Color of Law Custody Cases

Color of Law Custody Cases
Rhode Island and other states often violate civil rights in civil courts when officials threaten to separate children from protective parents who are their lifeline. These cases may include "color of law" abuses that push the boundaries of law. Judges who allow color of law abuse in their courtrooms are guilty of "color of office."

In Family Court, we give judges ultimate power over people’s lives while taking away their curiosity, concern, and even their ability to inquire about what is really happening in these cases. This transfers the power to guardians ad litem and lawyers. These officers of the court can convince a judge--through false allegations that are frequently off the record--to remove children, imprison innocent parents, then bankrupt them through years of frivolous motions, and forbid them to talk about it--all under color of law.

In domestic abuse custody cases, this enables the abusive parent to gain extraordinary power and control over the protective parent and the children.

Here is more information about color of law:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Lesbian Mafia

I recoiled when I first heard “Tracy” refer to Attorneys Cynthia Gifford, Cherrie Perkins, and Lise Iwon as the “Lesbian Mafia.” They are no more representative of most gay women than La Cosa Nostra is of most Italians.

But that’s how they make me feel, Tracy said.

When she and “Barbara” moved from gay-friendly Washington, D.C., to Rhode Island’s Washington County in 1991, she said their windows got pelted with eggs. The two women eventually connected with a circle of gay friends, but Tracy said her ASD symptoms often made her the butt of their jokes. Some people got to know and appreciate her quirks, her kindness, her quick mind and facility with numbers.

The lawyers who represented Tracy said that Gifford and Perkins’ intense personal involvement in this case was troubling both in chambers and in the courtroom. Last Thursday, the Gifford and Perkins entourage welcomed Iwon to Washington County Courthouse like a returning don.

Their posse deliberately sat in Tracy’s line of vision. One called out to Perkins: “Sit over here.”

“No,” she said and kept a circle of empty seats around her. “I want to really be able to concentrate on [Tracy.] Send all my good thoughts.”

Her glare put the evil eye on the defendant, who stood ramrod straight like a prisoner in the dock to hear the judge’s sentence. She was expecting the worst.

Iwon sat across the aisle from me writing on her legal pad to show that she as a lawyer -- an “officer of the court” -- was allowed to do what I as a non-lawyer was not.

Judge Debra DiSegna fell in line with them. She did not admonish Gifford or Perkins for the violations of due process that littered the case these four years. Her Decision ran over 60 pages. What she read aloud never acknowledged the errors of two prior judges. How could she? This is not a system that self-regulates, though it professes to.

She quoted from questionable documents, including one that claimed to be an agreement from a meeting Tracy maintains never happened with guardian ad litem Kerry Rafanelli. Judge DiSegna cited a mysterious document from June 29, 2009, when Gifford slid four orders under Judge Raymond Shawcross’s pen without any notice to Tracy or copies to give her in court. One document had not even been stamped by the clerk. DiSegna never mentioned Barbara’s missing green financial forms.

How does mischief like that keep happening without consequences? The judge excoriated Tracy for taking her complaints to Rhode Island’s more law-abiding Superior and Supreme Courts.

Judge DiSegna reconfirmed sole custody and placement to Barbara. Fifteen-year old “Jenny” will stay at her local high school and not be allowed to audition for the state’s preeminent school for performing artists.

Even though Barbara admitted Tracy had never assaulted her, DiSegna kept a 3-year restraining order in force for Tracy to stay away from Barbara and Jenny until December 2013.

She allowed Tracy unsupervised visits with Jenny from noon to 3 pm every other Saturday -- at least until summer, when Barbara usually sends Jenny away to camp.

DiSegna said Tracy and Jenny could have daily 10-minute phone calls, but they must not text each other. Tracy can attend Jenny’s public events as long as she stays away from Barbara. Most of those events are over -- except for a concert on May 12th.

On the day of her Decision, the judge said Tracy and Jenny would have an unsupervised visit in the law library after she privately explained her Decision to the teen.

That was when Judge DiSegna learned that Gifford and Barbara had already flaunted the Court’s instructions. They had not brought the girl to the courthouse for a 3 p.m. meeting as the judge directed. It was 3:30 when Barbara went to get Jenny.

Tracy simply left the courthouse. Later she sent me an email explaining why she did not wait to see if there might be a visit after all. By then there would be scarce time for them to meet, she wrote. More important, the Court’s Decision left Tracy in no condition to visit. It would not be good for her daughter to see her this way.

People without children or without good relationships to their children, who are not on the ASD spectrum and do not suffer post-traumatic stress disorder might not understand this.

Tracy needed to leave, she said. She knew the limits of this sort of sensory overload. She needed time to absorb the Decision. After nearly three years separated from her daughter, there could be no sweet reunion in the courthouse library, no matter what DiSegna imagined.

And what could a teenager like Jenny and a mom like Tracy say in just a 10-minute phone call? Trying to squeeze in everything that matters could tie up their stomachs day and night.

I once thought Judge DiSegna was genuinely interested in Dr. Ronitte Vilker’s insights on autism. So who prompted the judge to taunt Tracy three times in her Decision with the offensive term that the Diagnostic Manual is removing and Vilker herself avoids?

Judge DiSegna had buttressed Gifford’s demands, forcing Dr. Vilker to cancel her patients' appointments and return to court again and again, to hand over federally protected documents in violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments and Rhode Island Disciplinary Rules.

Five days have passed since the Decision, and the visitation order has arrived for Tracy to get a 3-hour unsupervised visit with Jenny and attend her performance May 12th, the day before Mother's Day. The document is a jumbled mess in Gifford's handwriting, crossed out, scribbled over, and barely legible. But the judge signed it.

This much is clear: it is a trick. The order gives Tracy's name incorrectly--the old domestic partnership name. She has no I.D. cards with that name. Four years ago she claimed her own name. This sloppy order means nothing compared to the restraining order that could take her to prison. Police will arrest her if she comes near Jenny on May 12th with only her current I.D.

This is the kind of ruse I’ve seen batterers use in this court for decades. It is calculated to trigger all Tracy's symptoms--ASD, PTSD--with no concern whatsoever for her or her daughter. As much as this teenager longs to see her mom, she will probably have to wait until she turns 18.

Raymond L.S. Patriarca, don of the New England mob, held special affection for the smallness of Rhode Island, saying that all he needed here were a few cops and judges to corrupt the entire state.

Family Court has cabals thick as thieves allowed free rein to demand exorbitant fees and to torment their enemies. If Chief Judge Haiganush Bedrosian can clean up here, she will need to end their flagrant abuse of process.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

10.S. Should Gifford, Perkins, and Rafanelli be disciplined?

Last week, I wrote this at
It was odd last month when the Rhode Island Supreme Court's Disciplinary Counsel David Curtin reportedly filed a complaint accusing Attorney Robert T. Karns of unethical conduct for twice offering his services to a tragically bereaved widow (Tracy Breton, “Lawyer faces disciplinary hearing,” The Providence Journal, March 30, 2012, Section: Rhode Island; Page A5 COURTS).

