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family court feature story

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by dreunc1542, Jul 5, 2007.

  1. dreunc1542

    dreunc1542 Active Member

    This is my first time posting something on this board. This summer I'm interning at a small weekly where there isn't much sports coverage so I'm doing mostly news and features. This is the longest piece I've written for publication (2k words). Any and all feedback is much appreciated:

    Larissa Pollica sat exhausted on the steps of Tompkins Country Family Court after a long day of representing herself in a custody case. Her face strained from the fatigue and stress of a long, drawn-out custody battle for her two-year-old daughter Bella. As Bella hugged her and said “I love you,” it became obvious why Pollica fought so hard for custody.
    Pollica is fighting against her husband, whom she says has verbally and emotionally abused her, for custody of Bella. She says she faces an uphill battle in court, though, because of inherent problems with family court. Irene Weiser, local advocate and founder of Stop Family Violence, a national grassroots activist organization, sees the issues with family court as a huge national problem.
    “We get about three calls a week from mothers all around the country who lost custody of their children to abusive fathers,” Weiser said.
    While Pollica spoke, others from the Ithaca community protested against what they view are the problems with family court in front of the court house on 320 N. Tioga St. They solicited honks from passersby as affirmation of their cause. Family court representatives did not return calls in time for publication of this story.
    In between speaking about the issues with family court, Larissa rejoiced every time someone driving by honked their horn. One of the main problems she says she faces is that her husband has more money to fight for custody. She represents herself because she doesn’t make enough money as a registered nurse to pay for an attorney.
    Pollica can’t get a court appointed lawyer either because she falls into the purgatorial middle between having plenty of money to fight a custody battle and making so little that she could be appointed a lawyer. Dirk Galbraith, a lawyer from Holmber, Galbraith, Van Houten and Miller in Ithaca, pointed out that the current system works most against this group of people.
    “There are people who aren’t indigent, so they can’t qualify for assigned council but they don’t have enough money between paying the rent and putting food on the table to lay out $2-3,000 for a lawyer. They’re the ones caught in between in this deal,” Galbraith said.
    When deciding whether or not a person can receive a court appointed lawyer the court take into account both income and assets. For income, the official poverty guidelines are determined by the Department of Health and Human Services. A family of one can earn up to $12,763 and a family of eight could earn up to $43,213, families of 2-7 people fall somewhere in between. As for assets, the court looks at whether someone has a house, the ability to borrow money or at other assets they might have.
    Someone in Pollica’s situation, who does not qualify based on those guidelines, could find themselves in thousands of dollars of debt trying to win custody or visitation rights for their child(ren).
    Money and family court present problems for men as well as women. For instance, Sean McElroy says he spent in excess of $25,000 in a 30 month battle for visitation rights of his children. His wife was more than able to counter that as she ran a successful private practice as a psychologist. In the end his wife won full custody rights and moved with their children to Texas. From that far away McElroy is incapable of continuing the legal battle.
    Both McElroy and Pollica place most of the blame for their hardships on innate problems with the court. They feel that the way the process is set up creates a bias towards one parent or another.
    This starts at the hearing to determine custody of the children during the interim before the actual case begins. Galbraith said that the parent given custody during that period has an advantage once the trial begins.
    “The parent who is given temporary custody of the children has just an enormous leg up when it comes to the trial,” Galbraith said. “They can say, here, the children have been with me for the last 6 months and everything’s been fine. Of course at that point the parent’s usually been on their best behavior.”
    Galbraith said the main issue with this part of the custody battle is how custody is usually decided at the pre-trial hearing. Much of the power in this situation is given to the law guardian. A law guardian is someone appointed by the court to provide legal services to children in custody cases. The law guardian is to speak with the parents individually and be an advocate for the best interest of the child(ren). Galbraith said that problems arise when judges put too much credence on the word of the law guardian:
    “Some of the judges place undue reliance on what the law guardians recommend, and I would attribute this in part to simple laziness. If a judge reads the papers before he or she gets up on the bench…the judge can make a lot more informed decision about what ought to happen temporarily.”
    Law guardians can also be an issue when they develop a bias for or against one of the people in a custody hearing. Pollica feels that the law guardian for Bella clearly favors her husband.
    “Bella’s law guardian sat at the opposing council’s table and chit-chatted with the father and opposing council all day long,” Pollica said. “She’s not even trying to pretend that she’s being non-biased; during the trial she acted as the father’s secondary council, objecting and redirecting the evidence.”
    Pollica bemoans the fact that law guardians are lawyers instead of child advocates. She says that instead of picking sides between parents they should make sure to do what’s right by the children they represent.
    Both Pollica and McElroy feel that law guardians are part of the personnel problem when it comes to family court. The other main personnel they railed against were psychologists. Pollica said that after she left her husband she had to pay a court appointed psychologist $12,000 to do a custody evaluation. What really angered her about it was that the psychologist admitted in court to only having a half-days training in domestic violence.
    McElroy not only had problems with court appointed officials, but with his lawyer because the lawyer wanted to maintain positive ties to the court.
    “I paid a very expensive attorney who never acted in court on my behalf.” McElroy said. “I was a one-time client and the success of his practice overall depends on his maintaining a comfortable relationship with the law guardians, psychologists and the judge.”
    McElroy also says he was the victim of what Galbraith identified as one of the court’s other major issues. After custody has already been determined one parent or another can file a Petition for Modification of Custody. This part of the system works when one parent or another has been accused of malicious behavior.
    Issues occur when petitions are filed for more frivolous reasons. Also, the courts will make an ex parte, or one-sided, decision without hearing testimony from the other party. Galbraith talked about an instance where a daughter had her cell phone privileges taken away by her mother. The daughter then called her law guardian and said that she wanted to live with her father. The law guardian signed a Petition for Modification and the judge signed it without speaking to the mother or the mother’s lawyer. To Galbraith, situations like this make him think modifying the law would be a good decision.
    “This happens frequently enough that I would say it’s a real problem,” Galbraith said. “If the legislature were disposed to make some change in the law, the Family Court Act or the Domestic Relations Law, I would urge somebody to think about these ex parte orders.”
    Sean McElroy lost more than even his children because of an ex parte decision. McElroy was the main caregiver of his two daughters for seven years before his wife stated to the court that she was fearful of him. Despite not presenting any witnesses to the charge, McElroy was ordered to leave his house. He wasn’t allowed to return to his home until it was sold a year later.
    From there McElroy fought back and forth with his wife for visitation rights. Every time his wife got them taken away he went back to the court to regain them. During the 30-month fight his wife made accusations ranging from raising his voice to child pornography to attempted murder. Eventually the court granted his wife permission to relocate with the children to Texas. At the end of it all, McElroy was most angry with the system itself:
    “The process simply encourages litigation especially in my case where one parent has abundant financial resources. Children suffer, while lawyers and psychologists scoop up financial benefits.”
    While McElroy and other men have suffered from the way family court is run, issues have arisen much more with women. At the protest in front of the court women represented a large majority of the protestors. Galbraith noted that probably about half of them had had children taken away by ex parte decisions.
    Problems occur even more for those who have been abused by their spouses. An article by the American Judges Association states that approximately 70% of batterers are able to obtain sole or joint custody of the children in their cases.
    Since a majority of battering cases involve men against women, this is a troubling statistic for battered mothers trying to gain sole custody of their children.
    One of the reasons Pollica fights so virulently for custody of Bella is that she says her husband was verbally abusive to her [her husband could not be reached for comment]. In the transcript of a recorded conversation between Pollica and her husband, he repeatedly makes verbal threats and says that she better sign over full custody of Bella to him.
    The reason given in many studies for abusive parents getting custody is that the abuse comes from a need to control the situation. They are more likely to fight for custody because they want that control in their relationship with their spouse. In many cases the men make more money allowing them to afford better representation.
    Weiser’s Stop Family Violence is one of many groups and organizations around the country designed, at least partially, to deal with the problems of family court. In January of this year the fourth Battered Mothers Custody Conference was held in Albany. Sixteen women, with cases in 11 different states, testified about their family court cases in front of a truth commission at the conference. The commission then released a document with their findings and what they feel are solutions to the problems with the court.
    One of the difficulties in proving there are problems with family court is that most of the evidence is anecdotal. Also, the problems mainly deal with the bias of people working for the court which is virtually impossible to quantify.
    Instead, the groups fighting for changes in the court system have to rely on the anecdotal evidence of people who have felt they were hindered by the procedural problems of family court. It is for this reason that someone like Pollica is willing to come forward with her story:
    “It is humiliating to have your personal life aired in public, but that is what happens when you go to family court. I am making my story public in an effort to change the system and to stop the secrecy from which the court appointed officials work.”
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Dreunc -

