Apr 13 2017

Child Support and Incarceration

Written by National Conference of State Legislators 

2/10/2016

 

There are two primary ways by which noncustodial parents with child support orders may intersect with the criminal justice system.

On one path, the noncustodial parent is not in compliance with a child support obligation and that noncompliance may lead to incarceration (short-term, primarily in local jails) as a result of either a civil contempt or criminal non-support action taken by the state.

The other way is for noncustodial parents who are incarcerated for a criminal offense and have a current or delinquent child support obligation. The incarceration is not related to child support and they may be incarcerated for longer periods of time in a state or federal prison. While child support isn’t the reason for incarceration for these parents, the ongoing child support obligation has repercussions for their confinement, release and re-entry.

As of Dec. 31, 2014 there were approximately 1.56 million people in federal and state prison. More than 50 percent of those inmates have one or more child under the age of 18, leaving an estimated 2.7 million children with a parent incarcerated. In addition, a 2003 study estimated that one quarter of inmates in prisons had a child support case. Based on current prison populations, this suggests that approximately 400,000 inmates have a child support case.

What the federal and state prison numbers do not capture are the numbers of noncustodial parents who are incarcerated in local jails for failure to pay child support. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that more than 730,000 individuals were incarcerated in local jails in 2013, but what’s unknown is how many of those inmates were incarcerated due to child support noncompliance. A 2009 study in South Carolina found that 13.2 percent of county jail inmates were behind bars for civil contempt related to nonpayment of child support.

There is a great deal that state child support programs are currently doing to reduce the use of incarceration for child support noncompliance. The most widely developed efforts are focused on removing barriers to employment that are faced by low income and/or formerly incarcerated parents. The potential financial benefits of diverting nonpaying parents from jail into employment programs, to the family and the community at large, are significant.

The distinction between those noncustodial parents who are incarcerated for failure to pay child support and those who are incarcerated for a separate criminal offense who also have child support orders is an important one. The available approaches to improving child support compliance and encouraging ongoing, consistent child support payments within these populations are very different, particularly considering the reasons for and potential length of the incarceration. Below is a further discussion of this distinction as well as the varying policy options to address the needs of both populations.

New Federal Rule on Child Support

In addition, on Dec. 20, 2016, the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) published final rules updating the rules regarding child support enforcement. The rule is intended to increase the effectiveness of the child support program for all families, and provide for more flexibility in state child support programs. In an effort to accommodate the ever-changing world of technology, the rule also helps remove barriers to outdated systems to improve efficiency and simplify the process of collecting and distributing child support. While the new rule provisions are, for the most part, optional and will not require state legislation in most states, they do provide an opportunity for state legislators to clarify and shore up various child support enforcement laws.

The rule specifically addresses incarcerated noncustodial parents and incarceration for failure to pay child support, as well as modification procedures for incarcerated noncustodial parents. The major provisions of the rule regarding incarcerated noncustodial parents are:

  • Incarceration for Failure to Pay Child Support: the rule requires states to implement due process safeguards from the Supreme Court case Turner v. Rogers. The rule addresses the use of civil contempt in child support cases and seeks to reflect the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2011 case, Turner v. Rogers, which provided guidance on the factors to be considered when determining which cases should be referred to the court for civil contempt, including a determination of the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay.
  • Incarcerated with a Child Support Order: the rule ensures the right of all parents to seek a review of their order when their circumstances change. While these provisions apply to all parties involved, they specifically address incarcerated noncustodial parents and their ability to have the child support order reviewed and potentially modified while they are incarcerated. The rule prohibits states from treating incarceration as voluntary unemployment for purposes of modifying a child support order. Currently 36 states and D.C. treat incarceration as involuntary unemployment.

The final rule made significant changes to the child support program to improve efficiency and flexibility in states. For more about the final rule, visit the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s Final Rule Resources webpage and NCSL’s Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) Final Rules Governing Child Support Enforcement Programs page for a rule summary.

Incarceration for Failure to Pay Child Support

Noncustodial parents may face incarceration for failure to pay child support through civil contempt or criminal nonsupport. Civil contempt is used more commonly than criminal contempt and the sentence is typically less severe and for a shorter length of time. Many states, recognizing that no support can be paid when a noncustodial parent is incarcerated, have established programs to encourage full compliance with child support orders, both before and as a part of the civil contempt process. These programs include examining child support orders to reflect realistic amounts given the individual’s circumstances and diversion programs to reduce incarceration rates and increase child support payments.

Criminal Nonsupport

All 50 states have processes for criminal prosecution for failure to pay child support, however, this more severe punishment is very rarely meted out. These laws generally make criminal nonsupport a felony or misdemeanor. The fines and potential prison sentences, as well as the delinquent threshold amount in order for criminal prosecution to be triggered, vary state by state.

See NCSL’s Criminal Nonsupport and Child Support page for details on each states’ statute.

Civil Contempt

Every state has a procedure for civil contempt that may be used for violations of various court orders. Civil contempt is designed to incentivize the defendant, or obligor in the case of child support, to comply with the court order. While incarceration is certainly an option when a child support obligor is noncompliant, civil contempt is not intended to punish the defendant, rather, it is intended to prompt compliance with the court’s order.

Federal law, according to U.S. Supreme Court case Turner v. Rogers, requires that civil contempt only be used when the noncustodial parent has the ability to pay and is willfully avoiding paying. State policies and practices vary in regards to how this limitation is implemented by the state child support agency.  With noncustodial parents who are simply unable to pay their child support obligation, diversion or employment programs could have a significant impact in improving the likelihood of payment. The new federal rule, discussed above, seeks to shore up the due process requirements from Turner v. Rogers, by providing guidance on the factors to be considered when determining which cases should be referred to the court for civil contempt, including a determination of the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay.

Some may see diversion or employment programs as letting the delinquent obligor off the hook, however, parents are generally ordered into these programs by the courts and may still face a period of incarceration for failing to follow the rules of the diversion program. For example, Georgia enacted house bill 310 during the 2015 legislative session to allow for a county diversion program for delinquent obligors who are in contempt of court. There are rules of the diversion program and “If the respondent fails to comply with any of the requirements…nothing shall prevent the sentencing judge from revoking such assignment to a diversion program and providing for alternative methods of incarceration.”

