Is Family Court Broken?
April 7, 2011
By Liz Kellar
Family court might very well be the most emotional, bitter court in any given county.
When marriages become broken — and especially when children are involved — the anger that simmers throughout the proceedings often leaves everyone involved feeling battered and bruised.
And those feelings of betrayal often spill over to the officials involved in adjudicating the proceedings.
But in Nevada County, the family law court system is under attack not only by disgruntled parents — as evidenced by a lawsuit filed by attorney Stanley Berman — but also by a former mediator who is suing for wrongful termination and who recently won a grievance that ordered an independent audit of the court’s family law mediation programs and processes.
The arbitrator’s award in favor of former mediator Emily Gallup has been contested by Nevada County Superior Court, and a hearing has been set on that matter on April 29.
“We want people to know what really has been going on here without undermining our legal position and without appearing to be defensive or vindictive,” said Court Executive Officer Sean Metroka.
“We are trying to keep this aboveboard, and as a result we’re not talking about many of the details … It will all come to light in due course and I’m looking forward to the day.”
But Gallup is not waiting for the cases to wend their way through the system. She has started up a nonprofit group, Family Court Reformers of Nevada County.
“We believe that family law cases have been shuffled through court and mediation too quickly,” the group’s website reads. “We believe that life-altering decisions have been made in the absence of critical information, such as criminal background reports and input from collateral sources. We believe that domestic violence cases have been mishandled.”
Alleged issues in court include coercion, bias
Simply put, family court handles cases where parties seek court intervention to solve their family issues.
Judges hear and decide cases involving divorce (marriage dissolution), paternity, domestic violence/abuse, child custody, support and visitation. The court also provides mediation services to help parents resolve child support, child custody and visitation problems.
In Nevada County Superior Court, Department 3 is the courtroom and the presiding judge is Judge Julie McManus. The family court services department is the division that provides family law mediation services and is run by Director Paul Jaffe.
In Department 3, McManus hears cases having to do with dissolution of marriage, child custody and visitation, guardianships, juvenile dependency, and juvenile delinquency.
McManus also covers juvenile drug court and dependency drug court, but those assignments change periodically, Metroka said.
McManus is on medical leave and was unavailable for comment; see related story.
From Gallup’s perspective, the problems in family court stem from not following the law.
“The lack of information-gathering is the major problem, but also the use of coercive tactics,” she alleged.
The failure to follow domestic violence protocols is another issue, although Gallup said that has improved. She also cited ex parte communications, when the judge and the mediator discuss cases without the parents being present.
Coercion and bias are some of the allegations being leveled in the federal lawsuit filed in Sacramento by Berman.
Berman is suing McManus as having acted as an individual and outside the scope of her legal authority in his child custody case.
In the suit, which was filed on March 8, Berman alleges improper threats by McManus to take his children away without due process.
McManus also took an improperly biased stand on claims of parental alienation, and failed to read proposed orders submitted for her signature, he alleges.
Berman also alleges the counsel for the children over-billed him and made false representations to the court.
“The main thing I want is to get (McManus) off my case,” Berman said. “In family court, you have a judge with an enormous amount of power — and when it starts going bad, it becomes a problem.”
A way to constructively channel anger
“Even assuming the audit is ordered, we’re probably looking at about at least a year for any results, much less implementation of any changes,” she said. “My goal is to put pressure on the court to fix things now.”
Gallup claimed the division’s decision to bring former director Serge Aronow and former interim director Carmella Smith back as contract employees signals a reluctance to change the “dysfunctional culture.”
According to Gallup, Smith and McManus “handpicked Paul Jaffe to take over the department, as the most likely person to maintain the status quo. … It’s hard to believe anything will change when they have the same old team.”
Many parents have contacted her in the wake of the publicity surrounding her arbitration award, Gallup said.
“There are a lot of parents in the community who feel hopeless and damaged by the courts,” she said. “I want them to have something constructive to do with their frustration. We haven’t met yet, but I envision it partially as a support group.”
The group will have its inaugural get-together from 1-3 p.m. Sunday at the Madelyn Helling Library in Nevada City. Kathleen Russell, director of the Marin-based Center for Judicial Excellence, will be at the meeting.
“When you’re chronically angry, it’s toxic,” Gallup said. “It’s more constructive to get people together and ask them, what do you want to do with that (anger) … I’ve been thinking a lot about the most immediate way to pressure the court.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.