“Hello?” She speaks in a tiny, hesitant voice. Her father interjects: “Nobody there.”
“Oh, eh,” the girl stumbles, but continues to leave her message: “Hello. . . .” She uses her grandmother’s ethnic title and continues: “I miss you. Please call me back. Love you. Bye.” At the last instant, her tone changes to a frantic scream: “I love you!” The message ends.
I recently sat three rows behind the girl and her father at a piano concert. I was surprised to see them. Her father once claimed to be blind, though he seemed to be reading the covers of the CDs for sale.
Knowing their custody case, I had concerns about his character. Seeing them at the concert prompted me to go scan the court files and learn what was happening in her case and that of her older sister.
Some of the allegations this girl’s father and mother have flung at each other may have merit, but others make me suspicious. Litigation clearly is being used as a tool of coercion and control, fueled by the wealth of a Fortune 500 company that has drawn a swarm of lawyers eager to occupy the Family Court calendar.
The case demonstrates several troubling facts about Family Court:
1. The Court is fraught with legal abuse by litigants and officials alike.
2. Conflicts-of-interest involving judges and lawyers produce a defective brand of justice.
3. Adversarial litigation often re-traumatizes troubled families.
4. Frivolous litigation makes Family Court a goldmine for a small group of lawyers (who ironically accuse this mother of being a “gold-digger”).
On May 18, 2001, at Kent County Courthouse, Family Court Associate Justice Kathleen Voccola appointed attorney Patricia Murray-Rapoza as guardian ad litem for two sisters, aged one and two.
On that same day, attorney William Holt launched a custody suit against their mother on behalf of a vice president of Textron, for whom she worked, who claimed to be the younger girl’s father.
Voccola, Murray-Rapoza, and Holt were all close to Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, Jr.
In 1979, Jeremiah was Cranston’s city solicitor under Mayor Edward DiPrete when Voccola became assistant solicitor. Holt worked with them as an administrative assistant in the mayor’s office while going to law school.
Voccola oversaw liquor licenses for the city until DiPrete became Governor in 1985 and made Voccola the State’s liquor control administrator.
Jeremiah served as executive counsel to Governor DiPrete, who appointed him to the Family Court bench in 1986 and made him Chief Judge a year later.
In 1988 – despite revelations of corruption in DiPrete’s administration – Voccola agreed to fill out the Republican ticket in a doomed race for Attorney General. She lost, but DiPrete won re-election as Governor, and in 1989, he appointed her to a coveted lifetime seat on the Family Court bench.
In 1998, DiPrete pled guilty to 18 felonies. This saved the state the cost of a trial, but it denied citizens the opportunity to learn details about his crimes and co-conspirators. The former governor spent a year in prison and lost his pension.
Jeremiah, Voccola, Holt, and Murray-Rapoza have not been linked to DiPrete’s wrongdoing.
Skip ahead to May 2, 2001. Murray-Rapoza purchased Chief Jeremiah’s Cranston office building, where both she and Holt had been tenants. The building had become an embarrassment to Jeremiah when he awarded public funds to a police group that paid him part of the grant as rent.
Murray-Rapoza bought the building. Jeremiah took back the mortgage and joked in court that she made regular payments to him.
On May 18th, Judge Voccola signed the order making Murray-Rapoza guardian ad litem for the two young sisters in a custody case that promised to pay well.
Three weeks after that, in June 2001, Textron fired its VP, Holt’s client, for cause amidst allegations against him of sexual harassment. The daughter born to him and his subordinate in 2000 grew to look like a twin of her older sister.
Today, the woman’s former husband says it was the worst day of his life when DNA proved the younger child was not his. He says he still loves the children as if both were his. He and his daughter see the younger girl and her father each week. He wants them to grow up close to each other and respecting all three parents.
When the girls were little, he thought they should stay together with their mother. But then she began travelling to other states, pursuing careers elsewhere, leaving the children in the care of their grandmother, who could not drive or speak English. He said the older woman seemed overwhelmed.
When his former wife had both girls living with her, he tells me, she “missed most of the major holidays with them and never notified the fathers that she would not be there.”
Each father went to court after Christmas 2009, when they said their daughters spent the holiday with their grandmother, but without any of their parents. Early this year, each father won temporary sole custody, though the girls were allowed to finish the school year where they were.
Now their mother lives in Texas, where she says she is married again and pregnant. She tells me she commuted to her home in Rhode Island when the children were there. She sends daily emails to the fathers, demanding to speak with each girl on the phone, but the court has forbidden her to communicate with them. Both fathers allege that she encouraged the girls to lie and be disruptive. When the court scheduled a trial for June 30th, she sent a note from her Texas obstetrician saying complications in her pregnancy made her unable to travel.
Meanwhile she says that her right to due process has been violated in both cases. She is seeking writs of certiorari from the Supreme Court.
Should we be spending public funds to sort out such interminable chaos?
The wealthy father has no lack of lawyers. The other father represents himself, though his motions appear to be prepared by the wealthy father's lawyer. The mother researches law and submits countless motions, sometimes without help of a lawyer. The cost to the state is enormous in salaries for judges, clerks, stenographers, sheriffs, and overhead. But the children have most to lose.
As far as I can tell, this is not a domestic violence case like those I usually write about--though all sides have felt abused. The mother alleges that her former supervisor, father of her younger daughter, committed domestic violence by "pushing, shoving, hitting, yelling obscenities, threats and intimidation" and (according to her daughter) made the little girl sleep in the same bed with him when he took her to hotels for his visits. Sadly, from my own study of this case over six years, I believe that only the original father seems focused on the children and their needs. The other two parents seem obsessed with litigation in a system that appears to be destroying them all.
The cost is enormous to the state and far more to the children. But some have reaped rewards.
NEXT: B. Going for the Gold