Diversion programs may reduce the number of non-custodial parents in jail, as well as increase the receipt of child support, reduce reliance on public assistance and save money from the reduced jail population. (See below for a discussion of state diversion programs). The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement also has an infographic comparing job services to jail.

The majority of states use civil contempt to enforce child support orders, though limited data is available on how often it is used and the costs associated with subsequent incarceration.

State Programs

State Diversion Programs

In addition to the legislation described above, Georgia has a series of problem solving courts, also called Parental Accountability Courts, which seek to remove barriers to non-payment of child support, such as unemployment, substance abuse, low level education. The overarching goal of these courts is to keep people out of jail for failing to pay child support, and to obtain support payments.

2015 Georgia HB 310: Creates a diversion center for child support obligors who have been sentenced for contempt of court for failure to pay child support. Allows people in the diversion program to travel to and from his or her place of employment and to continue his or her occupation. Details the requirements of traveling while in the diversion program. Requires the obligor to remain in the diversion center for the duration of the sentence, with the exception of traveling to and from work. Requires the obligor to pay alimony or child support as previously ordered, including arrears. Allows the obligor to participate in educational or counseling programs offered at the diversion center. Any additional funds that are available will go towards reimbursing the center for the cost (not to exceed $30 per day) of maintaining the obligor. Allows for alternative methods of incarceration if the obligor does not comply with the detailed requirements.

2015 Louisiana HCR 175: Urges and requests that the Department of Public Safety and Corrections make recommendations for the development of a work release program which would be suited for individuals convicted of offenses involving the failure to pay child support in order to facilitate employment and the fulfillment of child support obligations, and make recommendations to the Louisiana Legislature prior to the convening of the 2016 Regular Session.

Texas NCP Choices Program is a court diversion program that assists unemployed or underemployed noncustodial parents find and maintain employment. Program participants must spend 30 hours a week looking for a job, meet with the Workforce Counselor every week until employment is found, attend all court hearings and program appointments, comply with the child support order and stay in communication with their Workforce Counselor monthly following employment.

A 2009 report on the impact of the NCP Choices Program showed the following results:

  • Participants paid $57 more child support 47 percent more often, showing a 51 percent increase in total collections. These results continued for 2-4 years after programs participation.
  • Participants paid their child support 50 percent more consistently over time
  • Participants were employed at 21 percent higher rates than non-participants, an effect that also persisted at least two to four years after the program
  • Participants were about one third less likely to file an unemployment claim in any given month in the first year after the program
  • The custodial parents associated with NCP Choices participants were 21 percent less likely to receive TANF benefits in the first year after the program, and 29 percent less likely two to four years after the program.

Virginia’s Intensive Case Monitoring Program (ICMP) was established by the Virginia General Assembly in 2008 (HB 1257). ICMP is a diversion/referral program for noncustodial parents following an administrative determination or order of the court. If a parent is in court for failure to pay child support, they may be referred to ICMP for case monitoring and referral services. The program then refers participants to “(i) employment services, to include employment assessment, employment search, and employment training; (ii) family services, including parenting skills, co-parenting skills, and relationship-building activities for parents and children; (iii) educational services, including GED preparation and GED testing; (iv) housing services, including referrals to organizations that operate shelters and provide subsidies; (v) document assistance, including referrals to organizations and assistance in securing vital records, driver’s licenses, commercial driver’s licenses, or other documents; and (vi) social services, health and mental health services, substance abuse services, or other services that may be necessary to enable the person to pay child support owed in the future.” Of the 979 program participants since ICMP was first enacted, 326 have graduated, 277 are still active and 376 were dropped for noncompliance with program requirements. Further, through December 2011, the program had collected over $3 million dollars, showing significant increases in average monthly child support payments among all three groups.

In Seattle, Wash., the King County Prosecutor’s Office operates a Navigator Program consisting of two full-time paralegals who are there to assist parents “navigate” the child support system. The navigator program is voluntary and open to parents who are involved in the Family Support Division’s Contempt of Court Unit or those who have been referred by the Division of Child Support because they are in search of employment or educational and training opportunities. The navigators connect parents with community partners who can assist the parents with obtaining housing, food and utilities.

Similar to the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s Navigator Program, the Washington State Division Child Support operates a program called Alternative Solutions. Alternative Solutions is a statewide program that seeks to connect parents with over 3,500 community resources across the state. These community resources are available to help parents with finding a job, training, housing, food, medical care or legal resources. In addition, the program can assist parents with lowering child support payments, reducing state-owed debt, and other case management actions, such as getting a suspended driver’s license back.

Order Establishment

In addition to diversion and work release programs, states have also looked at the ways in which child support orders are established to ensure child support obligations are being calculated, as federal law requires, on the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay. State efforts to establish orders that reflect a parent’s current earnings are designed to promote regular payment of support and reduce the likelihood a parent will fall behind on child support and accrue debt.

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) has a Project to Avoid Increasing Delinquencies (PAID)resource with various fact sheets addressing this issue.

Incarcerated with Child Support Order

The other population of incarcerated noncustodial parents are those who are in prison for criminal offenses not involving child support and who have current and/or delinquent child support orders. On average, an incarcerated parent with a child support order has the potential to leave prison with nearly $20,000 in child support debt, having entered the system with around half that amount owed.

According to 2013 data from the Bureau of Justice:

  • 46 percent of incarcerated parents have HS diploma or equivalent, as compared to 82% of men ages 18-34
  • Nearly 60 percent of black men who are high school  dropouts have done time by their mid-30s
  • About two-thirds of people in prison or jail were employed at least part time before arrest with a median income of less than $1000 per month.

In addition, in Illinois in 2013:

  • There was 5,589 active orders for currently incarcerated noncustodial parents involved in the IV-D child support program with 6,646 cases
  • There was $986,000 in new current support debt per month with more than $97.4 million in accumulated debt.
  • There was 15,387 current or formerly incarcerated parents in the Illinois IV-D caseload
  • 41 percent of those incarcerated parents had an average income of $10,136 per year prior to incarceration
  • The remaining 59 percent had no reported income prior to incarceration.

