Families for Justice

Families for Justice is a non-profit organization that assists children and their parents experiencing the trauma of marital dissolution in the court system. 

We provide advice and advocacy to ensure justice for families caught up in the matrimonial and family courts.  We are working for a faster, less costly, less distressing and less difficult system.  We gather data about cases and proceedings for a greater knowledge of what works for families, where the system appears to have failed or, in some instances, where it has harmed families.  We advocate vigorously within the court system, the NY State Legislature and with state and US agencies and other organizations for major reforms in the court system. 

An important aspect of our work is to increase awareness of the problems in family courts in New York and nationwide.  We are currently working on a documentary film project to illustrate the breadth and depth of the problems. In particular, through the exposition of dramatic and real events, we hope to increase public understanding of the growing incidence of ³scandal² cases in which court processes contribute to harming families and children. 

If you know of any case histories worthy of inclusion in the documentary, we would be very interested in speaking with you.  Please contact us at the telephone number below.

If you'd like to contact us with questions or comments, you can reach Families for Justice via:

P.O. BOX 136    NEW  YORK, NEW  YORK    10028
Phone:  212-722-6390       Fax:  212-410-9539

Reform News
A small group of litigant advocates, including Families for Justice representatives were invited to meet with Judge Sondra Miller and several other Commission members in a private meeting on the last day of testimony for the Commission.
Advocates pushes for a diminution or elimination of the role of law guardians and forensic evaluators and major changes in rules of engagement and accountability when such fiduciaries are used. Additional dialog with the Commission was also requested. …Litigant representatives including Families for Justice have also been invited to participate with the Center fro Court Innovation in assisting efforts to create a Model Court in New York state…



Losing Battle: A judge denied Shockome custody of her kids


Fighting Over the Kids



Battered spouses take aim at a controversial custody strategy.

By Sarah Childress


Sept. 25, 2006 issue - It took 6 years for Genia Shockome to gather the courage to leave her husband, Tim. He pushed her, kicked her and insulted her almost from the moment they married in 1994, she says. She tried to start over with their children when the family moved from Texas to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It didn't last long. Tim called her constantly at work and, after they split up, pounded on her door and screamed obscenities, she alleged in a complaint filed in 2001. Tim was charged with harassment. As part of a plea deal, Tim agreed to a stay-away order—but denies ever abusing her or the children. In custody hearings over the past six years, Tim has insisted that he's been a good father, and argued that Genia's allegations poisoned their children against him. The judge sided with Tim. This summer he was granted full custody of the kids, now 11 and 9. Genia was barred from contacting them.

Genia is one of many parents nationwide who have lost custody due to a controversial concept known as parental alienation. Under the theory, children fear or reject one parent because they have been corrupted or coached to lie by the other. Parental alienation is now the leading defense for parent’s accused of abuse in custody cases, according to domestic-violence advocates. And it's working. The few current studies done on the subject consider only small samples. But according to one 2004 survey in Massachusetts by Harvard's Jay Silverman, 54% of custody cases involving documented spousal abuse were decided in favor of the alleged batterers. Parental alienation was used as an argument in nearly every case.

This year the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges denounced the theory as "junk science," and at least 4 states have passed legislation to curtail its use in custody cases involving allegations of domestic violence. "It's really been a cancer in the family courts," says Richard Ducote, an attorney in Pittsburgh who has represented abuse victims in custody cases for 22 years. "It's made it really difficult for parents to protect their kids. If you ask for protection, you're deemed a vindictive, alienating parent."

It may seem hard to fathom how a judge could award custody to a parent accused of abuse. But battered spouses often don't file criminal charges—so no judicial finding is made against their mates—and family-court judges typically aren't trained to referee the complexities of abusive relationships. (Although men are sometimes battered by their wives, women are the victims in the majority of abuse cases.) Judges often throw out documented evidence of spousal abuse, arguing that it is irrelevant in a custody case. And experts say that family-court judges often look favorably on the alleged abuser because he seems more willing to share custody than the accuser—who is hell-bent on keeping the father away from the child. According to a survey by Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University at San Bernardino, attorneys will caution battered spouses against reporting abuse in court so they don't lose their children. (Stahly and other academics say the parental-alienation argument has more legitimacy in custody disputes that don't involve charges of abuse.)

Parental-alienation syndrome was first introduced by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s. Fathers-rights groups picked up on the idea and began trying it out in court. These groups condemn abusers. But Dan Hogan, executive director of Fathers & Families, a nonprofit group that advocates for joint custody, argues that all too often the accusers lie in order to win custody of their kids.

There's a small but growing movement to ban parental alienation in custody cases, sparked by embattled parents bonding online. They've linked with lawyers and advocates for battered spouses across the country. At least four states, including California, have laws protecting parents who make good-faith abuse allegations. Others may soon follow their lead. Greg Jacob, an attorney who takes cases for abused parents pro bono, is drafting legislation to shop to Virginia and Maryland next month. Meanwhile, parents like Genia keep fighting. "It's so hard, having my children lost," she says, her voice breaking. "This was my life—my children."

