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No one wants to wind up in family court, but with over 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, it’s a familiar place for thousands of parents. Dr. Phil shines a light on the American family court system and how often it fails its citizens.
Two months ago, Katie found herself pleading with a judge to order supervised visits for her ex, Stephen, and their 9-month-old son, Wyatt. When Stephen threatened to kill their son and himself, Katie tried multiple times to get a restraining order. After Katie’s five attempts to get protection from the court, Stephen did exactly as he threatened.
Failed by the System
“Stephen and I were together for two-and-a-half years. There was verbal abuse, there was physical abuse. When I was pregnant, one time, he kneed me in my stomach. I felt like his own personal punching bag. When Wyatt was 4 months old, Stephen hit me so hard, he knocked me out. I was done. That was it. I couldn’t handle it anymore,” says Katie, 23. “Four months after I had left Stephen, I had met someone new. Stephen found out about it. He hacked into my e-mail accounts, my phone account. He was able to see who I had been text messaging. Stephen decided to take me to court for custody of Wyatt. At the same time, Stephen was making threats against my life, saying that he would hunt me down and kill me. I finally went to the police, and they told me I could file for a restraining order, so I did. The custody and the restraining order court dates were a day apart. That was when we met Judge Lemkau. Stephen was trying to tell the judge that I do drugs and I drink excessively. The judge told us to figure it out on our own, and we did. That next morning, I went for a restraining order against Stephen. The judge had said there was no credible threat."
Katie continues. “The threats escalated, and the second time I went for a restraining order, I met with a different judge. I had more proof and more evidence that Stephen was threatening me and Wyatt," she explains. "The judge felt there was no threat, so he denied it. The same day, I checked my e-mail, and I read a story that Stephen had written. There was a happy ending and a tragic ending. In the happy ending, we would have a happy family again, and the tragic ending was Stephen killing Wyatt and himself. I had gone to the police, and the police officer got me my emergency protective order. It lasted for a week.
“The next time I saw Stephen, we were in court. It was my third attempt to get my restraining order. I thought with the full restraining order, Stephen would have supervised visits with Wyatt, and Wyatt would be safe, and I would be safe. Judge Lemkau denied me. He claimed that I was lying, and I tried to plead with him. He wouldn’t listen to me. He just kept saying I was lying. The judge was just so dismissive and so cold, and I remember walking out of the court room, and Stephen was holding open the door, and he was smiling at me. It was one of those smiles like ‘Ha ha, I won. That’s it,’” Katie says.
What happened next was beyond tragic.
“A week after our court hearing, I had to bring Wyatt back to Stephen. It was court ordered,” Katie explains. “Saturday afternoon, I checked my e-mail, and there was a suicide letter in there from Stephen, saying that he was sorry for everything, he was running with Wyatt, and I was never going to see him again. He told me not to call the police, that if I did, he would shoot Wyatt.”
Softly, Katie says, “I wanted Wyatt back, and I wanted Wyatt back safe. I called 911. The police rushed over to his house, and he was already gone with Wyatt by then. He was in the area. He was watching his house. He called me, saying, ‘Why did you call the police? I told you not to. You ruined everything.’ For hours, I was trying to plead with him, tell him it didn’t have to be like this, everything would be fine, we’ll figure something out. The last phone call I got from Stephen was him screaming at me, just telling me, ‘Tell the police to get off me. Tell the police to get off me, or else I’m going to do it right here, right now.’ Wyatt’s in the background, and I can hear him screaming and crying.” With a trembling voice, she says, “I can hear Stephen start clicking his gun back, and that’s when the phone call cut out.
“Later, the detectives called me and said, ‘We’re going to come out to your house and talk to you about Wyatt.’ I was hoping that they were going to be bringing Wyatt to me that morning,” Katie says, struggling to speak. “And they came … They didn’t have Wyatt. The detectives told me that the police were chasing [Stephen], and Stephen pulled over and shot Wyatt and shot himself.
“It kills me. It kills me that I don’t have Wyatt anymore,” Katie says, wiping away her tears. “It has not gotten any easier at all. I’m angry with the judge. He could’ve done something to stop it. He chose not to do his job that day. They would both still be here if that judge would’ve just listened to me.”
Dr. Phil offers his condolences to Katie and her mother, Maria. He points out that Katie had evidence with her to show the judge — texts, e-mails and the like — to prove Stephen was unstable and dangerous.
“Every time I went into the court, they just ignored it,” she says.
“At that point, you’re out of options, right?” Dr. Phil asks. To Maria he says, “You saw this coming as well. You knew there was a credible threat here.”
“Yes,” she says. “With a protective order as evidence, a police report as evidence, a text message on my phone that backed up the e-mail, we figured that was enough evidence. Obviously, he did not read it.”