Modification during Incarceration

Whether a parent is incarcerated or not, a material and substantial change in circumstances is required to modify child support orders in the majority of jurisdictions. Two situations that may be treated as a material and substantial change in circumstances are incarceration and unemployment.

Some states allow incarceration to be considered a substantial change in circumstances allowing for modification while others do not allow incarceration alone to be a sufficient reason for modification and would require other circumstances to be shown in order to modify. State policies regarding modification of child support during incarceration vary and depend on a number of factors.

A significant reduction in income due to a job loss or job change is generally considered a material and substantial change for purposes of modifying child support, as long as the job loss or reduction in earnings was involuntary. Conversely, voluntary un- or underemployment in order to avoid payment of child support is not considered to be a material and substantial change of circumstances and therefore does not warrant consideration for modifying child support.

Approximately 36 states currently treat imprisonment as involuntary unemployment which means the obligor could request a modification. Certain exceptions to this determination exist if the reason for the incarceration is related to the failure to pay child support or avoidance of child support. A small number of states treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment because the crime, which led to the inability to work or pay child support, is considered a voluntary act. As such, modification of child support during incarceration is not allowed in those states. The new federal rule, discussed above, prohibits state child support programs from treating incarceration as voluntary unemployment, allowing for modification of child support orders during incarceration.

The states that allow for modification during incarceration generally require the noncustodial parent to be proactive in making that request. This process requires the incarcerated parent to know of the modification procedure and access the necessary resources in order to obtain timely modification. Most recently, however, California passed legislation which requires the suspension of a child support order to occur automatically when an obligor is incarcerated or involuntarily institutionalized. In addition. Vermont and Wisconsin allow the child support agency to file a motion to modify the child support orders of incarcerated obligors.

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has a State-by-State-How to Change a Child Support Order page to inform child support obligors and state policymakers on the available resources and processes involved.

State Programs

Modification of Child Support Orders during Incarceration

2015 California AB 610: Requires the suspension of a child support order to occur by operation of law when an obligor is incarcerated or involuntarily institutionalized. Creates an exception to the automatic suspension of child support orders to include obligors who are incarcerated or involuntarily institutionalized for domestic violence or failure to pay child support. Authorizes the local child support agency to administratively adjust account balances for child support cases managed by the agency if the agency verifies that arrears and interest were accrued in violation of these provisions, that specified conditions relating to the obligor’s inability to pay while incarcerated and the underlying offense for which he or she was incarcerated do not exist, and neither the obligor nor the obligee object to the adjustment. Details the procedures for notifying the obligor and obligee about the suspension or adjustment of the child support order. Clarifies that the child support obligation will resume following the obligor’s release from incarceration.

2015 Texas HB 943: Current law presumes that a child support obligors earnings are equal to the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour week, absent evidence to the contrary, for purposes of calculating child support. This bill makes the presumption inapplicable in cases where the child support obligor is subject to an order of confinement that exceeds 90 days and is incarcerated in a local, state, or federal jail or prison at the time the court makes the determination regarding the party’s income.

For more about how states address modification of child support orders during periods of incarceration, see OCSE’s Modification Laws and Policies for Incarcerated Noncustodial Parents facts sheet, part of the PAID project discussed above.

State Prison Outreach and Data Collection

2015 Hawaii SB 913: Requires the Department of Public Safety to collect data relating to the number of incoming offenders into the state correctional system who are parents, and the number of children they have that are under the age of eighteen, in order to provide services to incarcerated parents and their children. Requires a plan for the management of the data collected and public disclosure of the data.

Illinois has several programs that are working with incarcerated parent who have child support orders. The Paternity Establishment Prison Project (PEPP) enables noncustodial parents to establish paternity while incarcerated through genetic testing or voluntary acknowledgements of paternity and then establish an administrative child support order based on that determination of paternity. From this program came Project CHILD (Collaboration Helps Inmates Lessen Debt), which has been in place for more than 10 years and assists incarcerated noncustodial parents with review and modification of support orders. Project CHILD includes dedicated, specially trained staff, who go into prisons to talk to incarcerated parents, provide the required forms and answer any questions they may have.

Minnesota’s Child Support Liaison program allows newly incarcerated noncustodial parents to speak with a child support enforcement representative upon intake into prison. That liaison then educates and informs the offenders about the child support system during inmate orientation, facilitates communication between the offender and the county child support enforcement agencies, and helps families support their children while the noncustodial parent is incarcerated. The liaison is also available to assist incarcerated noncustodial parents with the typical child support enforcement services, such as requesting a modification, obtaining genetic testing and other child support issues the parent may be facing.

Texas recently performed a demonstration project called Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS). This project used behavioral economics to help incarcerated parents apply for child support modification by changing the way child support enforcement staff contacted and interacted with incarcerated parents. The project increased the application for modification response rate from 28 percent to 39 percent.

Legislative Considerations

While there is a great deal that we do know, there is also a lot that we do not know, including how many incarcerated parents have child support orders and how many people are incarcerated for nonpayment of child support. Having this information could greatly inform both child support and criminal justice policy in the states.

Questions to Consider:

  • How many noncustodial parents are incarcerated in county jails for failure to pay child support?
  • Do these parents have the ability to pay the amount of support that is court-ordered, or the amount required to get out, or stay out, of jail?
  • What is the cost of incarceration in county jails?
  • How much child support has been collected by using civil contempt?
  • How much child support has been collected by using diversion programs?
  • What administrative or judicial process exists to adjust child support once a noncustodial parent is incarcerated?

Policy Considerations:

  • Is incarceration treated as voluntary or involuntary unemployment?
  • Can incarcerated noncustodial parents modify their child support orders?
  • Can the agency or judicial entity automatically modify a child support order?
  • Will debt and interest accrue while the parent is incarcerated?

About This NCSL Project

NCSL staff in D.C. and Denver can provide comprehensive, thorough, and timely information on critical child support policy issues. We provide services to legislators and staff working to improve state policies affecting children and their families. NCSL’s online clearinghouse for state legislators includes resources on child support policy, financing, laws, research and promising practices. Technical assistance visits to states are available to any state legislature that would like training or assistance related to this topic.