. . . . [Mr. Karns’s] offense seems minor compared to years of Family Court litigation full of blatant violations that have removed parental rights with no due process, no notice, no hearing, no evidence, no cross examination—all done in the usual way, ex parte, through so-called “emergency” orders when no emergencies existed, sometimes with DCYF involvement and behind closed doors.
If you ask most Rhode Island attorneys what they think of Family Court, they descend into locker room vulgarities -- "cesspool" is the one I hear most often.

Four years ago, when "Barbara" hired Cynthia Gifford and Cherrie Perkins to remove the parental rights of her ex-partner, "Tracy," with whom their daughter, "Jenny," wants to live, Gifford and Perkins dragged them all into a system widely abused by its own officers.

All across the state, other families are being traumatized by long, drawn-out custody cases that extract tens of thousands of dollars for officers of the court while subjecting children and parents to gut-wrenching torment.

I asked Tracy if she, a systems engineer, could analyze how the system operates. Could she draw a graph that shows the abuses of power that have become routine in Family Court?

She began with an Ideal "730 Chart" that shows the hearing dates on the left and the dates that orders are entered along the bottom. Court rules require lawyers to give 10-days' notice to those they are moving against in Family Court, but lawyers often claim there is an "emergency" and seek an ex parte hearing without the other party present.

Tracy created a thin green line for when hearings (H) are set and/or heard, whether they are properly noticed or ex parte. The Court speaks through its orders (O), and only one order is to be entered for each hearing. These orders must come no earlier than 7 days after a regular hearing and no later than 30 days after the hearing. This creates a "730 tunnel" between those dotted 7-day and 30-day lines in which orders must be signed and come into "full force and effect."

So an ideal Family Court case should look like this, with one order for each hearing. Each order falls within the 730 tunnel. (Click once on the image to enlarge):

In contrast, Tracy's rough chart of Barbara's case against her shows no orders correctly entered in the 730 tunnel for the first nine months. The judge does not even see her during that time.

It is hard for Tracy to research this record. Page after page feels like being punched in the stomach.

It sickens me, too, even though I have not had to endure the mockery she felt in and out of court. Or worse--the anguish of more than three years completely cut off from her daughter.

Attorneys Gifford, Perkins, and guardian ad litem Kerry Rafanelli, used "emergencies," ex parte hearings, and abrupt continuances to such an extent that the case is scarred with these and with orders entered "out of time" (OOT) -- months beyond the 30-day limit. They accused Tracy of violating orders that had never been properly entered. Sometimes no transcript existed. This was torture for Tracy with her high-functioning autism and need for precision and literal clarity.

Will Gifford, Perkins, and Rafanelli be disciplined for violating Rule 8.4 of the Rhode Island Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct? Probably not, though Tracy has submitted lengthy complaints to the Disciplinary Counsel and others. The Disciplinary Board and Courts punish officials for stealing money or cars (as on yesterday's front page of the Providence Journal),--but never for taking children from excellent parents.

Barbara testified that she had never seen Tracy behave the way she did at court--as if to suggest that Tracy was putting on an act to appear disabled. Perhaps Barbara still does not appreciate the damage four years of legal abuse will do to any of us.

Tracy's 730 Chart gives us a concept and a tool that could work with a few administrative adjustments. Thanks to her, we may soon be able to chart any case based simply on its docket sheet. We will finally be able to graph the evidence of color-of-law abuses in Family Court custody cases.

In an era when most important realities can be reduced to numbers, Tracy has transformed her own pain into a model for measuring legal proceedings that have long defied logic and justice. Like the stream of data available to physicians from an EKG or CT-scan, Tracy’s chart would allow judges to see clearly which officers of this court are abusing a process intended to protect children, families, and the honor of the Court.

As always, if you see errors in my information or understanding of the legal process, I welcome your corrections so we can use Tracy's 730 Chart to improve this Court. Write to me at ParentingProject@

Saturday, April 7, 2012

10.R. Closing arguments

"Jenny's" letter to "Tracy" from SIG Camp, July 27, 2009.
Wild-eyed warnings launched this case in 2008--a preemptive war that became a 4-year fiasco with little regard for the truth, the cost, or the collateral damage.

Most Family Court judges forbid me to write in “their” courtrooms. In Superior Court I once inquired if I could take notes, and the clerk studied me quizzically: Of course! Why not? She even offered me a pen.

But Family Court is a different culture, with a veiled history of unrecorded conversations and backroom secrets. So I do the best I can to copy the public files, to remember what happens in court and to write it down as soon as possible. (I always welcome corrections, documents and other evidence to comprehend these often astonishing cases.)

On Tuesday, the final day of arguments, Judge Debra DiSegna presides, attentive but visibly weary of the mess others left since that first “emergency” ex parte order of April 23rd, 2008.

All week I’ve been trying to reconstruct Tuesday’s arguments and research the legal citations to be sure I understand their significance. Let’s return to that afternoon at Washington County Courthouse.

The stage is set: a lectern poised between the two attorneys. First up to speak, “Barbara’s” lawyer, Cynthia Gifford, reads her long script at the lectern in a trembling voice for the better part of an hour. As far as I can recall, she does not clearly cite state or federal laws, court rules, findings of fact, evidence, or testimony. She beats a single drum, reminding the judge again, again, and again, that a miserable creature sits at the next table.

Her incendiary words fail to ignite any outbursts from “Tracy.” (Folk wisdom prevails: Whenever you point a finger at somebody else, three of your fingers point back at you.) Gifford accuses Tracy of bullying, scheming, invading privacy, harming a child, and having no remorse.

Gifford advises the Court on something she calls “parental competence,” but she offers no evidence of her qualifications. (The opposing attorney later notes that he has raised five children to adulthood. He has 19 grandchildren. But he chooses to focus his remarks on the law.)

Keven McKenna speaks without using the lectern. He stands beside his client, Tracy, and her ADA assistant. He addresses the judge and occasionally turns to acknowledge half a dozen Gifford fans seated beyond Gifford’s partner, Attorney Cherrie Perkins.

The judge must decide this case based only on the law, McKenna says. He refers to “Jenny’s” birth certificate that names her birth mother, Barbara, and her adoptive mother, Tracy, as natural parents with equal rights. He cites the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Santosky v. Kramer (No. 80-5889) (455 U.S. 745 753 1982) that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child.

He cites King v. King, 114 A.2d 329 333 A.2d 135 (R.I. 1975) that age-change itself constitutes a significant material change of circumstance sufficient to warrant the trial court to reopen prior orders of custody. He reminds the court that four years is forever in the life of Jenny, who has aged from 11 to 15 while this case dragged on. King also holds that the testimony of a 12-year-old child is highly material.

