High Costs Of Family Court
Parents Say They Are Drained Of Money By Court Professionals
by Lauren Reynolds
SAN DIEGO -- Jim Wittmack's home is lined with hundreds of pictures of the two children who no longer live with him.
"The whole custody thing was about money," he said.
He has strong feelings about the family court system.
"It is very well crafted by the professionals to extort money from the parents and ramp up fees," he explained.
It's a complaint the 10News I-Team has heard several times over the past year while investigation several stories in family court.
Connie Valentine of the California Protective Parents Association said, "It's pay to play."
She said the problem is not unique to San Diego or even to California, but is nationwide.
"It's a money industry at this point; a completely unregulated money industry in which the professionals can charge what they want," she said.
The professionals include attorneys, evaluators, special masters and mediators. Sometimes one person will take on different roles in different cases. For example, a mediator in one case might be a custody evaluator in a second and a special master, or tie-breaker, in a third.
Among the higher priced services provided by psychologists in San Diego is a custody evaluation. There are a dozen psychologists routinely used in San Diego Family Court.
"The fact that they use the same 12 people over and over again just confirms that it's like a cartel," said Wittmack.
He said the professionals know each other well and refer each other work.
Wittmack had two evaluations over three years with the same psychologist. The cost was $14,000.
"You just have to come up with the money whether it exists or not. In my case, I borrowed it from my sister," he explained.
The evaluators often will not release their reports until their bill is paid; they even get judges to compel payment, the I-team learned.
The I-Team found one example out of Northern California in which an 11-year-old boy, Coby, was the center of a custody dispute. His mother was ordered to pay $2,200 upfront to a custody evaluator. In the ruling, the judge wrote, "If mother does not pay the fees ... primary custody shall be changed."
The mother did not come up with the money and she lost custody. She told the I-Team she didn't have the money and the boy's father had missed child support payments.
Valentine said, "It's a shocking case."
She reported it to the Judicial Council, which oversees California courts.
Evaluators counter that their work provides valuable insight, especially given that judges get limited time with family members involved in disputes.
Stephen Sparta, Ph.D., spoke before a gathering of family law attorneys, judges and evaluators last spring and pointed out that evaluations are thorough and can help spot the psychosis in parents. He gave examples of violent outcomes of custody battles to make his point.
"Sometimes I feel badly that people without money don't get these evaluations," he told the crowd.
The I-Team confirmed that low income families, even those with documented conflict, are not ordered to get the custody evaluations because there is nobody to pay for it. The reports are only used for families with financial means.
Since even some judges question the value, the I-Team asked Supervising Judge Lorna Alksne why they are used for people in the middle or upper classes.
She responded that parents often request or demand these evaluations hoping their side will be favored. In most cases, she said, it is the parents and their attorneys who provide the court with the names they want to be selected as the evaluator. Judges do not control the costs, but they may rule on how parents should split the bill.
Alksne also pointed out that some judges try to dissuade parents from getting the evaluations because of the time and expense involved and the fact that it does not always solve the problems relating to custody sharing arrangements.
Parents have told the I-Team that attorneys or even judges steered them into the evaluation.
One local Judge, Jeffrey Boswick, is openly critical of the process. He spoke frankly about the evaluations while giving a presentation to court professionals. The presentation was videotaped and provided to 10News.
"It's too expensive, it takes too long to do, and it often times doesn't solve anything in the case," he said.
Wittmack said he had 50-50 custody of his children and that he and his wife typically were cordial to each other until the lawyers and professionals became involved.
He said he agreed to the first custody evaluation, but made it clear that he couldn't afford the second one.
In a letter, the custody evaluator who worked on his case said Wittmack failed to pay the entire "cost of the assessment" up-front.
The evaluator wrote it "resulted in the court changing custody."
Wittmack has his pictures of his children all around him, but he only has his children every other weekend.
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