OAKLAND — One by one, parents around the Bay Area are beginning to step forward to share heart-wrenching stories of the injustices they experienced in California's family court system.
These parents have joined with thousands of others statewide to reform the family courts and protect child victims of violence and sexual abuse from judicial decisions the parents say place children in harm's way.
"I'm living proof this is happening today," said Susan, a California Family Court litigant and mother whose daughter was placed with her accused molester. "The family courts crisis is a plague and it's destroying peoples' lives."
About 58,000 children per year in the U.S. are ordered into unsupervised contact with physically or sexually abusive parents following divorce, according to experts at the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.
Many people concerned about the systemic problems with family court attended a daylong public forum Thursday at the Alameda County Conference Center.
Some compared the family court crisis to the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals because of what they call an institutional level of collusion of harm against children. Event organizers said they hoped the forum would inspire families who have survived traumatic family court ordeals to come forward in order to shed more light on the breakdown of the family court system.
Participants, including family court litigants, child advocates and the general public, gathered to discuss the family court crisis and take a closer look at problems and solutions. The forum's session featured public testimony by speakers and a panel of legal experts and attorneys who gave free general legal advice about how to best protect themselves in the family court.
The event was organized by the Center for Judicial Excellence in partnership with UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law, California Protective Parents Association, Justice for Children, California Safe Child Coalition, Child Abuse Solutions and the Incest Survivors Speakers' Bureau.
Their collective goal was to push to improve the judiciary's public accountability and strengthen and maintain the integrity of the courts.
In addition, the center produced a documentary, Family Court Crisis: Our Children at Risk, and screened a 12-minute clip at the forum.
The American Judges Association found that approximately 70 percent of batterers succeed in convincing authorities that the victims of their abuse are unfit or undeserving of sole custody.
Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele and actress Nancy Lee Grahn from ABC's "General Hospital" are family court reform advocates and also participated in the panel discussions.
Steele announced a new initiative to help better protect vulnerable children in family court. It includes her support of the passage of new proposed legislation by Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, to reform family court. Her initiative also calls for the passage of Sen. Mark Leno's request for a legislative audit of Marin and Sacramento Family Courts. She also is pushing for ombudsman positions to be created in the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, where parents can go for help and to plead their case.
"The system has to change in California and across the country," Steele said.
Grahn did not talk in detail about her $1 million family court battle but said her experience was "maddening and perplexing."
She was upset to learn that some laws were unfair and that some court procedures were abusive and treated children like hostages or assets that need to be divided up.
After a three-year ordeal, Grahn finally gained custody of her 11-year-old daughter. She now works with community organizations and travels the state to meet with lawmakers and inform them about the about pitfalls of the family law system.
"I met people who were in similar or worse situations," Grahn said. "There are thousands of women who were protective parents and their children were taken away and handed over to their abusers."
For more information visit, www.centerforjudicialexcellence.org
Reach Kamika Dunlap at 510-208-6448 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.