The Sunday Independent, 22 April 2001.

The Nightmare of Family Court


Stephen Baskerville

The ordeal of Mark Harris, the father sent to Pentonville prison for ten
months for waving to his children, is not an aberration. It is part of a
growing international trend whereby fathers (and sometimes mothers) have
been arrested for sending their children birthday cards, calling them on
the telephone, or seeing them in church.

Last year a father in New Hampshire was beaten to death by jail guards
after being incarcerated without trial for allegedly missing a child
support hearing of which his family claims he was never notified. A
father in British Columbia was evicted from his home, cut off from his
children, and ordered to pay more than twice his income in child and
spousal support plus court costs for a divorce to which his never
consented. He hanged himself from a tree. A mother in Massachusetts was
recently told by social workers to divorce her husband or they would
take away her children, and they did. In the same state a fathers'
rights activist claims he was dragged from his car and beaten by what
appeared to be plainclothes police and told to stop making trouble for
the courts or he would never see his son again.

These cases are the tip of a huge iceberg. In the United States, Canada,
Australia, and beyond both fathers and mothers are losing their children
in large numbers and turned into outlaws. They are subjected to
questioning about their private lives that attorney Jed Abraham has
termed an "interrogation" and incarcerated without trial. They are
jailed for failing to pay lawyers and psychotherapists they never hired
for services they never sought. Their children are taught to hate them
with the backing of government officials and used as informers against

Why is this happening?

Contrary to basic principles of free government, family courts operate
largely behind closed doors and without record of their proceedings. The
secrecy ostensibly protects family privacy, though more often it
provides a cloak to invade family privacy with impunity. "The family
court is the most powerful branch of the judiciary," writes a prominent
American judge. "The power of family court judges is almost unlimited."
American Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas once characterized them with
the term "kangaroo court."

Family courts sit at the nexus of a powerful network of lawyers,
psychotherapists, social workers, bureaucratic police, and others.
Recalling Dickens's observation that "the one great principle of the law
is to make business for itself," it may not be overly cynical to suggest
that judges and their entourage have a vested interest in separating
children from their parents.

Family courts routinely ignore basic civil liberties and international
human rights conventions. "Your job is not to become concerned about the
constitutional rights of the man that you're violating as you grant a
restraining order," American municipal court judge Richard Russell told
a judges' training seminar in 1994. "Throw him out on the street, give
him the clothes on his back and tell him, see ya around. . . . We don't
have to worry about the rights."

Family law is now criminalizing activity as basic as free speech. In
Australia it is a crime for litigants to speak publicly about family
law. A Sydney group protesting peacefully in 1998 was told "if any
people who had any involvement with family court were identified the
media and that person would be prosecuted to the fullest extent" of the
law. As in Britain, Australian family courts have closed Internet sites
operated by parents' groups.

In some American jurisdictions it is likewise a crime to criticise
judges. The former husband of singer Wynonna Judd was recently arrested
for speaking to reporters about his divorce. A father protesting outside
his Los Angeles home on Fathers' Day 1998 that he had not seen his son
in more than two years was apprehended by police for a "psychiatric
evaluation". Following his congressional testimony critical of family
courts, a Georgia father was stripped of custody of his two children,
ordered to pay lawyers he had not hired, and jailed. "We believe the
court is attempting to punish [him] for exposing the court's misconduct
to a congressional committee," said the president of a local fathers'

Family courts are now politicized by ideological agendas and attack
citizens ' groups for exercising their political rights. The Australia
Family Court publishes a book attacking fathers' groups as "a concerted
lobby of disaffected individuals". In 1998 the court's Chief Justice
publicly declared them a "sinister element". In a paper funded by the US
Justice Department, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court
Judges, an association of ostensibly impartial judges who sit on actual
cases, attacks "dangerous" fathers' groups for their political opinions
and "values" and their belief "that divorce is always harmful to

The words "divorce" and "custody" sound deceptively innocuous. We should
remind ourselves that they involve bringing the penal system into the
home for use against family members. Once we thus marshal the state
apparatus there is no reason to assume it will stop where we want it to.
"When they've taken away the fathers," warns Irish Times columnist John
Waters, "they'll take away the mothers."