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc

The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children.
User Manual Series

Author(s):  Office on Child Abuse and Neglect
Rosenberg, Wilcox

Year Published:  2006

Appendix E - Tips for Dads
Twenty Long Distance Activities for Dads at a Distance

The Dads at a Distance Web site has been designed to help fathers who are business travelers, military men, noncustodial fathers, airline pilots, travel guides, traveling salesmen, railroad workers, truckers, professional athletes, musicians/entertainers, actors, corporate executives, and any other fathers who have to be away from their children to maintain and strengthen the relationships they have with their children while they are away.

  1. Go to the mall and have a photo of yourself put on a pillow case and then send it to your child. If you have a favorite cologne, you might want to put a little bit on the pillowcase to remind your child of you.
  2. Purchase or make stickers of your child's name and stick them over the names of a character in one of their favorite books. You also can get a picture of your child's face and place it over the character's face.
  3. Make a video or audiotape of you reading bedtime stories. Send them to your child along with the book.
  4. Arrange for flowers or pizza to be delivered to your child before or after a special event (e.g., a play, recital, or sports game). Include a note telling them how proud you are of their accomplishment.
  5. Send a package containing all the things your child will need if he or she gets sick. For example, you could send a can of chicken noodle soup, a special blanket or pillowcase, a video or audiotape wishing them a speedy recovery, crossword puzzles, or a stuffed animal.
  6. Send home a photo documentary of what you do all day when you are away. Be sure to include things like what you eat and how you travel. Things that you might think are boring, your kids will be very interested in seeing. Have your child do the same.
  7. Have a star officially named after your child.
  8. Send a postcard attack. (Send a postcard everyday for a week straight; try to send postcards from unique places.)
  9. If both you and your child have access to cell phones, then go fishing with them from a distance.
  10. Include surprises within your letters: fast food wrappers, foreign currency, pencil shavings, coasters, Band-Aids, your own art, flower petals, Sunday comics, sand, fortunes from cookies, newspaper clippings, stamps, or old shoe laces.
  11. If both you and your child have access to the Internet, then go on a virtual field trip together. Be sure to use a chat program so you can communicate with each other while looking at the Web sites. A couple of places to start would be NASA's Web site at http://www.nasa.gov or the PBS Web site at http://www.pbs.org.
  12. Find unique things to write your letters on, for example, things your child likes—a favorite color of paper, stickers, or pictures of things they like; fun objects—coaster, napkins, paper tray liners at restaurants, air sickness bags, old handkerchiefs, or pictures of you or of favorite spots; paper cut into special shapes (holiday shapes like shamrocks or hearts); or puzzles (cut your finished letter into pieces; try sending one piece at a time).
  13. Send home some money so that your child can go to the ice cream parlor. Be sure to send a special letter along that can only be read at the ice cream parlor. If you both have access to cell phones, then you can both be at a ice cream parlor talking over your ice cream.
  14. Write a newsletter (have a regular issue of your own family newsletter with columns about each child, family events, and exciting news).
  15. If your child does not already have access to a speakerphone, then buy one. Set the phone in the middle of the room, and you will be able to have dinner with them, be there as they brush their teeth, and get ready for bed.
  16. Start a letter and take it with you throughout the day. Add a sentence every now and then and be sure to add where you are when you write the different sentences (i.e., an elevator, taxi, or café).
  17. Play Internet games together like Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune. Other games that can be found on the Internet include golf, card games, chess, checkers, and strategy games.
  18. Make a package that contains cookie cutters and the non-perishable ingredients of your child's favorite cookie so you can "help" them bake while you are away
  19. Choose a photo from your photo album that you can send to your child and then write a letter explaining the events surrounding it. Also, if both you and your child have access to the Internet, have a family home page.
  20. Begin a life's lessons booklet. Each week write down a few of the lessons you have learned in life and how you learned those lessons. When the booklet is full, send it to your child to use as he or she begins or continues the journey of life.

Before you leave home next time, hide some treasure (notes of appreciation, videos of you reading stories, candy, or toys) around the house. Be sure to draw a treasure map of where you have hidden these things, and then mail it home. If your child has a portable phone, then you can talk to them and give hints as they hunt for the treasure. If you are not living with your child, you can still do this activity by mailing the treasures ahead of time to the person who is taking care of your child.

More activities and resources for long distance dads and their families can be found at Dads at a Distance Web site at http://www.daads.com.

The National Long Distance Relationship Building Institute. (2001). 20 long distance activities for dads at a distance [On-line]. Available: http://www.fambooks.com/daads/fathering.html.


Breaking the Silence:Children's Stories

PBS Documentary:

Family Courts Failure to Protect Children From Abusers: Abusers Routinely Favored in Custody Battles -- Taking Away Battered Women’s Kids


Thursday, October 20, 2005 at 10 pm ET on PBS (check local listings)


This powerful new PBS documentary chronicles the impact of domestic violence on children and the recurring failings of family courts across the country to protect them from their abusers.

In stark and often poignant interviews, children and battered mothers tell their stories of abuse at home and continued trauma within the courts.

The one-hour special also features interviews with domestic violence experts, attorneys and judges who reveal the disturbing frequency in which abusers are winning custody of their children and why these miscarriages of justice continue to occur.