The Denver-based child support project staff focuses on state policy, tracking legislation and providing research and policy analysis, consultation, and technical assistance specifically geared to the legislative audience. Denver staff can be reached at (303) 364-7700 or cyf-info@ncsl.org.

NCSL staff in Washington, D.C. track and analyze federal legislation and policy and represent state legislatures on child support issues before Congress and the Administration. In D.C., Rachel Morgan at (202) 624-3569 or by e-mail at rachel.morgan@ncsl.org.

The child support project and D.C. human services staff receive guidance and support from NCSL’s Standing Committee on Health & Human Services.

Additional Resources

 

LINK TO ARTICLE:  http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/child-support-and-incarceration.aspx

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Feb 15 2017

Audio recording sheds new light on Leiliana Wright child abuse case

Audio recording sheds new light on Leiliana Wright child abuse case

FOX 4 NEWS, DALLAS
BY:  LORI BROWN and VICKI CHEN

 

WATCH FOX 4 NEWS AIRED STORY 

 

TARRANT COUNTY – Next month will mark one year since four-year-old Leiliana Wright was brutally beaten to death in Grand Prairie.

Leiliana was one of dozens of children who died in Texas in 2016 as a result of abuse or neglect, despite being on Child Protective Services’ radar

Clakley told FOX 4, she agreed to give the mother custody of Leiliana at the advice of her attorney, because she did not understand the court system and was afraid to lose visitation rights.

In Clakley’s sworn statements filed to the court before the scheduled hearing that never happened, Clakley raised concerns about Leiliana’s safety and alleged that the mother was using drugs.

But after listening to the audio recording of the judge (made after Leiliana’s death) and investigating the Texas family court system, FOX 4 has learned that Judge Haddock was never required to read the information Clakley filed.

The citizen who made the recording and provided it to FOX 4 asked not to be identified, because she has a family member who also has a case before Judge Haddock.

“They had an opportunity, in my opinion, to protect Leiliana and prevent this,” the caller told FOX 4.

It all started when the citizen saw a news story in April 2016 about Leiliana’s case. She called the judge’s office to voice her concerns and left a message.

The caller was surprised to get a call back from the judge herself. The caller recorded the conversation without the judge’s knowledge, which is legal in Texas.

FOX 4 verified the authenticity of the recording by sending it to Judge Haddock herself, who did not dispute that it was her voice in the recording. Judge Haddock and Judge William Harris, who appointed Haddock, both declined to interview for this story, citing an ongoing investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct sparked by the recording itself.

“Terrible tragedy. I’ve been on the bench 17 years. Hard to talk about this case,” Judge Haddock is heard saying in the recording. “I still lose my breath about it, and cry my eyes out.”

The recording is roughly 30 minutes long. The judge goes on to reveal conflicting information about the case.

“When [the grandmother] filed, she attached an affidavit, but there was no evidence in the affidavit,” the judge said. “Now, since we have done the research we’ve done, and CPS did their research, there was never even a CPS report prior to January 2016.”

“What about in the affidavit? There are indications that CPS was involved with the mother,” the caller asked.

“It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true,” said Judge Haddock.

But the caller was right.

According to a state report obtained by FOX 4, CPS opened investigations involving Leiliana and her mother in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

But, Judge Haddock did not know of about the first CPS case at the time of the scheduled hearing in 2014, because there were no supporting documents included with Clakley’s affidavit.

The judge is also recorded discussing the mother’s alleged drug use around her children.

“According to the affidavit, [Leiliana’s little half-brother] is born with marijuana. No evidence of that. There is no evidence of that,” Judge Haddock said.

Again, the grandmother’s allegations of the mother’s drug use were not supported by official documents filed to the court. But, FOX 4 was able to confirm what she had alleged in her affidavit.

In October 2014, two months before the scheduled hearing, CPS had already received a report that Leiliana’s little half borther was born with drugs in his system.

During that CPS investigation, the children’s mother tested positive on a drug test.

Despite all of this evidence existing, Clakley’s attorney did not file any supporting documents with the court to back up his client’s sworn statement.

The caller shared the recording with Alisa Clakley, Leiliana’s grandmother. After hearing the judge speak about her family’s case to a third-party and give misinformation, Clakley filed a complaint against Judge Haddock with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Family law attorney Laci Bowman is not connected to the case. FOX 4 reached out to her to find out what other things could have helped the grandmother’s case.

Bowman explained how custody cases work in general.

“If there are things like an arrest report, CPS report, you can subpoena a CPS worker to bring the file,” Bowman said. “You can subpoena the documents from the police department. All of those things are tools the client has to get all of the evidence before the judge.”

Despite Alisa Clakley’s affidavit raising her concerns, her attorney advised her to come to an agreement outside of Haddock’s courtroom.

“He said, ‘Alisa, if you go into her courtroom – those were his exact words – you are going to lose everything,’” Clakley said. “These attorneys were afraid, if you will, to go into her courtroom.”

Both parties agreed to give Leiliana’s mother custody and guarantee the Clakley’s visitation rights.

As a result, Judge Haddock never heard the case, but signed off on the agreement.

Clakley’s attorney, Gregory Housewirth, declined to talk to FOX 4 about why he advised Clakley not to go before Judge Haddock.

Clakley also filed a complaint with the State Bar of Texas against Housewirth. She believe is there had been a hearing in the case, Leiliana would be alive today.

The State Bar of Texas determined Clakley’s attorney did not violate any rules handling her case.

In April 2016, a month after Leiliana’s death, Judge William Harris, who appointed Judge Haddock spoke to FOX 4 about the case.

“It certainly appears that there should have been a hearing in this case,” Judge Harris said. “It certainly appears the court should have been given evidence about the mother and her circumstances and I think it was tragic the court was never allowed to hear that evidence.”

Clakley said she feels the system failed Leiliana.

She hopes changes are made in the judicial system to require family court judges to read affidavits like the one she filed before signing off on an agreement. She believes that way, the next time there are red flags about a child’s safety, a judge can question them before it’s too late.