Stephen Baskerville, a professor of political science at Howard
University in Washington, is spokesman for Men, Fathers, and Children
International, a coalition of fatherhood groups from 9 countries, and
serves on the board of Gendercide Watch, a human rights organization
that monitors gender-selective atrocities.

Copyright © 2001
Stephen Baskerville
Department of Political Science
Howard University Washington, DC 20059


Book Calls For Judicial Reform

Sunday Independent stories about Britain's family courts are to be
included in a new book.

American writer Nicholas Kourakos has requested copies of articles on
Mark Harris and last weeks story on Alex Newman and father Pat Punch,
who she had not seen for 32 years until two weeks ago, for inclusion in
the publication he is currently writing.

Nicholas explained: I'm writing a book about how the English speaking
countries need judicial reform.

"This is because throughout the English World - every country that was
an English colony - there is a law that says that judges can't be
investigated in their decisions. So, this gives them the privilege to
abuse the laws.

"We should be a government by the people and for the people, not a
government by the judges and for the judges."

He continued: "fathers here in the states receive the same abuse as the
men in England. "There has to be judicial reform across the English
speaking world".


Nicholas was just one of the people across the globe who contacted us in
response to stories about the family courts which have featured in the
Sunday Independent throughout April.

Just this week we received letters and emails from as far afield as
Western Australia, America and Canada, supporting Mark Harris and
calling for reforms in Britains legal system.

Bill Flores, President of The Children's Voice group in Oakvile, Canada,
said: "As an organisation advocating to children's rights, specially
their right to have an equal.meaningful and permanent relationship with
both of their parents after separation or divorce, in most cases, we
would like to express our complete shock about the justice system in

"Jailing a father for waving hello to his children is nothing else but
political persecution".

While Lynn Bentz, of Kamloops in Canada, said: "We are having the same
difficulties here in Canada regarding children losing access to one
parent, usually fathers, after separation and divorce.

"This is a terrible, terrible thing for a child and often they never
heal from it. "Please, please continue to bring this problem to the
attention of the reading public. It is vitally important."

People in Britain have also been quick to come forward with their

The Wright family, of Lancashire, said: "You are to be congratulated.


"Small wonder the judiciary are falling into disrepute when on the day
Mark Harris was jailed for ten months a child sex offender here in the
Northwest was sentenced to only eight months.

"Society needs to realise that not only do parents lose their children -
don't think it won't happen to you - but grandparents, and other
relatives in the extended family, lose contact as well.

"It is probably the most common form of child abuse in Britain today to
deny the child half of his or her history".


More than 200 write to man fined and put in prison for saying "hello" to his
own children

by Kirsty Turner

More than 200 Sunday Independent readers have helped raise the spirits
of jailed dad Mark Harris.

Letters have flooded in to London's Pentonville Prison after we revealed
how mark was jailed for ten months and fined £500 for saying "hello" to
his children and breaking injunctions restricting his contact with them.

The 36-year-old driving instructor from Plymouth said: "It's great. It
lifts your spirits and makes you realise how unjust it is when normal
people see the unfairness of it all.

"Nearly all of the letters started off with, "I read about your story in
the Sunday Independent," and I would just like to thank all your readers
for their support."


Mark's supporters have even telephoned the prison governor and the judge
who sentenced him to express their concerns.

But one particular letter touched mark more than any other.

The father of three explained: "I got one letter from an older lady who
just called herself Vi. She sent me a postal order for £2 out of her
pension and told me to get something for myself to keep my spirits up. I
would like to say a special thank you to her."

Mark is now trying to respond to all the people who included in their
addresses in the letters.

The Sunday Independent first highlighted Mark's plight earlier this
month when we revealed how he was refusing to eat or drink in protest at
his sentence.

Mark broke his protest for the sake of his children after a week and is
now almost fully recovered from the affects of his hunger strike.


At the height of his demonstration Mark's blood pressure became
dangerously high and he had trouble seeing and walking.

He also threatened to commit suicide at the earliest opportunity and was
placed in a constant observation unit. But Mark is now feeling more
positive about his situation and is awaiting a decision on his call for
bail pending his planned appeal.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Independent from Pentonville this
week; he said: "I'm doing OK. All the letters and support are really
keeping me going."