging remarks about a handful of attorneys, judges, and court-appointed psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers who happened to end up on Russell's bad side.
Mention of Russell's name provokes groans from family court practitioners who know her. No wonder. Russell has been fighting for twelve years for custody of her daughter and against the perceived injustices of the court. In the process, she has made herself into one of the state's most high-profile family court litigants. Since her custody case began in 1990, Russell has filed more than 45 motions with family courts in Marin and San Diego Counties. She has been arrested twice for violating a restraining order and interfering with court business and has served a total of eight days in jail. Nearly all of her motions were filed pro per, and only five have been granted. Opposed by some of the state's top divorce attorneys, Russell has been frustrated at every turn. She has also been haunted by a negative psychological evaluation that diagnosed her as suffering from borderline personality disorder, susceptible to "impulsivity" and "lack of control." Russell claims the Marin psychiatrist who wrote the evaluation is biased. (Indeed, in another case, the same psychiatrist was accused by the Los Angeles Juvenile Court of writing a report that was based on information that was "biased and not likely credible.")
Russell's custody battle culminated in a May 1999 order that allowed her to see her daughter, then eleven years old, only under maximum security at a supervised visitation center called Real Solutions. She didn't like the fact that a Real Solutions staff member monitored each visit behind a one-way mirror, so one day she tape-recorded an orientation meeting that, she claims, exposed the center's bias toward custodial parents. She sued the center for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a suit that was quickly dismissed. But the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency later agreed with Russell that the center was unsafe and apparently unsanitary. Real Solutions eventually cancelled its county contract.
Two years after she'd been ordered to Real Solutions, Russell was in court again. By this time she had hired a local teenager to build her website. As Judge Thomas Ashworth attempted to deny Russell's latest petition to change her visitation schedule, Russell repeatedly interrupted him. "My daughter has rights which this court absolutely refuses to address," Russell interjected. "This court is just as guilty of child abuse as [her ex-husband]." Fed up, Ashworth ordered the bailiff to escort her from the courtroom, and as she was gathering her belongings, Russell continued: "I am going to talk plenty," she said, and announced the launching that very night of familylawcourts.com.
These days Russell spends almost twelve hours a day in cyberspace, waking up at 4:30 a.m. to scan newspapers from around the country for family court horror stories. She lives alone, in a two-room apartment near the beach in Del Mar. Her front door is glass, tinted so she can see out but visitors can't see in. On the wall in the entranceway hangs a large painting that her daughter made in the fourth grade. The apartment's main room is dominated by her workstation. Her computer is surrounded by files and bookcases that hold enormous binders full of court documents and transcripts from hundreds of wounded family law litigants who have sought her help. She stores some of the documents in the room she is saving for her daughter, but that door remains closed. Using one of her numerous email aliases, she spends much of the day doing a lot of what she calls "snooping"-logging on to message boards for family court professionals and other divorce- and custody-related sites.
Russell's Internet exploits began when she founded an attorney directory called www.1st-pick.com in 1999, although these days she doesn't have much time for it. Exposing the divorce industry is now Russell's full-time job. She gets hundreds of emails a week, many of them filled with long, detailed child custody travails. She catalogs the stories and replies with a form requesting the case number, the parties, the attorneys involved, and a simple summary of the facts. She asks those who respond to omit adjectives and superlatives. "Long, complaining narratives only turn off the reader," she advises. She has received so many stories, in fact, that she bought a database program to keep them organized by state.
When Russell talks about her audience, it's often with a tinge of condescension and impatience. "Some people get involved in becoming professional victims," she says. "I don't want to be president of their club. I don't do support groups. I'm not into talking and sobbing and whining. That's not action."
Other family court websites are equally intemperate. Familycourts.com, for one, compares the family courts to slavery. Not to be outdone, the Married Men's Militia website provides advice on such topics as "how to ex parte the bitch." But Russell's site is one of a handful that names individual lawyers. Russell and other website operators have learned to manipulate the Google search engine so that their sites maligning a lawyer pop up before that lawyer's own home page. Targeted lawyers have various reactions: Some ignore the attacks, some mount elaborate Internet counterattacks, and some have sued-unsuccessfully-for defamation.