Phifer and Quezada are both charged with felony injury to a child. Their trials are slated to begin in Dallas County in April.

Editor’s Note:

FOX 4 receives dozens of calls and e-mails every month from parents and family members who are concerned that the court system is not keeping their children safe.

After interviewing family law attorney Lacy Bowman for this story, FOX 4 has learned some things people can do to make sure their concerns are being heard by the court.

First of all, often, it can be frustrating for a parent, grandparent or relative when CPS will not release a child’s case file to them.

But, according to Bowman, a CPS case file can become public through a court hearing. An attorney can subpoena the CPS case worker and ask them to bring the case file.

However, there does have to be a hearing to get that file entered into evidence. For example, in Clakley’s case, a CPS case worker did show up for the hearing, but since the case was settled outside the courtroom, the case worker’s testimony and evidence was never heard by the judge.

This investigation started as tip from the public. If you would like submit a tip or story idea, please email iteam@kdfwfox4.com.

 

 

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Jan 23 2017

233rd District Judge blames watchdog group for death of child

 Judge blames watchdog group for death of child 

January 23, 2017

 

The public should be outraged 233rd District Judge Bill Harris of Tarrant County blames the judicial watchdog group, Protective Parents Coalition (PPC) for the death of 4-year-old Leiliana Rose.

Tarrant County 233rd Associate Judge Diane Haddock / Leiliana Rose

On March 13, 2016, Leiliana Rose died and the mother and boyfriend are being charged with her death.

Many news agencies have reported the systemic failures at Child Protective Services and the family court, which ultimately led to Leiliana’s death. 

The mother was a known drug addict, had history with CPS and jailed for two years for a burglary charge.  These facts were known by the court, yet Leiliana was ordered to live with her mother.

On January 20, 2017, Judge Bill Harris wrote a comment on a public Facebook page blaming  Protective Parents Coalition  for Leiliana’s death.

 

 

Post made on a public Facebook page by District Judge of the 233rd Tarrant County court.

 

“If the concerns…had ever been brought to the Associate Judge or the Distract[sic] Judge, an innocent life might had been saved.  I hope the responsible parties can live with their failure to that little girl. ”    

–  Judge Bill Harris, 233rd District Judge in Tarrant County

 

 

 

 

Judge Bill Harris does not name PPC, but the insinuation of the comment attempts to discredit the judicial watchdog group and the Executive Director.  The administrator of this Facebook page is the spouse of Judge Harris’ associate judge, Diane Haddock.  

The purpose of any watchdog group is to keep an eye on issues negatively impacting the community and to warn members of the community when potential or actual problems arise.  Any decision made regarding child custody falls clearly on the judges, not on judicial watchdog groups.  

Judge Bill Harris and Associate Judge Diane Haddock are the ones who failed, as usual, to listen and collect facts that would have lead to justice, and protection of Leiliana Rose.  

PPC is here to remind the courts they must not ignore the law, they must rule by law.  It is the interests of the children that must be protected. 

The name “Leiliana” is of Hawaiian origin and means “heavenly lei (flowers), royal child.”  God bless Leiliana.

 

 

*  Read the Dallas Morning News story more about the systemic failures leading to Leiliana’s death.

*  Read the Star-Telegram’s story about Leiliana Rose’s candleight vigil.  

*  Read PPC’s story about a lawyer blaming the judges for Leiliana’s death.

 

 

 

 

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Dec 13 2016

Court Appointed Family Court Cases Now Confidential

Court Appointed Family Court Cases Now Confidential

December 13, 2016

FORT WORTH: Just within the last few months, the Tarrant County family court has manually hidden hundreds of family cases from the public’s view.  Some family cases are and should be confidential, but statutes set out specific conditions for sealing these records.  

A few months ago, Protective Parents Coalition (PPC) reviewed one commonly court-appointed attorney’s case load and found only a handful of cases were marked confidential.  As of yesterday, 85% of the attorney’s cases are now marked confidential.  The remaining 15% of the cases open to the public are cases involving the Attorney General’s Office.

Caption from the Tarrant County District Clerk Online Website.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized  landmark case Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc. a common-law right “to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.”  One could argue the Tarrant County family courts have chosen to take the right to inspect public records from not only the public, but also litigants involved in family court.

Prior to September 2015, the Tarrant County District Clerk positioned dummy computers in sub-courthouse locations throughout Tarrant County.  This not only provided the public access to family, civil and criminal cases, but more importantly the litigants with court cases could retrieve motions, orders and future hearing date announcements.  When the State Department demanded the District Clerk to handle passports differently in Sept. 2015,  the District Clerk decided to shut down all six passport offices in Tarrant County instead.   Now citizens can no longer access public records outside the downtown district courthouses.

Currently if a litigant, or member of the public, wants to review a family court case, they must sign in on the court case folder jacket.  This sign in sheet is available to anyone handling the case file, including the judge.  Since PPC has argued the family courts are retaliatory against litigants taking an active role in their case, this policy change could be intimidating. 

 

Litigants can no longer view their own cases anonymously.

– Protective Parents Coalition 

There are only three reasons the government keeps information  from the view of the public: (1)  Security; (2)  Cover up mistakes and (3)  Avoid public debate.  

So based on the three reasons, which one(s) do you believe would explain why the Tarrant County family courts have basically changed their ‘transparency policy’ overnight? 

 

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Nov 16 2016

Court Watchers Needed

Now the real work begins in Tarrant County

November 16, 2016

 

tarrant courtWe have heard your horrific stories of abuse of power, extortion, quid pro quo, intimidation, threats, fraud, bias, corruption, denial of due process, cronyism, perjury, denial of parental rights, ex parte meetings, and children used as pawns in the Tarrant family courts.  Please continue to share your experience with us through Facebook, Twitter and through email.  

Today, those same acts are occurring in the family courts and in fact, the judges are digging in their heels and refusing to clean up their acts on the bench.  Judges report they are overworked, pray over cases everyday, and make decisions in the best interests of the children. 

In order to eliminate associate judges from the family courts, we need documentation to support the limited hours (and cases) they hear each day.  For the last three years PPC has been court watching, we have seen the district judges and associate judges working a part-time schedule. Download form here.