McKenna notes that Parrillo v. Parrillo, 554 A.2d 1043 (R.I. 1989) assures jurisdiction since “the circumstances and conditions that existed when custody was decided have been changed or altered.”

Gallagher v. Dutton, 895 A.2d 124 (R.I. 2006) shows one parent using a restraining order “as a hammer to justify” not letting the other parent share significantly in the child’s life. As a result, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial justice’s decision “to award sole custody and physical placement” to the parent who had been hammered out of the child’s life.

In Pettinato v. Pettinato, 582 A.2d 913-14 (R.I. 1990) the state Supreme Court established a list of factors that must be weighed in an analysis of the best interest of the child when deciding custody:
1. The wishes of the child’s parent or parents regarding the child’s custody.

2. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference.

3. The interaction and interrelationship of the child with the child’s parent or parents, the child’s siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest.

4. The child’s adjustment to the child’s home, school, and community.

5. The mental and physical health of all individuals involved.

6. The stability of the child’s home environment.

7. The moral fitness of the child’s parents.

8. The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate a close and continuous parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent.
Jenny’s stated preference from the beginning was to live with Tracy. McKenna notes that two witnesses, both of them parents, one a psychologist, have testified that they do not consider Tracy a danger to Jenny or to other children.

McKenna avers that Tracy, Barbara and both their homes meet the Pettinato factors--except for the last one:
8. The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate a close and continuous parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent.
Tracy alone meets that one.

Frankly, I distrust this eighth factor, often called the “Friendly Parent” standard. It sounds good in many cases--except where there has been a history of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or coercive control.

In those cases, the “Friendly Parent” standard has too often opened the door for felonious parents to win sole custody of children they terrorize. When the children refuse to visit them, Family Court routinely punishes these youthful attempts at self-protection. The Court has given countless children to abusive parents, who then cut off all normal communication with the parents who tried to protect them.

While I do not believe Barbara is felonious, she and her lawyers have certainly done everything they could to break Jenny and Tracy’s close relationship.

Three years ago, on June 5, 2009, Dr. Judith Lubiner sent an email to both mothers:
I will be writing a letter to Judge Shawcross letting him know that [Jenny’s] stated preference is to live with [Tracy]. . . . I am hopeful that [Jenny] will feel better knowing that someone has expressed her wishes to the judge.
Lubiner’s exercise in truth-telling apparently provoked some pushback; ten days later she sent another email:
I regret that I impulsively agreed to do something that, upon consideration, believe was outside the boundaries of my role.
A month later, Jenny wrote letters to Lubiner and Barbara from the University of Texas, where Tracy had driven her to attend the Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG). It was the last summer Barbara would let her attend SIG. The 12-year-old wrote to Tracy:
Dear Mom,
Thank you so much for getting me all the way out to Texas! I know it’s been a hard year for you and you’ve been struggling to pay the bills a lot. I’d like to write this letter . . . to inform you that I am sending the black phone back to [Barbara] because I cannot stand this phone issue any longer . . . .

Another reason why I’m writing you this letter is that I’m afraid [Barbara] and possibly even Judith wont speak the truth about the letters that I sent them and I know I can trust you to speak the truth.

I don’t want to have another year like 7th grade because that was the worst year of my life . . . . There’s so many things I want to do and achieve in life! I want to improve on my violin, do good in repertory, get accepted into Walsh, etc. But I believe that the only person strong enough to help me achieve my goals in life and be my mother too is you.
Judge DiSegna offers no clue to the decision she will render on May 3rd, at 2 p.m. She informs the parties that she will meet 15-year-old “Jenny” in chambers at 3 p.m. to explain her decision directly to the young woman whose future she is now deciding.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

10.Q. Cutting the Gordian knot

Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811) from

Let's recap Tuesday at Washington County Family Court:

Everyone is angry. On the witness stand, "Barbara" has nothing nice to say about her former partner, "Tracy," and she's angry that "the blogger" has written about their daughter's positive evaluation at the Gifted Resource Center of New England (10.M. "Zealous advocates," March 14, 2012, below).

Tracy's attorney, Keven McKenna, is angry because Barbara filed an abuse complaint in 2010; Barbara's attorney, Cynthia Gifford, succeeded in getting Judge Raymond Shawcross to sign an extraordinary three-year restraining order to "protect" Barbara and Jenny from Tracy. Barbara still claims to be in fear of imminent physical danger, but admits that Tracy never even came near her.

Judge Debra DiSegna is angry at McKenna's loud, aggressive tone. She stops him and abruptly leaves the bench.

Gifford walks McKenna out and brawls in a voice everyone can hear: "When are you gonna grow up?!"

To which McKenna responds: "When are you gonna grow up?!"


Chastened, the attorneys return. Fifteen minutes later, Judge DiSegna is back on the bench with a big book. She calls the attorneys forward to discuss some finer points of law and finishes with a plea: "Do you see any way we can speed this up?"

McKenna says: "Cut the Gordian knot. You have authority to do it."

Aha! A classical reference that means "to cut right to the heart of the matter without wasting time on external details" the way Alexander the Great did with a single stroke of his sword, cutting an intricate knot tied by King Gordius of Phrygia, because an oracle said that whoever undid that knot would become ruler of Asia.

With that clarified, McKenna settles down and asks Barbara what she will do to help reunify their daughter, "Jenny," with her other mother.

Barbara is not keen on this. She says she will encourage Jenny to get counseling, though she has already testified that Jenny resists counseling because she does not trust adults.

When McKenna calls Tracy back to rebut, he asks her the same question in reverse, something like: What will you do to reunify with Jenny, but still maintain her relationship with Barbara?

Tracy promises to make colored calendars that coordinate all three schedules--as she had done for ten years--to help Jenny spend time with each mother.

She lists four steps for reunification:
First, over spring vacation, Tracy wants to take Jenny to see the girl's grandmother, "Gras," who cared for her often, but has been critically ill and anguished over the court case. (In one touching moment, McKenna asks if Barbara knows Gras, Tracy's mother. Tracy responds yes, she was "like a fourth daughter" to her.)

Second, Tracy will pick up Jenny from orchestra on Saturdays and deliver her to school on Mondays and will be free to talk with her teachers, to attend track meets and other events.

Third, Jenny should spend the summer with Tracy to make up for "two and a half years total blackout," but their daughter will be completely free to see Barbara whenever she wants. Jenny will soon drive and be able to travel easily between homes.

Fourth, Jenny should be allowed to audition for the state's performing arts high school and take her own time to explore her interests. She could even repeat tenth grade there, since she is a year ahead for her age. Let her take a break from the pressure and decide how she wants to finish her junior and senior years.

Will you make sacrifices? McKenna asks.

Yes! Tracy says: When I was called up after 9/11, I drove a thousand miles every week to see my daughter. I never missed a visit!