Features interviews with New York Yankees Manager Joe Torre, who dealt with domestic violence as a child, and in 2003, started the Safe-at-Home Foundation to help educate people about the issue; and Walter Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Parade magazine, who recounts the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father.

Co-Produced by Tatge/Lasseur Productions and Connecticut Public Television.
Underwritten by The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation




(Transcript of remarks.)

MS. DUFF: Good afternoon. My name is Patricia Duff. I want to thank the commission for allowing me to appear today and for attempting the Herculean task of fixing a very broken system.

Over the last year, as more scandal and news of various problems with the court system had begun to emerge, the integrity of the system has come into question in the public's mind. Thankfully this has been acknowledged by the chief justice and by others in leadership positions, and it is why we are here today.

For some of us, however, it is through the painful and senseless difficulties of making one's own way through a marital dissolution in the New York courts that we have come to discover how ill the system is, how little justice is dispensed from our state's courts and worst of all, how these problems fail our families and our children in profound ways that have yet to be measured…

Over the last year litigants who are often separated by their pain and grinding aspects of the process have begun to find each other to a degree I have not seen before. Too many cannot be here today because they have live cases that are still ongoing and have been prohibited from speaking here today, and many are so fearful of retaliation that they would be reluctant to come forward.

One, whom I will call JT, thought she was living the American dream. She immigrated to the United States, became a medical doctor, and eventually had a baby girl from a relationship that did not lead to marriage. She was thrilled to be the child's primary caregiver, although she allowed the father to see the baby girl whenever the father wanted.

Starting when the child was 14 months old, through a series of orders and conferences over a three year period, without a hearing or the testimony of a single witness, physical custody of the baby girl was turned over to the father so that the mother now sees her 4-year-old daughter one week, out of three.

There was a law guardian and forensic psychological evaluator, one who has often been appointed in matrimonial cases. There were reports that during this process the mother exhibited anger and the mother's concerns over the child's new, aberrant behavior were used against her as evidence of her anger.

Is it possible that the courts can allow multiple hearings and conferences on numerous issues while holding in abeyance the obvious question of who has primary responsibility for day-to-day care of the child? Why is it acceptable to courts to have two parents spending their family assets and income, not to mention the emotional stress, of several years of litigation when a swift determination of primary care and custody would settle so many issues for the child and allow stability and continuity of care? (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: Another mother, who is a financial services professional, took primary care of her daughter until the age of 5, when the father sued for custody. The parents had been split for a year. There was a guardian and forensics. The law guardian has been assigned to many cases we know of. The mother lost custody of the child despite the fact the child was doing fine in the mother's care.

After winning custody and relegating the mother to alternate weekend visits, the father then further curtailed the mother's rights by filing a restraining order, declaring that the child was frightened of the mother and finally disallowing even telephone contact. I happened to see the mother with the child at a dance recital, which the mother was allowed to attend. I am no psychologist or law guardian, whose expertise is in the law, rather than child rearing or psychology, but this child exhibited only the wonderful joy of seeing her mother, and jumped into her arms with a wide smile. (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: The mother is now able to see her daughter only with supervised visitation, a further action that has drained her emotionally and financially. Why should this mother, who was doing fine taking primary care of her child for the first five years of the child's life, be condemned from the child's existence and forced to fight battle after exhausting battle simply to restore a small piece of the important role a mother ought to have? (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: What was so broken for this little girl that the court had to set up this elaborate parenting arrangement to fix it? There are too many stories to go into in 20 the short time allotted here, including many that involve men as their parental rights to their children are eroded out of existence. (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: My colleague, Jody Krisiloff, and many others of us have worked very diligently over the last months to put together a document which we will be presenting to you later -- it is quite comprehensive -- suggestions for matrimonial reform -- focusing on forensic and guardian reform, and what we hope will be better due process with respect to standards for primary care. We urge that custody be determined first and quickly at the onset of the divorce process and within 75 days of commencement of the proceedings. (Applause.)
MS. DUFF: Custody should, absent compelling evidence of harm, be based on the children's lives as they existed before the hostilities started. (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: The child's wishes should be heard, but they should not be seen through the prism of the law guardian or forensic. (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: The court could hold an on-the-record examination of each party, within 45 to 75 days after filing a petition for divorce, to assess which parent is the primary caretaker. Visitation issues should be worked out in consideration of the respective involvement of the parties prior to dissolution and the child's age. Just as the American Law Institute has adopted these principles, we hope the courts of New York will, too.

Unless stipulated and agreed to by the parties, the court should allow each party no more than one 15 day extension for this hearing, and only necessitated by court scheduling or medical or other family emergency. In other words, get the process moving. (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: The court will then issue a factual finding, including a preliminary statement of which parent the court finds to be the primary caregiver, within 30 days after the court conducts the examination. The children's primary residence should not be altered pending the court's determination, but a visitation schedule appropriate to the needs and age of the children should be negotiated and discussed and adopted if the parties no longer share the same residence. Mediation and settlements may be attempted during this time frame. With greater sensitivity to the history of how the parents have divided caregiving in the past, the rest of the equation becomes must easier to resolve in many, if not most, cases.