Besides launching personal attacks, the websites can marshal forces to push for reform in the courts or recall judges. In 1999 a group of court critics in Santa Clara, dubbing itself the Coalition, built a website to supplement the courthouse picketing it had initiated in 1997. The Coalition claimed that an influential clique of local attorneys, mental health professionals, and social workers had compromised the integrity of the local family court. The site, www.nationalcoalition.net, is a messy hodgepodge of brightly colored links to news stories and family court reports. It also lists attorneys and other professionals connected with the court to be avoided. The site features digital copies of what the site's operator calls "smoking gun evidence" of court corruption, such as a handwritten note that purportedly shows a judge, the director of the Family Court Services, and several attorneys planning to meet late at night. One complaint by the Coalition hit a nerve: the overuse of the same group of special masters to decide side issues in ongoing litigation. The Coalition's efforts helped to severely curtail the appointment of special masters in family court cases. Some family law attorneys welcomed the change because they contend the repeated appointment of the same special masters created a good-old-boy network that had accumulated too much power. "Not only were they buddies with the judges, but the special masters were accountable to nobody," says Saratoga family law attorney and Coalition advocate Robin Yeamans. However, others say the changes mean more expense for their clients, because each minor issue-such as working out the logistics of a Thanksgiving visit-can no longer be submitted to a special master but now requires a trip to court.
After successfully changing the way the court does business, the Coalition continues to rattle family court professionals in Santa Clara. "We got two of the worst judges out of there," brags Coalition cofounder Kathy Justi. "One of them didn't want to be moved out, but now he's hearing misdemeanors. But Family Court Services is still a rat's nest, and some of the attorneys are sneaky little guys who try to get around the changes that were made." Another Coalition member giddily describes how the group has caused a couple of psychologists to "pretty well stop practicing in the family court altogether."
Family law practitioners say the Coalition's tactics have taken their toll in other ways. "It's impossible to defend yourself from personal attacks," says San Jose family law attorney Susan Crandall. "It's discouraging and frustrating. It ruins trust in the court and supports a culture of secrecy and gossip. Morale is low." In an open letter to family court professionals, Crandall compared the Coalition to the September 11 hijackers: "We are dealing with people who see the world in blacks and whites," she wrote. "Viewing all opinions in conflict with their own as [both] wrong-headed and supported by a system that is evil and corrupt, everything becomes a conspiracy."
In Marin County, family court websites fueled a conspiracy theory involving Superior Court Judge Michael Dufficy, who became the object of a recall movement. Family court litigants accused him of giving special favors to an informal group of Marin attorneys who called themselves the Family Law Elite Attorneys, or FLEAs. Marin attorney C. Clay Greene-himself a part of FLEAs-says that paranoia spread by the Internet has given rise to theories of elaborate conspiracies. "A paranoid client sees lawyers being friendly with each other and thinks they're out to get him," he says. "But when opposing counsel respect each other, when you don't have to fight over every issue, it saves the client a lot of money. That's professionalism at the highest level." Eventually two more superior court judges and the district attorney endured recall drives when the family court critics joined forces with marijuana activists.
The recall efforts ultimately failed, much to the chagrin of some Marin County family court attorneys who maintained that Dufficy, himself a former member of FLEAs, had indeed encouraged an atmosphere of cronyism by failing to sever his ties with the group. They add that the aggressive tactics of some of the most vocal recall proponents sabotaged any attempts at legitimate inquiries into judicial improprieties. "There were a lot of people who jumped on the recall bandwagon because they had a personal ax to grind," says Marin family law attorney Paul Camera, "and some of these people were instrumental in getting the light shined on the court. But the problem was that some of them could be singled out and shown to be way out of line."
Family court critics are generally dismissed by judges and lawyers for their caustic, intemperate, and obsessive Internet attacks. "The cases that bring this kind of hostility into the court are by no means run-of-the mill divorces," says one guardian ad litem who asked not to be named. "We're talking about 1 percent of the 10 percent of custody cases that make it to trial. I appreciate that these people are in difficult spots, but I didn't put them there. By focusing on the courts instead of what led them there, they aren't helping themselves or their situation."