“[Stephen] wrote you a suicide note, which I have here, and it just goes on, page after page after page, which suggests to me, from a psychological perspective, that if you dug very deep with this person, you would find a lot of this sort of unedited anger and bitterness. I’m just saying, I don’t know that this isn’t knowable,” Dr. Phil tells them.
Dr. Phil reviews some excerpts from Stephen’s final words:
To whom it may concern,
If I am unable to post this on my Web site, please make sure this is made public so everyone can read this. Respect this request please. Do not chop this up. Make sure everyone can read it in its entirety. There are a lot of messages here everyone needs to read … Everyone said to give it time. Keep going to court, keep doing what you’re doing. Nobody got it. Not even Katie. I didn’t want to fight Katie. I didn’t want to fight Katie. I didn’t want shared custody of Wyatt. I wanted my family back … To Katie’s family and friends: I will see you in * hell. I held the gun; you pulled the trigger. I cried for your help. I told you this would happen. I told you to help me get my family back, but you laughed at me. You hate me? OK, well, tell me when you join me in hell … Katie, K80, Babe, my love, my * * true love, Mommy, Mama. We love you. We are watching over you. We will be by your side. Just ask and we will come. Wyatt is safe now. Be happy for him please … I’m sorry for punching you. I’m sorry I made the wrong choices. I’m sorry I didn’t fight for you.
Dr. Phil says, “This is not hard to discern in someone’s thinking, I wouldn’t think.”
Katie says neither she nor Stephen were ever evaluated by the court.
“You’re still a little bit in shock over all of this,” Dr. Phil notes. “Have you allowed yourself to grieve the loss?”
“Not yet,” she says. “It comes in waves. A lot of days, I’m angry. A lot of days, I’ll cry out of nowhere, but it hasn’t fully hit me yet. I’m scared to know what’s going to happen when it does, because I have to be there for my other son, because he doesn’t understand.”
Dr. Phil acknowledges Katie’s courage to put a face on this issue.
Katie remembers, “Eight hours after Stephen had killed himself and Wyatt, his suicide note was posted on his Facebook [profile]. He went to somebody that day and asked, ‘Can you do this for me?’ They could’ve stopped it if they knew he was going to go kill himself and Wyatt. They could’ve gone to the police, but they posted his suicide note instead. They helped kill Stephen and Wyatt.
“After Wyatt died, I decided to have him cremated, and he now sits in my mom’s house. Stephen’s mom asked me for some of Wyatt’s ashes to put with Stephen’s, and I told her no, because this is the only way I can keep Wyatt safe now. And that was the last time I ever heard from them.”
Katie feels she won’t be able to heal until justice is served. “I think after Judge Lemkau gets voted out of office, I think I will be able to start moving on. I want Judge Lemkau removed from office so he doesn’t do this to someone else. When I went to court, Judge Lemkau apologized to me. His apology was prepared. It wasn’t meaningful. It didn’t come from his heart. He only did it because his bosses were in the courtroom that day. I do not accept the judge’s apology. He said that he never meant to put any child in harm’s way, and he couldn’t have known that this was going to happen. But if he would’ve just read what I had presented to him, he would’ve known this was going to happen.”
District Attorney James Hosking joins the conversation. He’s running against Judge Lemkau. He tells Dr. Phil, “When I found out what happened with Katie and Wyatt, I had read the transcript of what Judge Lemkau had said to her, and the way he treated her, and the decision he made, and then I found out that even after Wyatt was murdered, Judge Lemkau filed his papers for his re-election. I decided that someone needed to give the people of San Bernardino County a choice and that if no one else would do it, I would step up and run against him.”
Judge Robert Lemkau was invited to the show but declined.
“Is this a problem with Judge Lemkau, or is this a problem with the system?” Dr. Phil asks James, pointing out that Katie was denied by three separated judges. “Why would you be any different? What wisdom would you bring to this?”
“Well, there are a couple things. Judge Lemkau failed to look at the evidence, or if he did, completely ignored it without stating a reason why,” James says. “If he has a reason, he hasn’t explained to anyone what he was thinking, why he supposed that she was a liar. It seems to me that he prejudged the case, because he says over and over again, ‘My supposition is that you’re lying.’ He doesn’t say, ‘You’re lying because of X, Y and Z. He just supposes that she’s lying. Second of all, just that demeanor in which he treats her, I believe, is in violation of the judicial code of ethics, which say you have to treat all litigants with respect when they’re in the courtroom, and that transcript makes clear that he was doing anything but that.”
