My Turn: Treatment in family court is not equal

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2003

For the last five years my wife and I have been grandparents impacted by a divorce in the family. Few things are more personally draining than custody issues. For most every matrimonial vow summarily dismissed by the courts, there are extended families holding the fabrics together. Divorce touches many more lives than the total accumulation of lawyers, court officials or social workers, and for a much longer time than any one career. Which generation have you turned to in times of crisis? Government has decreed that grandparents are not assured any constitutional legal standing in custody issues, yet in ever greater numbers we are the bridges supporting those single parents.

It is said with pride that we are a nation of laws, not men. This truth is no more evident than on the courthouse steps, where justice is represented by a statue of a blindfolded woman holding a scale and our elected judges sitting on the bench are refrained from campaigning by canons of ethics. Retention is heavily based upon endorsement from their peers (sort of like the Academy Awards).

Let me paraphrase: This is a nation of laws, not people. Sound better?

For six of the seven years of my grandson's life, his father had been the sole physical and legal parent. The mother had made this choice willingly long ago. Nevertheless, the father has been vilified for years by nearly everyone attached to the system, be they court-appointed guardian ad litems (GAL), communication facilitators, DFYS personnel or police officers. Judges have been predisposed to grant every motion filed by the mother and the father nothing, even adding a tongue lashing in court, off the record, for asserting his rights. The father has now been arrested for filing false information after asking the police to stop by and check on his son out of a reasonable concern. At arraignment the judge added a condition to his release: no more filing false information reports. Again, the father's fault is predetermined.

I have personally witnessed flagrant abuses of discretionary powers in every facet of family law that I have been exposed to. DFYS personnel browbeating fathers without counsel through intimidation and threats, court-appointed professionals bringing their own baggage to work, police officers assuming the father had retained sole custody by some fluke and judges heavily reliant upon hired professionals with no oversight beyond the one who appointed them.

You would have heard from me sooner, but the father had been hesitant to suffer the probable repercussions. The family's consensus today is it is unlikely to make a difference in the outcome anymore.

We all have a bigger problem. The American family tree has been branching into unfamiliar territory for some time, yet rules governing the separation of family units are draconian at best, written and enforced today by the same people, following agendas pivoted around retying the umbilical chord.

I do have some suggestions.

First, we must remember that the court is only one branch of government. Family law rules are written in stone only because our state representatives have not applied the chisel. Contact them. Reopen the closed book of family law. Bring it into the 21st century.

Second, communicate with your attorney before court proceedings so she/he can formulate a game plan designed around your objectives.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Alaska needs to incorporate generally accepted national guidelines for court-appointed professionals. Juneau handles it in-house, with little oversight or opportunity for redress. Granted, family law can be a hornet's nest. But there is a national organization, recognized by the majority of courts, which provide a wealth of information and codes of conduct. Look it up under C.A.S.A. At present we do not utilize it. I urge we do.

• Ken Dunker is a Juneau paralegal.

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