Reformers Target Those in Family Court System
June 1, 2011
By Liz Kellar
Emily Gallup isn’t giving up. And she isn’t going away.
The former Family Court mediator has been engaged in a protracted battle with Nevada County Superior Court’s Family Court Services after she was fired in December. She filed a grievance and won an arbitration award that had ordered an audit of Family Court, but that was overturned at the end of April.
Gallup, who is alleging the court violated state statutes and its own rules, still has a wrongful termination suit in federal court against the Nevada County Superior Court, which will likely not be heard until next April.
Over the last two weeks, Gallup has been a very visible presence on the courthouse steps, as she — and members of the advocacy group she helped found, Nevada County Family Court Reformers — has been handing out bright-orange flyers to folks heading to Family Court orientation on Tuesday mornings and to Family Court hearings on Wednesday mornings.
“I haven’t given up on my larger goal of getting this court audited,” Gallup said Tuesday. “But I think it’s going to take a lot of time, and I don’t want people to suffer needlessly in the meantime.”
Family Court handles cases where parties seek court intervention to solve their family issues. Judges hear and decide cases involving divorce, paternity, domestic violence and abuse, child custody, support and visitation. The court also provides mediation to help parents resolve child support, child custody and visitation problems.
The flyer includes “helpful reminders” about the Family Court process, Gallup said.
It advises those involved in Family Court to not allow the mediators or the court to pressure them to make an agreement they don’t really want to make; to make sure the mediator is familiar with the history of the case, and that serious underlying issues are addressed; to tell the judge if the mediator makes a recommendation to the court they do not like; and to request separate mediation if desired in cases involving domestic violence.
“This is not my opinion, it’s the law,” Gallup said of the recommendations. “This is how it should be.”
One woman, who asked to be identified only by the initials L.A.W., said she was ordered to allow visitation with her child’s father, even though he had been convicted more than once of child molestation.
“It’s supposed to be about protecting the child’s welfare, and they’re not doing that,” she said. “Not at all.”
Bessee said his fiancee experienced similar issues, and that was what prompted the pair to join the reform group.
“The continuity of the stories are scary,” he said. “People go into the system and get rolled by people who aren’t following the rules. That’s what got us involved. We’re just pleased that (Gallup) has been brave enough to do this … It’s about educating people.”
Item No. 1 on the flyer has to do with the “216 waiver,” which, according to the flyer, “gives the mediators permission to talk behind your back to the judge and minor’s counsel (an attorney that is sometimes appointed to represent the children in a case).”
“Mediators can’t talk to the judge or the minor’s counsel without both parents present,” Gallup explained. “The waiver was designed to be limited in scope. But here, they are using them as a blank check for ex parte communications. I believe there are benefits to talking behind the scenes, but the court has been misusing these forms.”
According to Gallup and Bessee, many of the people going through the Family Court system are not even aware they have signed the waivers, because they are included with the forms that make up the orientation questionnaire.
“If you’re not sure if you signed a 216 waiver, just ask,” Gallup’s flyer reads. “If you did sign it and do not want to keep it in place, tell your mediator you want to withdraw the 216 waiver from your file. You may want to put your request in writing.”
The response to the flyer’s warning was quick, Gallup said.
“I heard it was a very tense day in court last Wednesday,” she said. “A lot of people retracted their waivers.”
The Family Court Reformers will meet again from 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, June 26, at the Nevada City Library. For information, call (530) 559-0101.