Many people have reached out to us asking how to help reform the family courts.  This is how you can help.

We have attached a form that can be downloaded and printed.    On your free time, stop by the Tarrant Family Courthouse any time/any day and take a stroll through the courthouse.  All the district and associate judge courtrooms are on the 4th and 5th floors. Some judges leave the double doors open and you can see inside the courtroom.  Others, close the doors and you will have to open the door and peek in.  All you are doing is filling in the information on the form.  

If you would like to stick around and court watch cases, have a seat and observe.  A pen and notepad is all you will need.  The judges have expressed the public is always welcome in their courts and the bailiffs have been instructed to be courteous.  No one should attempt to intimidate you in these public courtrooms.  If you feel this has occurred, please notify PPC immediately.   Copies of your court watching notes can be emailed to PPC @ protectiveparentscoalition@gmail.com, or mailed to the address on the form.

Tarrant County Family Courthouse 
200 East Weatherford Street
Fort Worth, TX  76196 

P:  817-884-1265

             DOWNLOAD

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-7-25-57-amThank you everyone for participating and supporting PPC in our effort to improve our family courts.

 

****The materials available at this web site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your competent attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site is not legal advice. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not be viewed as legal advice.

 

 

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Aug 30 2016

Status Update on PPC Lawsuit

PPC_800x600

Status Update on PPC Lawsuit

August 30, 2016

 

Here are the latest pleadings in the Lori DeAngelis and Laurie Robinson vs. Protective Parents Coalition lawsuit filed July 26, 2016 in Tarrant County, Texas.

 

(1)  Original Answer

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 4.38.21 PM

(2)  Motion to Dismiss Under the Texas Citizens Participation Act

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 4.33.00 PM

(3)  Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Tex. R. Civ. P., Rule 91a

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 4.40.45 PM

 

No hearing dates have been set yet.  Stay tuned.

 

 

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Jul 29 2016

Family law attorneys sue watchdog group over social media posts

Family law attorneys sue watchdog group over social media posts

JULY 29, 2016 5:49 PM

BY MAX B. BAKER
maxbaker@star-telegram.com

 

Two attorneys are suing a watchdog group dedicated to reforming the Tarrant County family court system and alleging libel and slander, saying it used social media posts to falsely accuse them of unethical and illegal activities.

Attorneys Lori DeAngelis and Laurie Robinson accuse the Southlake-based Protective Parents Coalition, its co-founder Jennifer Olson, and Donna Tribunella, one of the group’s followers, of defaming them by publishing malicious comments without any evidence, court records state.

Among the allegations is that DeAngelis and Robinson unethically colluded with Tarrant County judges to receive higher attorneys fees and more business while also conspiring with caseworkers to destroy critical social study reports that are part of the court’s records, the lawsuit states.

One posting by Tribunella that is quoted in the lawsuit attacks Robinson for “showing up drunk as a skunk” at a family’s home while serving as a child’s attorney during a custody case. Robinson and DeAngelis have denied all of the allegations made against them.

SOME OF THIS STUFF YOU SHAKE YOUR HEAD AND SAY, ‘WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?’
attorney Jim Ross

The posts appeared on the Protective Parents Coalition’s website and Facebook page, which the group describes in court records as an online newspaper or blog about the family courts. Tribunella, who lives in Burleson, published material on her Facebook page, records show.

“We have a group of people who say they are exercising their free speech rights but there are boundaries that you do not cross,” said Jim Ross, the attorney representing DeAngelis and Robinson. “They are slamming and criticizing to the point of accusing people of crimes …”

“Some of this stuff you shake your head and say, ‘What in the world are you talking about?’”

Ross’ clients are seeking an injunction to prevent the group from publishing any additional posts. In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, they also are seeking more than $100,000 in damages.

Tribunella said she is just exercising her right to free speech in her posts. She has had a contentious child custody case in the Tarrant County courts and questioned the actions of Robinson and others, according to court records.

“Freedom of speech is a fundamental right afforded to all citizens,” Tribunella said in an email. “Advocating and watchdog groups are geared for judicial reform, to gain greater access to transparency when one’s children, family and property are affected.”

“This suit will unleash many more questions than answers into the multiple departments within Tarrant County that should be transparent,” she wrote.

The Star-Telegram was unable to talk to Olson, but the attorney for the Protective Parents Coalition said they will “vigorously” fight the current lawsuit. The group previously convinced a judge to dismiss a petition seeking to take depositions and conduct discovery that could have been used to prepare for this lawsuit, said attorney Greg Westfall.

“Truth is a defense and a defamation lawsuit gets to go both ways. So, they can look for a fight,” Westfall said. “These ladies who make up this organization are trying to reform how the family courts do their business.”

Court watchers

The Protective Parents Coalition was started by Olson after she went through a divorce and custody battle that raised questions with her about how the local family courts operate, a member of the group said. The group was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2014, according to state records.

The group was formed to “support parents and children who do not have a voice outside the courtroom,” and to help those who have dealt with family violence and child abuse but are forced to arbitrate their cases in family court, Olson said in a deposition in January.

As part of its activities, the group established a Court Watching Program that sends volunteers to observe and take notes in court, Olson said. After making their observations, the group’s staff makes recommendations to improve the court system “from the litigant’s perspective,” she said.

The court watchers have not been well received by court personnel and attorneys who work in the family courts, with two associate family court judges kicking them out of the courtroom, she said.

 

THEY WANT TO STOP THE COURT WATCHERS AND THEY DON’T WANT ANY CITIZEN WHISTLEBLOWERS CALLING THEM OUT, MARIE HOWARD.

 Protective Parents Coalition board member

Marie Howard said that when she went to observe a hearing and was questioned about her identity, she was suddenly sworn in as a witness — even though she wasn’t involved in the case — and then told she couldn’t be in the courtoom until she was called to testify. She also couldn’t leave the courthouse until the hearing was completed.

“They pretty much had their way with that case and no one was there to witness it,” said Howard, who lives in Keller and serves on the group’s board of directors.