We urge a dialogue to help redefine the notion of joint custody -- acknowledging that both parents are important to a child's life, but that children cannot be divided in Solomonic fashion. (Applause.)
MS. DUFF: Particularly where there is high conflict, children should have the benefit of a stable and continuous arrangement so that the primary caregiver prior to the onset of marital dissolution continues in that role. (Applause.)

JUDGE MILLER: Miss Duff, you have one minute.

MS. DUFF: We hope that consideration of no-fault divorce is not considered without first working out a better system or determining what happens to the children.
Furthermore, several days ago a group of us signed a letter requesting litigant representation on this panel. We liken it to the role of a consumer advocate. If you were manufacturers of automobiles, having the consumer involved in the process would be quite a natural thing. We think it is high time for litigant representation in these types of deliberations. We hope you will. (Applause.)

MS. DUFF: -- seriously consider this approach. We have any number of very bright and thoughtful and deliberate people, and I think it is time that we help you move forward. Thank you. (Applause.)

For more testimony of Matrimonial Reform Commission, please visit:

NYC Transcript 10/14/04

Albany Transcript - AM 11/04/04

Albany Transcript - PM 11/04/04

White Plains 02/17/05

Buffalo and the latest New York hearing transcripts are not available yet

.Go to the Matrimonial Reform Commission site for updates:



Families for Justice


1)             Eliminate arbitrary results by emphasizing the importance of clear standards for determining child custody/support/equitable distribution, i.e., custody and time-sharing based on history of parenting prior to marital break up (Approximate Care guideline called for by the American Law Institute). 

2)             Speed up the court process ­ Complete the legal process quickly within a finite time frame, such as 45-75 days - especially custody determinations.  

3)             Improve adherence to due process and rules of law by all parties including matrimonial lawyers, Law guardians, forensics evaluators, referees, and judges.

4)             Create clear penalties and accountability to those who break the rules. 

5)             Eliminate the use of Law Guardians and Guardians ad litem except by the parties¹ choice or in extreme cases and only if held accountable to clear rules by which they may be de-certified.  Guardians should be chosen by random assignment to avoid appearance or practice of cronyism or potential ³sucking up² to judges by appointees to obtain assignments.

6)             Drastically limit psychological forensics to instances where there is evidence of real psychological issues or if one or both parties wish to bring in a forensic as an expert witness.   In practice, both Law Guardians and forensics undermine due process substantially.  Institute certification of Psychological experts with clear rules as to how they may be de-certified.

7)             Provide a safe review process of complaints and cases which allows for redress for victims of misconduct, including better Appellate review of cases and special review in cases where there is evidence of misconduct, perhaps by a review board that includes ex-litigants.

8)             Delineate specific procedures in special circumstances such as child abuse, domestic violence or other critical situations.  Raising concerns of child abuse or domestic violence should not cause loss of custody from overturning long-standing parenting arrangements, even if the court has doubts about such allegations.

9)             Include litigant representation in current and future deliberations of court reform.

10)         Increase sunshine and transparency on all aspects of the process through collection of data on process and outcomes; provide information packets and websites to new litigants with information and helpful telephone numbers, including safe place for complaints.

11)         Create a true culture of ethics and integrity up and down the court system - Zero tolerance for questionable and unethical behavior.

12)         Improve legal practice by matrimonial bar.  Require lawyers to put settlement offers in writing to both parties.  Create real place where complaints gains t lawyers can he heard without retaliation.

13)         Increase methods for reducing court time and legal fees.    Provide mediation and alternative means of dispute resolution ­ and alternatives to representation by lawyers.   Eliminate bias against pro se litigants.  

14)         Put dignity back in the court room for both parties.     


Coming soon.


Richard Schwartz is a Daily News columnist.

Look out, divorce court

It's circle-the-wagons time at state matrimonial court. Or that's the clear impression one gets looking at the membership of a powerful panel that will decide what should be done to mend this bent, if not broken, branch of New York's judiciary. The problem? Thousands of mothers, fathers and children are victimized by a system that treats them more like cash cows than poor souls eager to get their lives back on track.

Yes, breaking up is hard to do. Especially when parents war over custody. Sadly, it's the immensely sensitive task of deciding which parent gets the children that our divorce courts often perform worst.

The ugly facts involve high-priced lawyers and psychiatrists appointed by judges to assess who should get the children. For these often politically wired professionals, divorce courts, according to Daily News scribes William Sherman and Bob Port, "are a multimillion-dollar feeding trough, enriching them with little scrutiny or oversight."

Court-assigned shrinks have ordered parents fearful of losing their children to plunk down $20,000 up front before reviewing a family's case. The lawyers whom judges appoint to represent the kids sometimes charge six figures for a single case.

Resist paying a bill and the judge may slap a lien on your home, or cite you in contempt.

It gets worse. Last year, mothers wailed on the steps of the Brooklyn courthouse when they learned that the judge who had taken their kids away, Gerald Garson, had been charged with fixing divorce cases in exchange for free trips and cigars.