One attorney who represents a court mediator targeted by the Coalition calls them "a hate group composed of people not quite hitting on all cylinders."
A message posted in an Internet chat room regarding the bias of a Sacramento court mediator recently drew together a number of online users who were similarly convinced of the mediator's bias. But even as they traded complaints and made plans to petition the city council, a supporter of the mediator wrote to the message board: "Making allegations of mediator misconduct in the same venue with former child abusers and druggies only makes you look like emotional basket cases."
The anonymous poster's statement is accurate: Obsessive and bellicose comments stain the online discussions about the family court system. Equally true is that to an outsider these complaints may have a ring of authenticity. The Internet chat rooms are crowded with similar tales of arbitrary evaluations, suspect adjudications, and egregious favoritism. A grandmother from Monterey County recounts how her daughter's custody case spiraled out of control after the daughter accused her ex-husband of abusing their daughter. As a result of the case, the grandmother became a self-taught "expert" on family law and custody matters and now spends at least three hours a day online, researching relevant case law and responding to desperate pleas for help on child custody message boards. In the two years she's spent in the online family law community, she says she's read hundreds of stories like that of her daughter-that the parent who makes the allegation of abuse ends up losing custody. "You can't hear the exact same story so many times without it having some credence," she says. Through the message board, she's formed friendships with a grandmother in Virginia, a mother in West Virginia, and another in Napa, all of whom tell stories virtually identical to her daughter's. They talk wistfully about joining forces to form a group with real power, perhaps even rounding up enough plaintiffs for a class action. To this grandmother, Bonnie Russell is a hero: "She's a pioneer, she's working hard, but she's all by herself. So when she starts to try to rattle cages, not many people are going to listen," she says. "We need 50 organizations like Bonnie's operating together with all our resources under one umbrella-then we'd be a force to be reckoned with."
In the end, the truth or falsity of one particular allegation of courtroom cronyism is less important than the accumulation of those allegations. As the report on the Marin Family Law Division by the National Center for State Courts characterized the problem, "Public trust and confidence in the family court system is eroding." Perhaps, as some court professionals say, family court's most problematic litigants are using the courts to extend a relationship they can't bear to see come to an end. But there's also a flip side, and one can understand how a well-intentioned parent, fighting to prevent a child from ending up in abusive hands, can become ensnared in the family court's cycle of conflict. As that parent drains savings to pay for attorneys and court evaluations, or navigate the court's maddening bureaucracy, it's easy to see how a custody battle can consume a person's life. And it's not difficult to imagine how one parent's crusade-Bonnie Russell's for instance-can morph into a movement with the help of the Internet, perhaps creating a tangle of fact, fiction, and obsession that will sweep aside all that is poisonous in the current family court system-and all that is good.
Benjamin Howell is an associate editor at CALIFORNIA LAWYER.
CA State Bar Probes Attorney Misconduct Against Marin's Marshall Krause & Sandra Acevedo
Marin N.O.W. Meets on Family Court Abuses
Judging Family Law
Ohio Teen Fights Back Against Abuse
Marin Teen Files with State Bar Against Court Appointed Lawyer
Daily Journal Op Ed: Kids Speak Out Against Abuses of Family Court
"Small Justice," a film by Garland Waller
Probate Court Problems in Marin
The NCSC Report on Marin Courts is on the web.
Marin Judge, Michael Dufficy:
Marin Commissioner, Sylvia Shapiro-Pritchard:
Marin Lawyer, Marshall Krause:
Marin court Administrator, John Montgomery:
Marin Psychiatrist & Evaluator, Edward Oklan:
Social Worker, Lana Clark:
Family Court Lawyer, Sandra Acevedo:
Investigative Writer, Karen Winner, "The Winner Report"
"Bay Area Business Women" on Family Court Abuse
Abuse in Marin & Sonoma
National Coalition for Family Court Justice
Other Websites & Articles on Child Abuse & Custody Issues