In another incident, Howard said she was observing a trial and had to go through a search each time she left the courtroom to make sure that she didn’t have a recording device. “They want to stop the court watchers and they don’t want any citizen whistleblowers calling them out,” she said.

Generally, the Protective Parents Coalition finds that the Tarrant County family court system is “deeply flawed” and has identified many examples of “judges, attorneys and court staff misusing and abusing their power,” Olson said in her deposition.

 
Kevin Schmid, president of the Tarrant County Family Law Bar Association, said he hasn’t had any personal knowledge or interaction with the protective parents group, but he said he’s never seen DeAngelis or Robinson behave in an unprofessional manner.
“They are both highly regarded in the family law community,” Schmid said.The veteran family law attorney also defended the local court system, saying that it is “considered to be one of the best in the state and our judges among the most qualified.” Schmid added that everyone involved take their jobs seriously in “highly contentious” cases.“The decisions our judges are called upon to make affect lives and not just dollars,” he said.

Passionate concerns

The Protective Parents Coalition was able to get the previous petition filed by Ross dismissed in February by arguing that the coalition’s activities are allowed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which protects citizens who speak out on matters of public concern from retaliatory lawsuits.

The legislation gives the courts the power to promptly toss out a legal action if it determines that the lawsuit impinges on constitutional rights and intends to intimidate or silence them through what is known as an anti-SLAPP motion, or a directive to dismiss a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The Protective Parents Coalition said its work is a “matter of public concern” since it pertains to the community’s well-being, health or safety and involves a public official or public figure and a service provided in the marketplace.

But the group simply is trying to escape liability for defamatory statements and the Texas Citizens Participation Act does not allow someone to directly state or imply that someone has committed crimes, fraud or behaved in an unethical manner, according to Ross and court records.

Ross, who is appealing the earlier decision, states in court records that the Texas Citizens Participation Act requires not only “clear and specific evidence” of its accusations.

“Everyone has a right to be passionate about a cause that is important to them,” Ross said. “What they don’t have a right to do is falsely accuse people of committing crimes in a public forum. That’s is not protected in the Constitution and not by the anti- SLAPP motion.”

 

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/article92706907.html#storylink=cpy
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Jul 28 2016

Bitter Fight Against Family Court Lawyers

Bitter Fight Against Family Court Lawyers

By DAVID LEE

COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

July 28, 2016

FORT WORTH (CN) – Two court-appointed attorneys sued a family court watchdog group, claiming it defamed them in PPC_800x600online posts that claim the lawyers are unethical and colluded with a judge to take “unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother.”

Lori Deangelis and Laurie Robinson, both of Arlington, sued the Protective Parents Coalition on Tuesday in Tarrant County Court. They also sued Jennifer Olson, of Frisco, and Donna Tribunella, of Burleson.

The attorneys say they are “victims of slander and/or libel” on the Protective Parents Coalition (PPC) website and Facebook page, and on Tribunella’s social media sites.

Among their complaint is that a banner posted on the PPC Facebook page on or around July 26, 2015 showed photographs of both plaintiffs with the caption, “Three of the most family court-appointed Fort Worth attorneys.” The plaintiffs claim the banner “formally” describes them as “three of the worst family court appointed Fort Worth attorneys.”

Another post that day stated: “One attorney representing children partnered with a district judge to take unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother of the children who out-cried inappropriate conduct by their father. Her primary motivation is attorney fees collected in each case,” according to the 22-page lawsuit.

The post also said that one of the plaintiffs “had the power to have her paralegal direct a Tarrant County caseworker to select and destroy records collected in a social study” and that one of the plaintiffs “regularly advises one of the parties to fire their current attorney and to hire one of her friends,” while acting as a court-appointed attorney, according to the complaint.

On Jan. 23 this year, the attorneys say, Tribunella posted on her Facebook page that the plaintiffs are “the spawn of Hell who I like to refer to as Court room Hall Whore Huggers who continually stay at the Court house to get Court ordered Assignment from the despicable Judges who order them to oversee a childs best interest (Thats a Joke) to keep them employed and deplete the family’s finances and tear families apart and who coherece with opposing counsel when they are sworn to not share information one sided.” (Spelling and language as in complaint.)

The objectionable statements take up five single-spaced pages of the lawsuit. It cites a Sept. 25, 2015 post from Tribunella, who allegedly called plaintiff Robinson “An attorney in Tarrant county who was removed as a child guardian ad litem for showing up Drunk as a skunk at a families home…Keep on drinking you alcoholic…hope you get pulled over tonight and thrown in jail before you ruin anymore lives~.. It is what it is~ you are pathetic…and Judge Polus and Judge Hennighan who appointed you need to be very ashamed…but yet again …they are corrupt as hell~…what…is that an alcoholic beverage you are drinking?…..and your driving…..WOW…being an attorney dont you know that is Illegal … and that makes you an unfit parent and moraless!” (Language and spelling as in complaint.)

The plaintiffs seek an injunction prohibiting the defendants from contacting them, their employers and their families, and from posting comments on the Internet “directly or indirectly refer” to them. They also want them prohibited from directly or indirectly taking pictures and conveying pictures of the plaintiffs.

Defendant Olson told Courthouse News that if granted, the plaintiffs’ injunction “would silence the plaintiffs’ critics named in the lawsuit and anyone else associated” with the defendants.

“This is a clear violation of protected free speech and freedom of association in our country,” Olson said Tuesday afternoon.
Olson said she has spoken with attorneys who “believe this case is res judicata” — a legal term meaning a litigant is barred from raising the same issue from an earlier claim that could have been then.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Ross, in Arlington, denied any res judicata issue with the lawsuit. In an email message Tuesday afternoon, Ross said, “(W)e are confident the First Amendment does not cover the type of publications” used by the defendants.

In a precursor to the lawsuit, the attorneys in December filed a petition for presuit deposition against the defendants to determine who wrote the online posts.

Olson said the trial court dismissed that case in May under the Texas Citizens’ Participation Act, the state’s Anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).

The court also awarded $7,747 in attorneys’ fees to PPC et al. in that case.

Olson said the plaintiff-attorneys later filed an “untimely” notice of appeal of that ruling.