To find solutions, Chief Judge Judith Kaye convened a 32-person "matrimonial commission." Reasonable enough. But the panel is stacked with judges and lawyers. Got that? The folks in the middle of the mess are supposed to clean it up.

Why not let a few former litigants join the panel?

"It would not be productive to have them on the commission," said the panel's chief, Judge Sondra Miller. She will hear complaints from former litigants, but they can't sit at the grownups' table. The attitude of this well-regarded but misguided jurist reflects the insular, elitist, arrogant mind-set of the legal establishment. If you're not in the club, butt out.

Enter Patricia Duff, whose nasty and costly split with billionaire Ronald Perelman grabbed headlines a few years back. Today, Duff is a compelling voice for matrimonial court reform. She's helping organize scores of city parents who were abused by the system and now hope to reform it. Advice to the legal geniuses: Listen to them.

Here are some of their ideas: Judges must make basic findings of custody within 75 days. End the practice of assigning lawyers to represent kids unless the child is in danger. Impose strict fee caps for court-assigned shrinks and lawyers. Blindly select professionals from prequalified lists so judges can't tap their cronies and patrons. Set stiff penalties for rule breakers.

The goal, says Duff, is to make sure the system works for the families and "isn't a gravy train for lawyers and psychiatrists."

Unfortunately, the odds of that happening aren't good, given the commission's pro-lawyer bias. Judges and lawyers tend to protect their own.

That's exactly why the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct must, by law, have members who are not lawyers. Its rulings on judges charged with wrongdoing are more credible because nonlawyers are involved.

"What sacred principal of law is there that a lay person can't grasp?" asked one divorce attorney. Common sense says include them, he said. But no one ever accused the legal system of having common sense.

Originally published on October 11, 2004

New York Post

October 15, 2004 -- New York's twisted divorce courts have become judicial labyrinth for child-custody cases "straight out of Alice in
Wonderland," angry parents told a packed public hearing in the West Village yesterday.

"I found myself for the first and only time in my life in a legal brawl, unable to extricate myself or my child from a fight which I believe was stacked against me," said Patricia Duff, who shares custody of her daughter, Caleigh, with billionaire Ronald Perelman after a bitter court battle.

"The costs, emotionally and financially, were horrific," said Duff, who has become an advocate for court reform since her headline-grabbing 1998 child-custody case.

Duff was one of several self-described victims of the system who testified before a 32-person "matrimonial commission" convened at the
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law by Chief Judge Judith Kaye.

Kaye wants an overhaul of a fractured and scandal-plagued branch of New York's judiciary, and sources said she was determined to clean up an archaic system jammed with lengthy custody battles, iffy court-awarded counsel fees, and unenforced orders.

"I spent five long years in litigation, and it was an emotional hell," Duff told The Post after the hearing.

"The system is archaic and confusing," said Duff. "Litigants are traumatized and ground down. Custody cases are a nightmare, and the
system is a mess straight out of Alice in Wonderland. I wouldn't want anyone to go through what my daughter and I went through."

Judge Judy Sheindlin ‹ a Family Court judge before making it famous as a TV jurist ‹ also called for a clean-up.

"Just because you like children, doesn't mean you'd make a good family court judge," she said, earning a standing ovation.

Court sources said the hearings were the first step in a massive overhaul.

[Click to learn more...]

"Reform is definitely needed, and we recognize that," a source said. "It has to be done, and [Kaye] is committed to making changes."

Duff said thousands of parents and kids were routinely dragged through a pitiless system that treats broken families with contempt.

While some said Kaye was a reformer, critics have called the "matrimonial commission" a smoke screen.

"It's the fox guarding the hen house," said Kim Lurie, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Family Justice, an advocacy group monitoring the hearings. Lurie said the commission was made up largely of lawyers and judges.

Other parents said the system was long overdue for a fix.

"The cesspool is overflowing," said Long Island data processor Charles Lane, 60, who was involved in a long custody battle. "The judges and lawyers are in bed together, and their feet have been brought to the fire."

Allan Simmons, 49, of Westchester, said the system had become "flooded."

"I spent $300,000 trying to get my three kids back after the judge gave custody to my wife. I haven't seen them in years."

The public hearings came in the wake of the "Brooklyn Club" case, in which Supreme Court Judge Gerald Garson was arrested for allegedly taking gifts to fix divorce cases. His arrest led to a wider investigation into
possible corruption, and his trial is set to start next year.

Overuse of Forensic Experts Criticized at Matrimonial Panel

DA Pushes for Appointment of NY Judges

New York Lawyer
January 21, 2005

By Daniel Wise
New York Law Journal

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who is conducting an investigation into judicial corruption, announced Tuesday that he favors the appointment of judges.

In an address at the Down Town Association, Mr. Hynes said he now backs a system for the appointment of judges, similar to that used for the New York Court of Appeals, "to ensure excellence in the state Supreme Court, the premier trial court in the state."

In Tuesday's address, Mr. Hynes said the level of vitriol in judicial campaigns in other states has led him to endorse the more drastic change, which would completely remove the selection of judges from the elective process.

