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"Reign of Terror" in Family Court

The cover story by Catherine Edwards and my own piece (below) will be published next week in Insight magazine.  

This magazine is sent to all congressional offices and media outlets, and it is influential with policy makers. 

 Stephen PS:  Once again (like every time I publish an article) my e-mail is suddenly not going out to all recipients.  So please send this to everyone you know, and apologies for resulting duplications.


Stephen Baskerville, PhD 

Department of Political Science 

Howard University 

Washington, DC  20059 





June 18, 2001 

symposium ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- Q: Are family courts prejudiced against fathers? 

Yes: Family-court judges routinely violate the legal rights of fathers and their children.        

By Stephen Baskerville        

In England a father is sentenced to 10 months in prison for waving to his children on a street. 

In Massachusetts a mother is told to divorce her husband or officers of the state will take away her children, and they do. 

Also in Massachusetts a father who opposes judicial wrongdoing is dragged from his car, assaulted by what appear to be plainclothes police and told to stop making trouble if he wants to see his son again. 

In New Hampshire a father is incarcerated without trial and beaten to death by jail guards. 

In Ontario a legally guiltless father is cut off from his children and assessed 96 percent of his salary in child and spousal support for a divorce to which he did not agree, being left with $300 a month.        

These are not isolated incidents. They proceed logically when we allow government to take children from their parents. Children today have become the state's most potent weapon for creating tyranny over their parents and the rest of us.        

Family courts are the arm of government that reaches deepest into private lives, yet they are accountable to virtually no one. "The family court is the most powerful branch of the judiciary," according to Robert Page, presiding judge of the New Jersey Family Court. "The power of family-court judges is almost unlimited." Often they operate behind closed doors, excluding even family members, and most leave no record of their proceedings.       

 Secret courts are contrary to basic principles of free government. "In the darkness of secrecy sinister interest and evil in every shape have full swing," warned political philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He also added, "Where there is no publicity there is no justice.  Publicity ... keeps the judge himself while trying under trial." Judges often claim that secrecy protects family privacy. In fact it provides a cloak for the court to invade family privacy with impunity.        

Immune from scrutiny by press and public, it is hardly surprising that family courts and ancillary bureaucracies violate constitutional rights and begin to resemble organized crime - crime so ruthless and cynical that it uses children to plunder and terrorize their parents.        

What is happening in family court is indeed little less than a reign of terror. Throughout the United States and other democracies fathers are losing their children in huge numbers, and many mothers are as well. Guiltless parents are subjected to questioning about their private lives - Jed Abraham has characterized this as an "interrogation" - and how they raise their children.        

They sometimes are arrested for telephoning their children or sending them birthday cards. They are pursued by government goons and private bounty hunters for impossible debts they never incurred. Their personal papers, bank accounts and homes must be opened and surrendered on request to government officials. Their children, with the backing of government officials, are taught to hate them and are used as informers against them. They are incarcerated without trial, charge or counsel.       

 Anything a father has said to his spouse or children can be used against him. His personal habits, movements, conversations, purchases and relationship with his children are all subject to inquiry and control by the court. Abraham describes how fathers against whom no evidence of wrongdoing is presented are ordered to submit to "plethysmographs," where an electronic sheath is placed over the penis while the father is forced to watch pornographic films involving children.        

Family law is now criminalizing rights as basic as free speech, freedom of the press, and even private conversations. An Arizona father is ordered not to criticize judges to family members. British and Australian family courts have closed Internet sites and prosecuted fathers for criticizing judges. In many American jurisdictions it is likewise a crime to criticize family court judges. 

On Fathers Day 1998, a California father planning to protest the fact that he had not seen his son in more than two years was taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation. 

The former husband of singer Wynonna Judd was recently arrested for talking to reporters about his divorce. Following his congressional testimony critical of the family courts, Jim Wagner of the Georgia Council for Childrens Rights was stripped of custody of his two children and jailed. "We believe . the court is attempting to punish Wagner for exposing the court's misconduct to a congressional committee," said Sonny Burmeister, president of the council.        

