Court Escaped Audit on Technicality
May 6, 2011
By Emily Gallup
The Nevada County Superior Court won a recent battle in a war that they will eventually lose. The court retained a powerful private law firm out of San Francisco to avoid having the Family Court Services Department audited. They were successful, and they were lucky to have prevailed. They knew that an audit would have uncovered many problems.
I spent the last four and a half years working as a mediator for the Nevada County Family Court, and I have watched the system fail time and again.
My job as a mediator was to help parents create custody plans that were likely to work for their children. If parents were unable to reach agreement, I was charged with making a custody recommendation to the court.
Mediators’ recommendations are important because they are usually ordered by the judge.
Although mediation was a stressful job, I found it deeply gratifying to help people navigate through difficult times. I thought I would be a mediator for the next 30 years.
In October 2009, the family court services director retired. The new director, in conjunction with the family law judge, Julie McManus, began making significant changes to our department’s protocol. I was given the impossible task of reviewing legal files, meeting with parents, and preparing recommendations for the court within one hour. I was blocked from reviewing parents’ criminal background information or making collateral contacts before making potentially life-altering recommendations to the court. I listened to the judge tell parents if they couldn’t just get along, their children might commit suicide.
I talked to my director repeatedly about these and other concerns; she told me I needed to drop it. I asked the family court judge, the human resources director, and the CEO for help. Instead of assistance, I received more pressure to keep quiet and follow the chain of command. I was given poor performance reviews, a formal reprimand, and repeated threats of termination. I was forced to file a grievance against my employer in April of 2010. I called the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for help.
The AOC is supposed to provide oversight of all California courts, but I was told they could only provide “education, not enforcement” of compliance with the law. The retaliation against me by my superiors continued to intensify: I was denied my annual raise and placed on a “Performance Improvement Plan.”
I was fired in December 2010, before the grievance procedures had even been completed. The hearing officer who heard my grievance case issued his decision in early February of 2011. The award indicated that I had raised significant concerns about the courts’ practices in good faith, and that my efforts had been met with retaliation.
The hearing officer ordered an audit of the Nevada County Family Court System, to assess its level of compliance with the law. The court fought this order and they won.
On April 29, Judge James D. Garbolino ruled that the hearing officer had overstepped his jurisdiction by ordering an audit of family court. This does not mean that an audit of family court is not necessary. It is not an endorsement of the coercive tactics the Nevada County Family Court Department has used to push families through the system as quickly as possible. It does not imply that family court has been following the law.
The court escaped an audit because of a legal technicality. It seems no hearing officer or oversight agency (such as the AOC) has the ability to rein in the judicial system when it runs amok. The Nevada County Family Court is being allowed to disregard the law without consequence.
I no longer believe that the judicial system is capable of fixing itself. With the help of other Family Court Reformers, I am now turning my attention to the legislative branch.
The Center for Judicial Excellence and Sen. Mark Leno were successful in triggering audits of Sacramento and Marin County Family Court Services. Those audits uncovered a slew of inadequately trained mediators and flimsy complaint procedures.
A recent audit of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) found corruption, as well. A computer program that was estimated to cost $240 million had actually run up a $1.9 billion bill.
Our local senator, Doug LaMalfa, is on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, and may be willing to help the Nevada County Family Court audit occur. The Family Court Reformers will be meeting with Sen. LaMalfa on May 9.
Family court systems throughout California must begin handling every case with thoroughness and competence. There should be no question that legal files will be read, relevant information will be gathered, victims will be protected, and parents and children will be treated with respect.
Until that day comes, the Family Court Reformers will be pushing for an audit, and for impartial oversight of the family court system. We invite you to join us on May 9 from noon to 6 p.m. at the March for Judicial Reform at the state Capitol building. For more information about how to get involved in the family court reform process, please go to FamilyCourtReform.org or call (530) 559-0101.
Emily Gallup is a former mediator for the Nevada County Family Court services.