Mr. Hynes said at the Down Town Association that he hopes to continue the probe for another two years after this fall's election. Ultimately, it will lead to disclosures that so "outrage people" that the "system cannot stand and will have to be changed," he said.

Mr. Hynes also said that a group he helped form a year ago has been pushing the state's legislative leaders to hold public hearings on the selection of judges.

Mr. Hynes' group, the Coalition for Judicial Justice, is seeking to build public support to change the way judges are selected. It has not taken a position in favor of either primaries or appointments.

An overhaul is needed, Mr. Hynes told the members of the Down Town Association, because the convention system creates "an illusion" that voters participate. Challenges to the political leaders' choices for delegates are unusual, and, Mr. Hynes said, leaders have advised him that they "instruct delegates" about which candidates to vote for.

Coalition for Reform

The 15-member coalition is an eclectic group that includes long-time supporters of an appointive system, such as Fern Schair, chairwoman of the Fund for Modern Courts; Patricia Duff and Monica Getz, leaders of groups seeking to reform the way matrimonial cases are handled; Douglas Schoen, a lawyer and principal of the political consulting firm Penn Schoen & Berland; and Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Thomas A. Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission, a group supporting more vigorous law enforcement, has participated in the organization's deliberations but not as a member.

The group has several objectives, but to date most of its work has centered on changing the way judges are selected. All the members "agree on the need to get the best people on the bench," Mr. Reppetto said.

Former Appellate Division Justice E. Leo Milonas said the group is seeking to build public support for change by "influencing the movers and shakers in the business and legal communities to take an interest in improving the judiciary."

Mr. Milonas, who formerly sat in the First Department and is now a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop, joined the organization when he was president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, which has long supported the appointment of judges.

Another member of the coalition, Charles Kolb, head of the Committee for Economic Development, a national organization that counts chief executive officers of major corporations and other prominent individuals among its members, brings considerable clout to the group's efforts, Mr. Hynes said.

Mr. Kolb's group has agreed to target New York as a state to push for change to an appointive system for judges, Mr. Hynes said.

Link to: The full story

Commission Hears the Pain of People in Divorce Courts


<![endif]> As a state commission investigating practices in New York's divorce courts held its first public hearing yesterday, the room was awash with anger and anguish.

In a full day of testimony, the commission heard the pain of parents separated from their children, the fear of women forced to spend time with the men who batter them, the frustration of fathers who said their former wives had accused them falsely, and the anxiety of mothers who said they had been punished for raising genuine concerns about their former husbands.

And there is more to come. So many people wanted to speak that the commission is scheduling another hearing in the spring in New York City, in addition to the three others it will hold in other parts of the state.

But at yesterday's hearing, at Cardozo Law School in Manhattan, some of the harshest criticism of the state's divorce courts came not from litigants, who have often been dismissed as disgruntled, but from legal insiders.

They described an expensive and slow-moving process in which the wealthy and the poor, many of whom cannot afford lawyers, get different brands of justice. And they criticized court-appointed experts, including the psychologists and psychiatrists who play a big role in courtrooms.

"Judges abdicate their judicial role," said Judith Sheindlin, the former Family Court judge who is best known for her "Judge Judy" television show. To loud applause, she criticized judges' reliance on recommendations from law guardians, court-appointed lawyers who represent children in custody cases.

"Some are wonderful, some are mediocre," she said of law guardians. "And some, since you know I'm an honest girl, can't make a living doing anything else."

Law guardians have become controversial in part because their roles are undefined. Some advocate for children's wishes in divorce cases, but others decide for themselves what is in a child's "best interests." They may conduct investigations of the parents, or recommend therapists for children, or tell judges what visiting schedules should be.

Law guardians can also add to the significant expenses of custody cases; in some instances, a family with several children has been assigned (and had to pay for) more than one guardian.

Even those who benefit from the system - law guardians themselves - testified to its flaws at the hearing.

JoAnn Douglas, known for her frequent appointment in battles between wealthy parents - including Rudolph W. Giuliani and Donna Hanover - said standards and roles for law guardians varied from county to county, and even from judge to judge.

"Some believe the law guardian is too powerful, and I agree that should not be the case," Ms. Douglas said.

Concerns about the appointment of law guardians - and about the fairness of divorce court in general - have been fueled by the arrest last year of Gerald P. Garson, a Brooklyn matrimonial judge charged with taking bribes from a lawyer, Paul Siminovsky. In return for giving the judge thousands of dollars' worth of drinks, dinners, cigars and cash, Mr. Siminovsky has testified, he received appointments as law guardian as well as advice on winning cases he had before the judge.

The judge has pleaded not guilty and is expected to go to trial next year.

The resulting decline in public confidence in the courts has been galling for Judith S. Kaye, the state's chief judge, who has a particular interest in improving justice in family and matrimonial matters.

A commission she appointed a decade ago made recommendations that led to a reduction in the time it takes to get divorced, from over two years to under one year, said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state court system.

"This is a difficult process," Mr. Bookstaver said of the barrage of criticism aimed at the system yesterday. "But Judge Kaye is acutely aware of the success of the first matrimonial commission and aware that there are areas that still need serious, thoughtful examination."