Tracy has a large notebook with 170 exhibits to show that she thought she and Barbara were engaged in a good-faith effort at mediation with the late Dr. Judith Lubiner.

She mentions disturbing items in the court file, including a strangely substituted order without any court stamp. (Perhaps I will return to these later.)

Near the end of the day, Tracy says she felt "deceived." Judge DiSegna stops McKenna mid-question and asks the stenographer: Did you get that? I want the record to show that she felt "deceived."

Suddenly the hearing is over, and final arguments set for April 3rd. Is the Gordian knot getting pulled tighter? Or is it about to be cut?

Friday, March 23, 2012

10.P. "This is not how I do lawyering"

Attorney Christopher Corbett's colleagues consider him mild-mannered. Born under the astrological sign of Libra, he likes to keep things in balance.

His hope to mediate this custody case has evaporated by May 9, 2008, when he finally agrees to represent "Tracy" against "Barbara." Corbett knows that the two women's financial resources are completely out of balance.

With her parents' help, Barbara can wage a costly war at Family Court, while Tracy, who had served in the U.S. Air Force after 9/11, has been hit hard by the recession in 2008. A displaced veteran, she collects unemployment insurance and drives a taxi to make ends meet while training to enter a new field.

On May 21st, Judge Laureen D'Ambra appoints Attorney Kerry Rafanelli guardian ad litem. He requires the litigants to hire his friend, psychologist Judith Lubiner. He talks about them getting psychological evaluations from yet another favored court psychologist, John Parsons. The mounting bills produce gut-wrenching terror.

Corbett knows the severe limits on Tracy's income and works through the summer to draft a three-page settlement on August 21st that preserves joint physical and legal custody "without the interim mediation offered by Mr. Rafanelli," since "we are substantially in agreement."

Rafanelli responds by summoning both mothers to his office "to schedule a joint mediation session" and adds: "At that time I will develop a comprehensive Guardian Order for entry with the Court."

Barbara's attorney, Cynthia Gifford, writes that they want to work with Rafanelli and that her client has decided Jenny will have a "no cell phone policy." The girl can talk on the landline with her other mother only once or twice a day "for a reasonable length of time -- ten or fifteen minutes," which suggests ignorance about pre-teens and about healthy parent-child relationships that encourage adolescents to talk more, not less.

Gifford and her partner, Cherrie Perkins, are fully engaged in this case. Both attend most court hearings--an unusual investment of time and money for two principals of a law firm. Gifford pleads the case; Perkins sits behind her--often accompanied by friends and family (but no longer wearing the spurs I described on January 15th).

As I research the history of the case, I find that sometimes Perkins has come to court alone--appearing solo before Judge D'Ambra on April 24th, 2008, and solo before Judge Raymond Shawcross on September 10th, 2008, after he rotated to Washington County.

Twenty days after Corbett produces the three-page settlement, Perkins ignores his work and takes a single page to court. The transcript and order show she is doing something much the same as she did with Judge D'Ambra at the start of the case (see 10.N. "A color-of-law case," March 19, 2012).
(Click once on documents to enlarge.)

At first, Judge Shawcross and Attorney Perkins talk about Attorney Rafanelli's expanding role since Judge D'Ambra appointed him on May 21st. Now he is trying to mediate between the girl's mothers.

"He is wearing many hats," says Perkins, and Judge Shawcross responds: "As long as he doesn't wear the robe because that's mine."
At the bottom of the next page, the judge asks: "Has all the discovery been completed?"

This is an important question, since the court has statutory requirements, including deadlines, for collecting evidence--the "discovery" phase. Litigants would never waive these unless both sides are confident they have collected all the evidence--clearly not true in this case.

Perkins says something she was never authorized to say: "I don't believe they're going to do any discovery, Your Honor."
"Okay," says the judge. "You waive discovery." Amazingly, he instructs Perkins to write it into the agreement.
If this were truly an agreement that the parties had reached through mediation, it ceases to be that the moment Perkins insertes: "5. The parties waive discovery."
The certification page raises other questions. I would not quibble if Attorney Perkins signed her partner's name and then scrawled her own initials beneath the certification. But if she mails the document to the opposing attorney on September 10th--the same day she appears before Judge Shawcross and modifies the supposed agreement between the parties--she clearly violates the Court's rule to notify the other side in a timely fashion before submitting orders for a judge to sign.

I'm just guessing here--based on Gifford and Perkins' signatures on their 2011 letter to the Judicial Nominating Commission:

When I go back to the original "Consent Order" of May 21, 2008, I wonder if Attorney Corbett has ever seen the document that Judge D'Ambra signed:

Tracy recalls how the escalating conflict astonishes Corbett until he explodes in Rafanelli's office: Is this what you're trying to do--cut [Tracy] completely out of [Jenny's] life, because that's what it feels like!

Finally Corbett tells Tracy: "This is not how I do lawyering." She calls the Volunteer Lawyers' Program at the Bar Association. Corbett withdraws, and Attorney Susan Pires enters her appearance on October 22, 2008.

Tracking Tracy's resourcefulness over these four years--her ability to find principled lawyers and therapists when the Court seems to be playing games without rules or umpires--resembles the way in which she had encouraged Jenny to pursue countless extraordinary opportunities in their first twelve years together.

The history of this case also shows how much Jenny lost by being forbidden to freely communicate with this mother during her teenage years.

Artwork from a book "Tracy" and "Jenny" worked on together.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

10.O. Overcoming fear

I was washing dishes tonight, listening to Rhode Island Public Radio, when a tragic story reminded me of court today . . .

Last month in Florida, a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, 28, followed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was visiting his father's friend in a gated community.

Zimmerman claimed he was afraid of the teen and phoned 911:
There's a real suspicious guy...looks like he's up to no good....on drugs or something....he's just staring, looking at all the houses, looking at me.... coming towards his hand in his waistband, and he's a black male....something's wrong with him....I don't know what his deal is....
The police dispatcher warned Zimmerman not to follow the young man: "We don't need you to do that."

But Zimmerman followed anyway in his SUV, got out with his 9 millimeter handgun and killed the 17-year-old, claiming it was self-defense. The dead youth held only a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

That's what fear does.

"Barbara" says she was so fearful of her former partner, "Tracy," that she hired a law firm to win sole custody of their daughter, "Jenny."

I can see the courtroom again: Barbara's lawyer, Cynthia Gifford, wants her client to talk more on the witness stand about fear--all the bad things that might happen if Tracy and their daughter resume their close relationship.

Tracy's attorney, Keven McKenna, objects to the speculative narrative. Judge Debra DiSegna sustains his objection.

Barbara claims that Jenny is much better now with Tracy out of her life, but admits there are those odd moments when Jenny seems sad and says stuff like, It's not something you can help me with.

McKenna begins his cross examination by impugning Barbara's credibility, getting her to admit an embarrassingly false assertion in her "Complaint for Custody" four years ago.