Fathers who speak out against family courts report that their children are used as weapons to silence their dissent, and attorneys regularly advise their clients not to join fathers' rights groups, speak to the press or otherwise express public criticism of judges. The fear is well founded. In a paper funded by the U.S. Justice Department the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, an association of ostensibly impartial judges who sit on actual cases, attacks fathers' groups for "patriarchal values" and advocating "the rights of fathers instead of their responsibilities," which it claims are "at odds with the safety needs of the rest of the family." The supposedly apolitical judges also object to the fathers' "message that divorce is always harmful to children" and ask, "How can we learn to counter the sound bites of fathers' rights groups?"        

Family-court judges generally are appointed and promoted by commissions dominated by bar associations and other professional groups who have an interest in maximizing the volume of litigation. The politics of family-court appointments operates according to principles of patronage that Richard A. Watson and Rondal G. Downing, authors of The Politics of the Bench and the Bar, have described as "cronyistic." Political scientist Herbert Jacob describes how "the judge occupies a vital position not only because of his role in the judicial process but also because of his control over lucrative patronage positions." Jacob cites probate courts, where positions as estate appraisers "are generally passed out to the judge's political cronies or to persons who can help his private practice." The principles are similar in family courts with which probate courts are sometimes united wherein what is passed out is control over children.        

"The one great principle of the law," wrote Dickens, "is to make business for itself." Like all courts, family courts complain of being overburdened. Yet it is clearly in their interest to be overburdened, since judicial powers and salaries, like any other, are determined by demand for their services. "Judges and staff ... should be given every consideration for salary and the other perks or other emoluments of their high office," Judge Page suggests, adding that divorce-court judges should aim to increase their volume of business. "As the court does a better job more persons will be attracted to it," he observes. He also writes, "The better the family-court system functions, the higher ... the volume of the persons served." A court "does a better job" by attracting more mothers (who file the overwhelming majority of divorces) with windfall divorce settlements.        Yet the divorce industry no longer is content with enticing mothers to divorce; it now can force them to do so. The Massachusetts News recently reported how Heidi Howard, a happily married mother, was ordered to get a restraining order against her husband and divorce him, even though she insisted that he had never been violent. When she refused, social workers seized her children. Reporter Nev Moore claims hundreds of such cases exist. In short, the government is now actively tearing apart intact families.       

 Family courts order parents to pay the fees of attorneys and other court officials they have not hired, with the threat of jail for not complying. A Virginia father, forcibly separated from his son for three years, faces jail if he cannot pay two years of his salary to a lawyer he never hired, for a divorce he never requested. The judge is using his position of public trust to operate a protection racket for the enrichment of his cronies. He has summoned a legally unimpeachable citizen and ordered him to write a check or go to jail. And the weapon he is using to do it is a child.        

Litigants long have claimed that family courts tamper with transcripts and other evidence. Recently Zed McLarnon, a forensic audio-visual expert, proved that hearing records were altered, and the Massachusetts News obtained photographic evidence confirming his claim. For his complaint McLarnon was assessed $19,500 in fees for attorneys he had not hired and jailed without trial by the same judges whose tapes were doctored. The court currently is moving to seize his house and car. His attorney claims that the court also "removed documents from his case file, falsified the case docket, refused to docket motions and hearings in the public record and withheld the public case file for nine months."        

These bureaucratic courts emerged in the early 1960s along with the divorce revolution. Their existence and virtually every problem they address - divorce, custody, child abuse, child-support enforcement, even juvenile crime - depend upon one overriding principle: removing the father from the family. Without this power, family courts could not survive, since these problems seldom appear with intact families. While mothers also fall afoul of family-court bullying, it is fathers against whom their enmity largely is directed, because fathers are their rivals.       

 The judges' contempt for both fathers and constitutional rights was openly expressed by New Jersey Municipal Court judge Richard Russell who, according to Cathy Young in her recent book Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, said at a judges' training seminar in 1994: "Your job is not to become concerned about the constitutional rights of the man that you're violating." "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." he reportedly told his colleagues.        

The words "prejudice" and "corruption" do not really convey what family courts are about. They are the linchpin of a massive political machine that thrives and grows by systematically destroying families. Within this machine individual judges are "no more than blind executors of the system's own internal laws," as Vaclav Havel has written of another kind of apparat, laws which are "far more powerful than the will of any individual." What we have, in other words, is a system of bureaucratic terror, the kind of terror that has never before been seen in the United States.

 Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University, serves as a spokesman for Men, Fathers and Children International and writes about the family-court system.


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