The new commission is led by Justice Sondra Miller of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, who described its goals as "reducing and eliminating trauma to parties and to children, avoiding unreasonable expenses and reducing and eliminating delays."

Many of the 32 members of the commission are judges and lawyers, and several speakers complained about its makeup. Patricia Duff, whose protracted divorce from the billionaire financier Ronald O. Perelman in 1998 prompted her to become an advocate for divorcing parents, called for the panel to add a litigant representative.

Many of the parents who spoke at the hearing were members of organized groups, including the National Coalition for Family Justice. Four women from the Voices of Women Organizing Project, a group that works on behalf of battered women, spoke about the special problems affecting victims of domestic violence.

But some speakers were simply parents who described their own excruciating experiences. One, Ed Berko, said: "I'm not an expert on anything. I know nothing, or next to nothing, about the judicial system."

But he said the system he encountered did not provide for fair hearings, did not punish perjury and seemed to encourage parties to fight bitterly from the very beginning. "Whoever throws the first blow," he said, "gets the advantage."

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By Daniel Wise
New York Law Journal
October 15, 2004

The use of mental health experts - and the reportedly excessive reliance on their testimony by judges - in hotly contested custody battles came under fire from a number of quarters yesterday at the first hearing to be conducted by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye's Matrimonial Commission.

The 32-member commission, which Chief Judge Kaye appointed in April, will conduct a top-to-bottom examination of the handling of matrimonial cases with the aim of "eliminating any unreasonable delay and expense," the commission's chairwoman, Justice Sondra Miller of the Appellate Division, Second Department, said at the hearing.

Justice Miller said the chief judge is committed to using "every means possible" to effect "any reasonable recommendations made by the commission."

In a day long-session, the commission heard testimony from 25 witnesses, including TV's "Judge Judy," Judith B. Sheindlin, a former Family Court judge; State Senator Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan; and Jo Ann Douglas, who has been appointed law guardian in many high-profile cases, including that of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Donna Hanover.

The commission will hold four more days of hearings, ending next spring.

Testifying yesterday at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Barbara Handschu, the incoming president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said the "rote response" of judges' ordering forensic examinations of family dynamics can be "overly expensive and at times
yield very limited new information."

Judges appoint forensic experts to examine family dynamics to help determine a child's best interest in custody rulings. Forensic experts are drawn from the mental health field, and may be psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers.

Where there is no history of mental illness in a family, Ms. Handschu suggested, there is no need to conduct a forensic exam.

Taking a litigant's standpoint, attorney Jody R. Krisiloff was highly critical of the quality of forensic experts she has encountered in her divorce case as well as the "heavy reliance" of judges upon the experts' recommendations. Instead of helping resolve a conflict, forensic experts
"exacerbated the situation by creating further hostilities between the parties," said Ms. Krisiloff, a class action securities lawyer at Lovell Stewart Halebian.

Some forensic experts are appointed in "case after case," she complained but there is no record of those appointments. 

Nancy Erickson, an attorney with Legal Services for New York City in Brooklyn, spoke on behalf of low-income battered women. She said many experts know "little about domestic violence" and need further training in the area. Some experts will find that battered woman have serious
emotional problems when, in fact, they are only "exhibiting a fear of their abusers," Ms. Erickson said.

Ms. Erickson also questioned whether forensic experts should make recommendations on which parent should get custody as opposed to rendering judgments on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties' parenting abilities. 


Law guardians, who are appointed to represent the interests of children in custody disputes, were brought within the ambit of the court system's rules for fiduciaries in the spring 2003, after a lengthy investigation by another commission appointed by Chief Judge Kaye. But because forensic experts are appointed directly by a judge, they do not come within the scope of the strengthened fiduciary rules. Were they hired by the law guardian, the experts would fall within the rule as "secondary appointees."

Court appointees who fall within the fiduciary rules must be chosen from a list maintained by the Office of Court Administration and can only qualify for that list if they can show compliance with OCA-defined training requirements.


Once appointed, they must report any compensation received, which is then made public. Appointees who earn more than $50,000 in a calendar year from their appointments, are disqualified from accepting new appointments the next year.

Law guardians, once appointed, remain involved in a case until it is finished and can command hefty fees. Forensic experts, whose involvement in cases is more "finite," can nonetheless submit bills of more than $50,000 in hotly contested cases, said Peter Bienstock, a co-chair of the
New York County Lawyers' Matrimonial Law Section.

Patricia Duff
, who was involved in an acrimonious divorce with Revlon magnate Ronald Perelman, said in an interview yesterday that the law guardian assigned to her case charged more than $600,000. She estimated the bill of the forensic expert to be in the $40,000 range. Ms. Duff also testified at the hearing.

Among the many other issues addressed at the hearing was the question of whether New York law should be amended to allow for a no-fault divorce.

Alton L. Abramowitz, who is the head of the New York Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said no-fault divorce will "reduce the cost, delay and trauma to the parties while freeing up judicial resources for the really important aspects of divorce
litigation" - custody and financial issues.