    Thanks for posting with us.

    Just a couple of quick thoughts this morning on what I think is fundamentally a very sound piece.

    - Like the lede, and would have liked to see more of the story rendered in scene. Note, though, that your second sentence needs an additional verb - "is" strained, "was" strained...etc.

    - I think you could tighten the nut graf that follows. We're moving from one person's battle with the system to an overview of that system and the complaints against it (and your explanation of the story to come), and this needs to be very clearly explained as you transition through the next couple of grafs.

    - In that same way, I feel the piece occasionally wanders from the specific to the general, i.e., one person's story of the system, then the overview of the system. In a piece of this kind those transitions - specific to systemic and back - need to be pretty crisp, or the reader loses some momentum.

    - As I always do, I'm going to ask for more detailed physical descriptions of your main characters. Needn't be an inventory of every component of their appearance or manner, but a couple of really telling, salient details.

    - I'd excise the word 'virulently' as a characterization of determination. I don't think you mean "fights like a virus."

    - Since the lede is so good, I'd advocate ending the piece with a callback to the same scene. You want a piece this long to resonate with a reader, and one of the ways to do so is to stick the landing. Another snaphot of Larissa on the steps of the court might be a good way to do that. A single sentence following the quote you're ending with now would be sufficient.

    I'll let the other members weigh in now, but thanks again for sharing your work with us.
  3. dreunc1542

    dreunc1542 Active Member

    Thanks JG for the helpful comments. I've been nervous to post anything since years back, while still in high school, i posted a "column" from my school's "paper" which got rightfully ripped to shreds here. Glad to see I've come a long way in 4 or so years. I would love to hear from others as well.
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