Barbara conceived and gave birth to Jenny the old-fashioned way. The child's father willingly gave up his paternity rights so his friend, Tracy, could formally adopt the baby. Both mothers' names appear as parents on her birth certificate. The child's full name includes both their surnames.

McKenna also asserts that they successfully co-parented Jenny for twelve years.

He introduces a notebook of emails as if to suggest that the one Barbara seized and Gifford pored over for days with Dr. Vilker was (as Vilker suggested it might be) an aberration and not representative of a long list of positive emails between Tracy and her daughter.

Barbara is annoyed by "the blogging." She says it is biased.

It is true that I, as author of the blog, am offended--not by Barbara, but by the lawyers who dragged her here to make their living. I am frankly troubled by the damage adversarial litigation does to families, the sarcasm from both sides, the games of Gotcha that degrade everyone in the room.

I write about color-of-law custody cases at Family Court because I am paying for them with my taxes, and they need to end. They have done lasting damage to children and families for no good reason but to enrich a privileged guild.

In this case, maybe the only way out, ironically, is to let Jenny be independent, to set her free of the lawyers, the emergency ex parte motions and miscellaneous complaints that have trapped her and her mothers here through all her teen years.

This much is certain: Tracy and Barbara have an amazing daughter. I suspect that once she is independent, she will find ways to build healthy relationships with each of them.

Her love may succeed in finally overcoming fear.

"Jenny" made this picture in 2008.

Monday, March 19, 2012

10.N. A color-of-law case

There appears to be no record of some critical proceedings in this case -- such as the first day, April 23rd, 2008, when Judge Laureen D'Ambra switched "Jenny" from joint custody with both mothers to sole custody with Barbara. (The change was drastic, but that date never appears on the docket sheet.)

Jenny's two mothers, "Barbara" and "Tracy," had entirely different plans for the 23rd -- a Wednesday, when Barbara normally finished work early.

Tracy says she had made an appointment a few weeks earlier for both of them and their daughter to meet Attorney Christopher Corbett, who advertised mediation services in Options Magazine to the LGBT community. Tracy was to pick up Jenny from school and meet Barbara at Corbett's office for a free initial interview at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23rd, to consider working with him on their family's issues.

Barbara had another plan: On April 22nd, she met with Attorneys Cynthia Gifford and Cherrie Perkins to work on a "Motion for Ex Parte Relief," a 12-point "Affidavit in Support of Emergency Order," a 24-point "Miscellaneous Complaint for Custody and Other Relief," and a partially completed list of her bank accounts, income and expenses.

On the 23rd, without notifying Tracy, Gifford and Perkins persuaded Judge D'Ambra to sign an emergency ex parte order awarding Barbara sole custody of Jenny. The documents they prepared are in the court file and entered on the docket sheet the following day. Apparently no record was kept of what they told the judge.
(Click once on documents to enlarge.)
That afternoon, as Tracy and Jenny arrived at Corbett's office, Gifford and Perkins were preparing a subpoena summoning Tracy to a hearing one month later on May 21st and informing her that "the Court has already issued Orders pending the hearing as set forth in the attached Ex Parte Order."

A transcript tells what happened the next day, on the 24th, when attorney Perkins appeared alone at a second ex parte hearing and asked Judge D'Ambra to give Barbara complete control over Tracy's contact with their daughter.

Here's how Perkins portrayed Tracy's actions the previous day:
Your Honor, after I was here yesterday, we informed our client [Barbara] of the court order and gave her a certified copy. We did advise her to contact the Defendant [Tracy]. . . and tell her that she'd retained counsel and give our name and tell her that there had been an order entered; and upon hearing that, the Defendant became a little upset and removed the child from school early, and this was not her day to have the child. . . . The Defendant took her to an attorney's office, which would be a violation of the order . . . . My office received a call . . . from attorney Chris Corbett, saying that he was sitting with the Defendant at the time, which would lead me to believe the minor child was there with him . . . . We left a message [for Corbett] this morning saying if you're going to enter your appearance, you should get down to Washington County Court . . . .
Still hoping to mediate, Corbett waited two weeks before entering his appearance as Tracy's lawyer on May 9th. He and Tracy worked that summer on a settlement, which Barbara and her attorneys rejected. The court hearings were all held without Corbett, and Tracy never met Judge D'Ambra.

Gifford and Perkins had composed the April 23rd order, but Judge D'Ambra inserted additional words: "pending a hearing on the motions" on May 21st. That hearing never occurred, though a key order was signed that day.

Shortly after noon on May 16th Gifford and Perkins faxed a "Consent Order" (perhaps to Corbett) purporting to reflect a hearing five days later on May 21st, "without the taking of testimony." Whether or not the scrawl identified as Corbett's signature was authentic, Judge D'Ambra signed the document that appointed attorney Kerry Rafanelli to be guardian ad litem for Jenny.

Though the judge apparently wrote "8/13" for the next hearing, Rafanelli was back in court on June 24th with his boilerplate order drawn up for the judge's signature, granting him all-encompassing authority without clarifying the cost or setting a limit on the tens of thousands of dollars he could charge Jenny's mothers while exerting complete control over their lives as guardian ad litem.
The Court defines this role in the broadest possible terms. The abuse of power by guardians ad litem , the damage they do to children and families, and their enormous bills are some of the most common complaints against Family Court.

Six days after Judge D'Ambra signed that order, Rafanelli wrote to Tracy and Barbara, once again without ever discussing the cost: "At this time I think it is in the best interests of the minor child to be involved in counseling" with psychologist Judith Lubiner.

Those first nine weeks reveal the patterns that played out repeatedly and still continue in this case and other color-of-law custody cases:
1. the use of ex parte emergency motions;
2. failure to notify the other side of court hearings;
3. creating fraudulent narratives, story-lines, and court histories;
4. accusing the other side of violating court orders that were not yet entered;
5. bullying and harassing the other side;
6. creating a professional cabal to financially exploit litigants and their children.
Three years later, Dr. Lubiner sat beside Attorney Rafanelli at a hearing of the Judicial Nominating Commission, forced to listen as Tracy and other parents testified against Rafanelli's bid to become a judge. Commissioners received 69 letters of support for him--17 more than the other eight candidates combined. His pile included a 4-page letter from Lubiner, two pages from Gifford and Perkins and two each from Judge Shawcross and Judge DiSegna. Those enthusiastic accolades may have hurt as much as the attacks did, for Commissioners dropped him on their first ballot.
(The Rhode Island Monthly lionized Attorney Kerry Rafanelli and two other guardians ad litem in their October 2003 issue.)

For more on cabals of court, see the February 22 and March 16, 2012, posts at

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

10.M. Zealous advocates

The "stress" at the Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG), University of Texas, Austin

Yesterday's Providence Journal reports that six Rhode Island high schools--including three that serve some of the state's poorest students and three that are among the highest-performing high schools--have accepted state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist's challenge to have 15-year-olds tested by the Program for International Assessment (PISA) in these schools' effort to become world class educators (Jennifer D. Jordan, "Six R.I. schools to be part of global test," p. A1).