Mr. Abramowitz, who is a partner at Sheresky Aronson & Mayefsky, a 12-lawyer matrimonial firm, said enactment of a no-fault provision is the "cornerstone" of the New York State Bar Association's legislative agenda for the coming year. His partner, Allen Mayefsky, is a commission member.

Julie Domonkos, the executive director of My Sister's Place, a program for battered women, said changing the law to allow no-fault divorces would have "serious negative consequences" for poor women by eliminating the "only bargaining chip" many have to negotiate better terms for child
custody and the sharing of marital resources, she said.  For similar reasons, she said it is crucial that poor women be afforded lawyers, at state expense, when they are involved in divorce proceedings. Under current law, she said, indigent women are entitled to a lawyer when
their cases involve hearings on custody issues. But because divorce involves a complex set of issues, she said, custody issues are often compromised when other aspects of a divorce are being discussed without a lawyer present.

Ms. Douglas, the law guardian in Mr. Giuliani's divorce, urged that lawyers appointed as law guardians in fee generating cases be required to accept pro bono assignments in cases where the parties are too poor to afford their fees. The fees that would have been generated by the donated time, she proposed, should be credited against the $50,000 annual ceiling
on fees in the fiduciary rules.

The commission members consist of 12 judges, 18 lawyers, a doctor and a litigation advisor. The absence of lay members prompted complaints from several of the litigants who testified at the hearing.

- Daniel Wise can be reached at dwise@amlaw.com

Friday, October 15, 2004
Staten Island Advance

Divorce in New York State came under fire yesterday, as nearly 30 people testified at a public hearing about the undue cost and trauma families endure when dissolving a marriage.

The all-day hearing at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan was the first of several to be held by a 32-member panel appointed by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye in June to study and recommend reforms in the state divorce process.

Lawyers, ex-spouses and advocates for battered women, among others, addressed the panel, which is called the "matrimonial commission" and made up mostly of judges and lawyers. Judge Judy Sheindlin, known for her television show, "Judge Judy," testified, as did Patricia Duff, whose vicious custody battle with Revlon billionaire Ronald Perelman made headlines several years ago.

At times the hearing resembled a heated rally, with the audience applauding loudly and often, and even heckling or letting out the occasional "uh-huh."

"I thank you for taking on the Herculean task before you of fixing what is a very broken system," Ms. Duff told the panel. Working with an ever-growing group of lawyers and divorcing mothers, Ms. Duff has become an aggressive advocate for divorce reform since her case
ended in 2001. One recommendation she made to the panel was to require judges to award custody to the primary caregiver within 75 days, in order to assure stability in the child's life.


Much of the testimony focused on aspects of custody cases such as visitation and the use of law guardians and forensic evaluators.

"Children's wishes should be heard," said Ms. Duff. "They should not be seen through the prism of the law guardian or forensics."

In her characteristically brusque way, Judge Sheindlin also spoke about the problem of judges relying too much on law guardians' recommendations when they don't know the basis for that recommendation. She drew roaring laughter when she said, "So what's the answer?
We can't give everybody brains." Her suggestion was that anytime a law guardian makes a recommendation, he must put on the record the basis of that recommendation, such as the experts to whom he spoke and the evidence he reviewed.

Judge Sheindlin won a standing ovation with her proposal to require any judge seeking election or appointment to first pass a substantive test on family law.

"Just because you like children doesn't mean you'd make a good family court judge," she said, adding that judges who don't adequately know this area of law "really have no right to rule over the rest of people's lives."

A 47-year-old father described how he was forbidden to see his daughter unsupervised after his wife falsely accused him of abuse in order to get the upper hand in the divorce. His voice shaking, the former Navy officer and businessman told the panel, "There is no due process. No presumption of innocence, no rules of testimony, no rules of perjury," to which the audience
erupted in applause. He added that to defend himself against the allegations, he had to pay his lawyer, a law guardian, two therapists and a social worker.


Searing testimony came from Anthony DeRosa, founder of Alliance for Judicial Justice which is investigating corruption and collusion between judges and lawyers in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and is working with Ms. Duff. Calling the system "an abysmal farce," DeRosa said,
"We could believe it was inadvertent if not for vast numbers of litigants complaining of injustice."

The commission chairwoman, Appellate Judge Sondra Miller, interrupted several speakers to ask questions.  She asked a child psychiatrist and court-appointed forensic evaluator if there was such a thing as a neutral evaluator, to which he answered yes, but only to a certain degree. She asked a few people where the money might come from to appoint state-funded law
guardians for people who could not afford to pay their fees. She received only blank stares.

Several people touted alternative divorce methods, such as mediation, when a third, neutral party helps spouses reach compromises, and collaborative divorce, when both parties and their lawyers commit to resolving issues outside the court system.

To accommodate the many people who wanted to testify but couldn't, due to time constraints, Judge Miller said another public hearing will be held in Manhattan in the spring, though the date has not yet been set.  People who wish to testify must register at least 10 days in advance. Those who have pending cases cannot testify. Call the commission at (914) 997-1701, or
(914) 997-1705.

Heidi J. Shrager is a news reporter for the Advance.
She may be reached at shrager@siadvance.com


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