“As of today, the [Texas] Second Court of Appeals has not ruled if they will provide an extension to their appeal,” Olson said, citing a letter from the court.

The plaintiffs seek a restraining order and actual and punitive damages for libel, business disparagement, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and intrusion on seclusion.

Formed in 2012 by several parents, the PPC says it “is dedicated to providing an impartial assessment of the effectiveness of family courts in dealing with custody, visitation, support and property issues.” The founders “decided to educate the public” about “unethical child custody evaluators” after seeing “unusual” family court rulings, according to its website.

Read More:  http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/07/28/bitter-fight-against-family-court-lawyers.htm

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Apr 12 2016

PPC not the author of Change.org petition

PPC not the author of Change.org petition

April 12, 2016

It has been brought to our attention a petition has been posted on Change.org to remove two judges from the family court bench.  We are not the author and did not have prior knowledge of this petition.  The author included several links to multiple sources of information from the web.

 

 

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Apr 07 2016

Is a Family Attorney Blaming the Judges for Toddler Leiliana Wright’s Death?

Is a Family Attorney Blaming the Judges for Toddler Leiliana Wright’s Death?

April 7, 2016

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.36.38 PM

Judge Bill Harris interviewed by Fox 4 News April 5, 2016.

A Tarrant County family law attorney reached out to Protective Parents Coalition to set the record straight about what Judge Harris & Judge Haddock WOULD have known about Leiliana Wright’s case.  Not only is the public outraged by Judge Harris’ response on Fox 4 New’s interview, but so are some local attorneys.  

In the interview, Judge Harris states, “The associate judge did not hear a word of evidence and did not have one document admitted into evidence,” said Harris. “[She] based her recommendations solely on the representations of all of the parties and all of the attorneys of record.”

Fox 4 News also reports, “Harris says Quezada’s arrest record was not offered into evidence. He says he still has questions of his own.

Harris says there’s no court documentation of CPS’s involvement, and it’s unclear when CPS stepped in. Harris says it’s potentially one reason why some critical information didn’t come to light.

“It certainly appears that there should have been a hearing in this case.  It certainly appears the court should have been given evidence about the mother and her circumstances. I think it was tragic the court was never allowed to hear that evidence,” says Judge Harris.

Harris says he’s requested all of the information and material related to Leiliana’s case from CPS. He hopes to get that information by next week.”

A local family rebuts Judge Harris’ comments he and his associate judge had no evidence offered in their courts.

Quote from a Tarrant County family attorney*:


“1.  From the outset the court record included the affidavit by the Grandparents attached to the Original Petition. The files are sent up to the judges always the day before the hearing, and they are supposed to review the files BEFORE the scheduled hearings. (You have likely seen the court going through the file extensively during court proceedings to make sure things are in order and asking questions). The Judges had sufficient information in the file to give them notice that it was a high-risk case. CPS is even mentioned in the affidavit.  See FULL Petition for Suit Affecting Parent Child Relationship filed by paternal grandparents.

GParents Affidavit Quezada

CPS and drug use in grandparents affidavit in the Leiliana Wright case.

2.  The Judge can require the parties to appear before them with their proposed agreed order and probe further before electing to sign the agreed order.  It clearly states in all prepared Orders that “The Court Finds that the following orders are in the best interests of the child”, regardless of the parties agreements.  Further, the Judge can always call a hearing such as those to ascertain the status of the case as was done in the Wright case.  In fact, the parties appeared at a Status Hearing ordered by the Court before Judge Haddock where the contested issues in this case were to be discussed.  Again, Judge Haddock would have had the file before her and all filings while she conducted the status conference.

3.  The scribbled out Associate Judges Report –Agreed TOs [temporary orders] in this case is weird enough so that a judge should have noticed upon signing that this is an odd agreement and checked the file for the case and called them up.Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 6.39.54 PM

4.  This case was in front of a judge numerous times, including:

(a) having Ex Parte Temporary Restraining Orders presented and signed prior to service on the killer mom. The judges would have read that affidavit in order to approve these Orders.

(b) presenting and having Orders for Alternative Service signed;

(c) Judge Haddock ordering drug testing for the dad and killer mom; and

(d) according to the final Order, the killer mom and the grandmother appeared at the prove-up in person in front of [District Judge] Harris. THE ENTIRE FILE WAS IN THE HANDS OF THE JUDGE AT EACH OF THESE OCCASSIONS AND RIGHT UNDER THEIR NOSE. IF THEY DID NOT LOOK THROUGH IT THEY FAILED TO OBSERVE PROTOCOL AND EXERCISE DUE CARE. This includes the day that the parties agreed to waive a hearing and enter the agreed Temporary Orders. The judges had sufficient information in the record to challenge and should have challenged the parties and the attorneys in this case on these arrangements for the child.

5.  The Affidavit references CPS.  If CPS had a case open on this, they should have been consulted.  Again, the Judge should have seen the reference to CPS in the file.

6.  The attorneys should have engaged the court more fully. Apparently the grandparents’ attorney was afraid they would be punished somehow by [Associate Judge] Haddock if they pushed a hearing for primary custody. This is a very reasonable fear on his part given how notoriously abusive [District Judge] Harris and [Associate Judge] Haddock are. There is a culture of intimidation at the family court and many attorneys & parties know that they will be abused if they go before a certain judge, get a punitive ruling, or get slammed with ad litems and costs. That’s all. This is a big one and I don’t like hearing [District Judge] Harris act like they were clueless. As a matter of record they were not.

The bottom line is this.  There was sufficient information in the court file to give the court notice that there was a high risk situation here.  All they had to do is look at the file when they had it, which was frequently in this case.  They had the authority to and should have raised the obvious concerns. The attorney also shares some fault for not fighting hard enough for this child. AGAIN, the reason he wasn’t fighting is he was afraid of these judges, which is unacceptable.  He was understandably worried about his client being punished and abused if he fought and that is the fault of the judges for fostering a culture of intimidation instead of doing their jobs.

Really sickening case.”

* (Attorney name confidential due to fear of retaliation)

 

Not legal advice:  The materials available at this web site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your competent attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site is not legal advice. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not be viewed as legal advice.

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