Courts that tear families apart without justification are goofy
Friday, November 29, 2002
Last week a man was welcomed back to his west- end Ottawa home after almost 10 months under a restraining order issued by a system that often seems designed to tear families apart.
The handling of this case by a domestic violence court was bizarre. In this column April 11, such courts were referred to not only as abominations, but in cases like this -- goofy.
With the appearance of the latest issue of P.S., the journal of the American Political Science Association, I feel less alone in focusing on the dangers and excesses of specialty courts. By publishing a work by Stephen Baskerville, a professor at Howard University in Washington, the association is acknowledging this is an area that needs attention.
For the professor, a leading campaigner for fathers and families, it meant his work had passed the test of peer review. Much of the thinking that drives the domestic court system is based on psychological publications that have not had peer review.
In his treatise, Baskerville makes the point that the unchallenged growth of the family court system in the past four decades is threatening us all. Because they are so free-wheeling and offer so few protections, they have become the most powerful courts, with the ability to reach deepest into the community. They can and do reach right into our homes and bedrooms.
They can ruin the lives of people who aren't charged with anything. Often they are people judging other people on whether or not they are good people. The definition of good is in the hands of the sitting judge.
Baskerville says these courts have a vested interest in being overburdened because that calls for expansion. The main beneficiaries of such growth are those who toil in or on the fringes of the legal community.
He quotes Charles Dickens: "The one great principle of the law is to make business for itself." Then he describes courts as a growth industry. In his view, the natural resources being eaten up by the family court industry include fatherhood and the family unit.
His academic study draws its conclusions from a huge overview, and says the situation is similar throughout the industrialized world. My focus on individual cases is intended to show what can happen to any of us. There's little protection once a specialty court focuses attention on you. These courts get around annoyances such as burden of proof, presumption of innocence and rules of evidence.
Baskerville says they violate the American Constitution. In past columns, I've asked whatever happened to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Even if you win you're burned. In the case I reported in April, the husband and wife made a trip to the Ottawa courthouse to plead for relief. They wanted to explain how his medications caused a reaction that frightened her so she called police. He was jailed, charged and dealt a restraining order. Unable to go back to his home, he couldn't help with the children. One was ill and slated for surgery.
The court allowed him to return home until April 30, but after that date the stay-away restrictions would kick back in. In effect, the court was saying he was so dangerous he couldn't be allowed near his own home, but let him go back temporarily because he was needed. I still can't think of a better word than goofy.
The couple learned Nov. 19 that the charge of domestic assault was withdrawn. For 10 months the state was practically in their bedroom, and then withdrew without so much as a sorry 'bout that. The damage? They worry their legal bill will be in the $5,000 range. He says his home-based business was put on hold by the restraining order and figures those losses at "tens of thousands."
She says the system moved into their lives and did nothing to help. The idea seemed to be to destroy. How could the system claim it was helping her, she wants to know, when it turned her into a single mom with a disabled child for 10 months? Nobody offered hands-on help.
She says she gave police a statement when she was frightened and angry. Information to be used as evidence in a court should be gathered when people are calm, she says.
In the U.S., Baskerville reports, there are 13 times more agents enforcing child support than drug laws.
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