Among the six schools is the one that 15-year-old "Jenny" hoped to attend, the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing Arts (JMW) in Pawtucket (See "10.C. Jenny's dream school," below).

Five years ago, in March and April 2007, Deirdre V. Lovecky, PhD, at the Gifted Resource Center of New England, administered tests to then ten-year-old Jenny and advised her parents that Jenny "is a gifted girl who will need . . . an educational program that meets her needs for accelerated and stimulating work."

Lovecky's report is striking in its positive tone. She adds five detailed pages of specific opportunities and conveys a sense that parenting a child like Jenny is a great joy: "[Jenny's] parents might enjoy taking [Jenny] to museums, using a treasure hunt or scavenger hunt format."

One of Jenny's mothers, "Tracy," encouraged this approach, providing numerous opportunities for Jenny to do a wide range of activities, such as the Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG) at Amherst in 2007, Vassar in 2008, and the University of Texas at Austin in 2009.

Jenny looked forward to going to SIG at Bryn Mawr in 2010, but Barbara cancelled her acceptance and sent her to different camps for two entire months in the summers of 2010 and 2011, rather than letting her spend any time with Tracy. This has become a common practice of Family Court psychologists who try to "deprogram" children who are emotionally attached to one parent.

Ironically Barbara claimed that Tracy sought to control Jenny and was making her life too stressful. Meanwhile Jenny grew increasingly desperate to communicate with Tracy.

When Jenny was 12, Barbara wrote:
On Friday, October 23, 2009, I went to wake my daughter and found her fully clothed, asleep, with a new cell phone by her side.
. . . I removed the cell phone, left a note and retrieved the messages she had received the night before . . . . When [Jenny] woke and discovered the cell phone missing and my note, I tried to talk with her. She went under her covers, went rigid and I had to literally lift her off the bed to get her to school. . . .
Barbara's attorneys gave the Court these alleged text messages, which began with the girl writing to her mother, Tracy, at 6:06 pm:
I have the apps
Tracy writes back instantly:
Soooooo happy 2 hear from u mean apps for JMW? I was soooo worried about u all week not hearing from u... r u seeing Judith [Lubiner, court-ordered psychologist] 2nite or not?
Jenny responds promptly:
Yes. Im sorry 4 makin u wory. Gues what? Sensei said that he wuz bout 2 become a math teacher there but went to that other place first
Tracy uses this as a teaching moment:
really? ...see? he values the cultural arts. read the app carefully...I think u need a pic. I have some here or you take one with the photo booth on the MAC if you want so its current....yes?
It would be unfair to evaluate each mother's relationship to their daughter by contrasting Jenny's encounter with each of them in the scene Barbara portrayed.

But as I try to understand the manner in which Attorneys Cynthia Gifford and Cherrie Perkins zealously advocate for Barbara, and as I compare it to Tracy's zealous advocacy for Jenny, I am learning a lot about the games lawyers play (which I will describe in more detail later).

I could not continue to do this work if I did not believe that what happens routinely at Family Court in these disturbing custody cases will someday seem as absurd as other games that flourished once upon a time.
Paulus Hector Mair, de arts athletica, 1540s

Sunday, March 11, 2012

10.L. Every courtroom needs a ruler

On Friday afternoon two parents stand before the judge, with a lawyer between them saying one has stalked out of mediation. He angrily denies it and insists that his favorite psychologist can settle their case.

Next in line, Attorney Gifford questions her client, "Barbara," who also refuses to mediate.

What's a judge to do? At the end of a long week, the answer finally comes to me:

Let the deputy sheriff measure the nose of each litigant and lawyer every time a question is asked or answered. We will soon see which side is telling the truth.

(Pinocchio, drawn by Enrico Mazzanti for The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, 1883.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

10.K. Searching for Best Practices

Yesterday was Dr. Ronitte Vilker's final day on the witness stand.

Once again, Attorney Cynthia Gifford tried to get the psychotherapist to discredit her patient, "Tracy," with a series of hypothetical questions and misleading assertions cherry-picked from an email Tracy had sent to their daughter "Jenny" twenty-nine months ago and from a 25-page letter Tracy had sent to "Barbara" nearly four years ago.

Attorney Keven McKenna objected repeatedly, but Judge Debra DiSegna overruled him.

Dr. Vilker insisted that Gifford's questions ignored the context for Tracy's remarks and the way in which a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might normally respond to the pressure she was feeling.

Gifford tried to get Vilker to imply that Tracy could suffer from other psychiatric conditions than ASD and PTSD. Judge DiSegna pushed the HIPAA envelope by asking whether Vilker would refer her patient for further tests. Dr. Vilker's discomfort was visible.

She looked at Tracy, who nodded.

Dr. Vilker said she wanted to continue working with Tracy, who had voluntarily sought her help. She would recommend that Tracy also work with a doctor who specializes in helping patients with ASD to develop skills for examining their thoughts before expressing them in ways that may prove counterproductive.

DiSegna inquired: Could the Court order specify that Tracy must cooperate with her therapist?

Vilker responded emphatically: No! That would undermine the therapy.

Vilker said she would never return to the courtroom, and DiSegna assured her she was not subject to the Court in any way.

This important exchange underscores what I've seen over two decades of Family Court custody cases: a few psychologists are doing enormous harm to children and families by delivering Court-ordered "evaluations" as a business--similar to the testimony Attorney Gifford kept trying to extract from Dr. Vilker.

Attorney McKenna asserted that the Court is not qualified or authorized to be in the business of behavior-modification. He asked whether it is harmful for a child to be separated from a parent for two and a half years when there has been no evidence of abuse by that parent. The therapist agreed.

I have been listening to delightfully engaging interviews of David Finch, author of the new book, The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband.

David and his spouse, Kristen, describe the undeniable challenges in their relationship and how they are overcoming them together.

This raises yet another hypothetical question:

How much better off would Jenny and her parents be today if Barbara had known in advance what Dr. Vilker has learned? If only she had stayed far, far away from Gifford, Perkins, and the adversarial mindset of Family Court.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

10.J. Déjà vu all over again

Some readers thought Attorney Cynthia Gifford's subpoena of me meant I was headed to prison. Not so. As ordered, I appeared in court yesterday, where no mention was made of my subpoena. These are tricks some lawyers play to intimidate, complicate, and if possible, accumulate billable hours.

"Barbara's" attorney, Cynthia Gifford, continued her cross-examination of Dr. Ronitte Vilker. "Tracy's" attorney, Keven McKenna, continued to object, saying Gifford was raising subjects far beyond the scope of his original questions and Barbara should pay the psychologist's fees to use her as an expert. Judge Debra DiSegna denied his objections.