When Alan Boinus became aware of Katie’s story, he wanted to bring attention to the crisis, so he set up protests at the courthouse to stop Lemkau’s re-election. He tells Dr. Phil, “I organized this march because the community of San Bernardino was outraged, and on a cold, winter day in Victorville, where most people don’t even know where Victorville is, we had 100 people — remarkable — to protest this judge. But it’s not just Judge Lemkau. This is endemic in the system.”
In the two weeks following baby Wyatt's murder, six other children's lives have been taken by their fathers. They all involved custody, visitation and/or child support issues.
Kathleen Russell is co-founder and consultant with the Center for Judicial Excellence and has been working for the past four years to help educate the public about the problems in family courts. She tells Dr. Phil, “What happened in Katie’s horrific case is happening in courtrooms across America, many of them domestic violence survivors. Society spends lots of resources telling women to leave their abusers, and when they do, they end up in family court. Attorneys are advising them not to mention their own abuse, the abuse of the children, because the judges don’t want to hear it, and they’re told they will lose custody of their children by reporting abuse.”
Dr. Phil clarifies, “Their attorneys are telling them, ‘You better not talk about domestic violence against yourself or your children, or you’re going to wind up losing your children’?”
“That’s correct,” Kathleen says. “Many of the judges believe that when women report abuse, they’re lying, and they’re fabricating those stories as a litigation tactic to get an edge in the custody battle. So, immediately, the court focuses on the parent trying to protect the child and blames them as an alienating parent, or parental alienation is the theory. But the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, all credible medical and legal organizations have debunked this theory as non-scientific and not credible. And they say it actually endangers the prosecution of abuse cases.”
“Here’s my position on this. I think when you’re talking about child safety, when somebody reports a threat, you have to assume it is a real threat,” Dr. Phil says. “I would rather investigate a thousand where you found there was no basis for it, than fail to investigate one situation, such as with Wyatt, where nobody steps in and does anything.”
Dr. Phil asks family law attorney, Barbara Kauffman, “What’s going on?”
Barbara says, “First of all, she went in to get a restraining order, and she’s a victim of domestic violence. In what other system does the victim have to prosecute the criminal? In family law, you do. She had been threatened. Her child was threatened. She had to prove the case. She goes in and says, ‘Please protect me,’ and she doesn’t know how. It’s he said/she said. In Katie’s case, she did everything she possibly could.”
She explains that after Katie was told to work out visitation with Stephen on her own — which she agreed to do after her first court appearance — the next judge is going to use that against her. “The next judge is going to say, ‘Well, Ma’am, you agreed. How dangerous could he be? You agreed.’ They’re not going to believe her,” she says.
Barbara also points out that Katie is not familiar with the court system, doesn’t know how to submit evidence, and wouldn’t know to call the police officer who helped her to testify, all of which make it very unfair to mothers in court trying to protect their children. “It was a five-minute hearing — a death threat of a little baby,” she says. “The system completely failed that baby and that mother. She did everything she could. It needs to get into criminal court. It needs to be treated like a crime and not like a family matter. The system is really broken, and her baby got a five-minute hearing after a death threat, and that’s a crime.”
“It is outrageous. Absolutely outrageous,” Dr. Phil says.
From A Childs Perspective
Dr. Phil meets with “Stephanie,” a teen in disguise. She bravely speaks about her experiences.
“Tell me about the court and the judge. How did that come about?” Dr. Phil asks the teen.
Dr. Phil leans in and tells Stephanie, “I’m sorry. I get it. I get it, OK? There’s no other way to put it than to say the system has failed you, and it is failing you, and I get that. We’re using this platform, we’re using your thoughts, your sentiments, your experiences, to try to raise awareness about this, to try to change this system. I am so proud of you for speaking out about this … You need to believe me when I say none of this is your fault, and we’re working on this.”
From A Childs Perspective
Dr. Phil addresses his audience, which is filled with families who have struggled in family court. Many of them have heartbreaking stories similar to Katie. Dr. Phil calls on Amy, who stands and shares her story:
“My children, Duncan and Jack, March 29 will be the year anniversary date from when they were found,” she says, struggling to hold back her tears. “I fought relentlessly for their father to continue to have supervised visits. After his sixth unsupervised visit on March 8, he failed to return them to me. He told me he was going to do this to them, but nobody listened. He failed to return them. He proceeded to,” she pauses, taking a breath, “drug them. He stabbed my youngest, and then he took the ultimate cowardly way out, and he hung himself. My babies are no longer here. They no longer have a voice. But I have to make sure that this does not happen to any other children.”
Katie wipes her tears as she listens to Amy’s story.
Amy continues. “No other parent can feel this pain, because there are no words for this pain. It is unbelievable. There’s not a second, there’s not a minute that goes by that I don’t think about them,” she says.
Amy shows a photo of Duncan and Jack, ages 7 and 9.
“Nobody listened,” Dr. Phil says.
Amy shakes her head no.