But the judge also pleaded with Gifford to conclude her tedious cross-examination--which involved lengthy hypotheticals calculated to get the psychologist to say her patient, Tracy, was untrustworthy, a failure as a parent, a danger to her daughter, and incapable of co-parenting with her former partner.

It was déjà vu all over again, recalling the history of another psychologist, the late Dr. Judith Lubiner, on this case nearly three years ago, which I will recount at another time.

Snow and sleet fell outside, and another expensive afternoon slipped away at the Washington County Courthouse.

Then something remarkable happened. Gifford protested, but Judge DiSegna needed to ask the doctor some questions. In that instant, the atmosphere changed from an adversarial game of Gotcha to a heartfelt conversation between the expert and the judge about how they could make the future better for Jenny.

A wasted afternoon became some of the most potentially productive minutes in this case. The clerk and stenographer agreed to stay longer as we watched a scene unfold that needs to happen more often if Family Court is to provide the wisdom and justice that good parents hope for when they come here.

Monday, February 27, 2012


While I sat outside Courtroom 1 in Washington County Courthouse last Thursday (forbidden to enter because Attorney Cynthia Gifford suddenly presented me with a subpoena), little did I know that I had become the latest "emergency" in this case. I found out today that Gifford filed an "EMERGENCY MOTION TO ADJUDGE [Tracy] IN CONTEMPT."

Gifford even imagines that these blog posts are
intended as a contact with the child [Jenny], who is able to access them from the Internet and that said Anne Grant is acting in concert with the Defendant to be in contempt of the orders of the court.
Poor Jenny! What kind of haranguing must she contend with now? The Digital Age has not been kind to her with all the apparent punishments for trying to send text messages to her mom.

So Judge DiSegna must rule on what appears to be the seventh in a series of bogus emergencies and ex parte motions (which are a favorite tactic of batterers in Family Court; Sneaky people tend to get paranoid.)

This emergency motion even suggests that I am a "friend of the Defendant." That's ironic, for I never knew "Tracy," until I heard about the legal abuse she and her daughter have been suffering.

Gifford and Perkins' shenanigans have brought this amazing mother and daughter into my life.

I would be honored if someday Tracy and Jenny became my friends.

Friday, February 24, 2012

10.H. My $11 ticket to the courtroom

(Click once to enlarge.)

As expected yesterday I finally got my subpoena, accompanied by the usual $11.00 witness fee. (Someone in our Family Court industry--that scarfs up 20.8 million taxpayer dollars in Rhode Island's 2012 budget--has a sweet sense of humor.)

The subpoena forced me to sit outside the room yesterday, so that Gifford and Perkins did not have to read my courtroom observations on this blog today. It gave us both some breathing room, more time for me to research the cabal that has been feeding off this child.

On February 29th, they will devour my documents in a fishing expedition to vilify Tracy, Jenny's lifeline Mom. Gifford will ask me questions, slowly and painstakingly, to stretch out her billable hours.

I want to cut the cost to Barbara's family by providing a few answers here:

Q: What is your name?

A: Anne (with an e) Grant

Q: What do you do?

A: I'm a retired minister and a writer.

Q: Is "Tracy" a friend of yours?

A: She is friendly. But we focus only on the Court. We do not socialize.

Q: When did you meet Tracy?

A: In 2009. Someone referred her to me after reading my book review in the Providence Journal that described narcissism in Family Court hearings. Tracy came to talk with me at the Mathewson Street Church.

Q: What did you talk about?

A: About their family history and what was happening in this case.

Q: Did you offer to help her?

A: I told her how I research cases.

Q: And what did you tell her?

A: First, I'm not a lawyer and I cannot offer any legal advice.

Q: And what else?

A: Second, I accept no money.

Q: Who pays you?

A: No one.

Q: What else did you tell her?

A: Third, I do not represent any litigant, but I try to see what the child's needs and concerns are. If Tracy wants me to do that, she must give me all the documents she can, including photographs, drawings, letters, anything that will help me understand how the Court is handling this case. Then I will access the public file at court.

Q: Anything else?

A: I will attend hearings, but not on either party's side. I will focus on the court process and how it seems to help or hurt the child. If I consider the process harmful or legally abusive, I may challenge it in my writing.

My purpose is to stop Family Court from harming children and families, to make it accountable for its actions, to end abuses by officers of the Court.

Q: What else did you tell her?

A: That I will keep what she tells me in confidence. I will not write about the case unless I believe it is in her child's best interest to expose what is happening. I will use false names. She may not agree with some of my conclusions. I will always welcome corrections from her or anyone else.

Q: Did you ever meet Jenny?

A: Yes. Whenever possible, I want to meet the children I write about.

Q: When?

A: 2009.

Q: Where? At the Temple to Music in Roger Williams Park. At Goddard Park.

A: What did you talk about?

Q: Mostly we played--some games with a ball, something like hacky sack in a sock. Jenny taught me to find crabs at the beach.

A: Did you talk with her about court?

Q: Very briefly. I told her that I research custody cases to find ways that might improve the Court's work with children. I said her ideas are important.

A: Was Tracy part of that conversation?

Q: No. I asked her to watch from a distance, said I needed to hear from Jenny in private.

A: What else did you ask Jenny?

Q: I encouraged her to talk to the court-ordered psychologist, Dr. Judith Lubiner. She said it didn't help. No one listened to her.

At this point Attorney Gifford will ask the judge to strike my answer: Hearsay! and change the subject.

Q: Why did you post old photos of Jenny online?

A: Because it helps readers understand the importance of this relationship.

Q: What about the photo from 2009? People will recognize them.

A: Anyone who recognizes them already knows that horrible rumors have been spread like slander in our community about Tracy. Somebody needs to let people know there is more to this story than what they have been told.

Q: And you think that's your job?

A: I think it's everyone's job. This Court operates with our money and in our name. If we do not speak up, then we share the shame.

Q: What about the other children in the picture? Did their parents give you permission to use that picture?

A: Yes, their mother took the picture. She said Tracy would let me use it, too.

Q: Did you take pictures of Jenny at her concerts?

A: Yes.

Q: And you gave them to Tracy?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: Because it's wrong for you to keep Tracy away from Jenny's concerts, her graduation, her track meets. At her concerts, I've seen how Jenny stands alone and searches the audience. She's looking for Tracy.

Q: When did you take this picture?

A: May 21st, 2011.

Q: Did Jenny know you were taking her picture for Tracy?

A: Yes, I told her, and her whole face lit up. She's a beautiful young woman. She deserves to live at peace with each of her mothers.

Monday, February 20, 2012

10.G. The Education of Dr. Vilker (continued)

Since we cannot show "Jenny" and her mom, "Tracy," here is a photo they both loved.
On Friday, February 10th, at Rhode Island's Washington County Courthouse, Attorney Cynthia Gifford asks psychologist Dr. Ronitte Vilker a jaw-dropping question that goes something like this: Does Tracy take any responsibility for what has happened here . . . that she has no contact with her daughter?

It is The Remorse Question: Are you sorry for your crime?

Parole boards routinely ask this of prisoners. Even those falsely accused must express remorse or remain in prison.

But the General Assembly established Family Court as a “civil” court, not a criminal court. Therein lays its recurring failure when civil lawyers fancy themselves prosecutors.

A few weeks ago, Gifford’s partner, Attorney Cherrie Perkins, whispered to me: "She’s just like a batterer."

Who? I wondered. Tracy? Gifford? It’s not unusual for batterers to taunt their victims and blame them for abusing the abusers.

This case illustrates the damage being done to children and parents by adversarial litigation in Family Court. The fact that both parents and the attorneys who initiated the case are women removes the frequent distraction of “he-said-she-said” conundrums that prevent people from seeing the systemic failures. Indeed, this one could be a case study for law students in a professional ethics class.

The docket begins on April 24th, 2008. But something mysterious happens the day before which never gets entered on the docket sheet.

Judge Laureen D’Ambra once told me that she does not allow attorneys to discuss cases with her in chambers. She wants everything on the record. In this case, she even made a note to herself: "based on [representation] of [Attorney] Perkins—Ex parte order is modified--visitation is at the discretion of the Plaintiff."

The day before on April 23rd, 2008, Attorney Gifford presented an "emergency ex parte order" for Judge D’Ambra's signature that would give her client, “Barbara,” sole custody of 11-year-old “Jenny.” The judge cautiously writes in her own requirements: that this sole custody is "pending a hearing on the motions," that "the current visitation schedule" will continue.

The next day, Gifford apparently returns with Perkins and the revised ex parte order (with no notice given to Tracy) to clarify that Tracy "shall only have visits with the child in the discretion of the Plaintiff." Judge D'Ambra signs, and her ex parte order opens the case.

"Ex parte" means that the opposing party is not represented at court. Ironically, these procedures are often intended to help victims of domestic violence.

But batterers' attorneys have learned that the best way to zealously represent a client is to claim there is an "emergency" that requires an "ex parte order." This gives them a piece of paper with a judge's signature that awards their client sole custody.

The beauty of using Family Court this way is that the judge never meets the victim, while the batterer gets a piece of paper to blanket the community and threaten legal consequences if schools or community programs allow an ostracized parent near their children.

Tracy soon becomes an outcast to everyone who had once welcomed her as an active parent in Jenny's life. These, too, are batterers' tactics: Isolation. Mind games. Psychic damage. They can devastate anyone, especially someone on the autism spectrum, as Tracy is. The baffling process of Family Court gives insiders endless opportunities to bully their opponents.

Tracy testifies that she never met Judge D'Ambra. On September 10, 2008, the next judge, Raymond Shawcross orders:
. . . the current temporary order awarding sole legal custody of [Jenny] to Plaintiff [Barbara] in no way restricts the rights of either parent from participation as [Jenny's] legal parents in all scheduled health, educational and other outside activities.
Both parents agree to timely provide the other with all pertinent information concerning said activities so as to insure full knowledge by both parents of such activities.

Shawcross allows Tracy regular visits and one phone call a day with her daughter, with no text messages. But Jenny has counted on Tracy all her life, and the girl begins sending frequent text messages. Should Tracy ignore her?

Angered by their texting, Barbara seizes the girl’s phone. Tracy gives her another. Eventually, Gifford brings a basketful of cell phones to court that Barbara has confiscated. Eventually the visits are stopped altogether. More on that later.

In 2009 Tracy seeks therapy with Dr. Vilker to cope with the court experience, the trauma, grief, and ambiguous loss.

By 2010, Shawcross says Tracy can send letters to Jenny at summer camp. A few get through. But the camp intercepts the rest and sends them unopened to Gifford, leaving the girl to worry about what could be happening to Tracy.

On that first day, April 23rd, 2008, Gifford presented a “Miscellaneous Complaint” to Judge D’Ambra, a 24-point mixture of truths and fictions. The most resounding truth in the entire document is the last point, which is probably not what Gifford intended to write about the plaintiff, “Barbara,” her client:
24. Plaintiff is fearful that the filing of this matter in the Family Court will cause Plaintiff to become more unstable and take action to further alienate the minor child all to her serious detriment.

That is exactly what happens, and now the attorneys who started it want Tracy to take responsibility for what they themselves have done, as they tried to sever Jenny from all contact with the mom who nurtured her impressive talents.

On that first mysterious day, Gifford also showed Judge D’Ambra a 25-page letter Tracy had written to her estranged partner, Barbara—-Gifford’s client. I find this letter particularly compelling. Despite the extreme wordiness and passion (consistent with Tracy’s high-functioning autism as described by Dr. Vilker) the letter pleads for greater understanding of their daughter:
It is psychologically debilitating to [Jenny] to make her feel like she cannot even come out into the yard or the curbside to see me—-with her face pressed in the window like a prisoner in her own home. (p. 2)
I learn a lot from these family histories, and sometimes see myself reflected in them, for it was my own failures as a mother that makes inspired parents endlessly fascinating to me. I see this in Tracy’s vivid descriptions and in dozens of vibrant photos of her and Jenny engaged with friends, animals, music, crafts, science, sports, and travel.

I recognize myself forty years ago when she describes Barbara coming home from work and walking past the dinner table that Tracy and Jenny had set for three:
[Jenny] said in her little 2-year old precious, innocent way with her arm out stretched eating peas off her plate “come have a seat boodle – we are eating now. . . ,” all happy and oblivious . . . . Your answer was, “Oh, I’m not hungry honey right now—you go ahead and eat.” You ignored me and walked right back into the office to get on email. Again. (p. 4)
Tracy’s frustration sounds like many marriages--indeed like my own husband pleading with me to switch gears and play with our children, not to make them feel like some dreary chore.

She describes Barbara in words that resemble my own behavior when our children were young. I empathize with career-driven parents and wonder if Barbara ever regrets having turned over her life and her child to Gifford and Perkins.

On her first day hearing this case, Judge Debra DiSegna urges mediation, but Gifford stomps her foot and adamantly shakes her head. For ten minutes at the bench, Gifford's earrings careen back and forth, back and forth. What incentive is there for her to resolve this case?

By 1988, our children were away at college. I worked at a shelter for battered women and discovered the magic of mothers like Tracy. I stood in awe of their parenting skills and watched their children depend on them like lifelines.

Then I saw how often Family Court rips vulnerable children away from proven parents who lack the money to hire lawyers, guardians ad litem, and psychologists that the Court orders them to hire when abusers fight for custody.

Dr. Vilker’s visceral experience of this Court’s power may give her an important education. Attorney Gifford wants to know if Dr. Vilker reviewed any documents about Tracy in preparing for her testimony.

Yes, says Dr. Vilker. One, but very briefly.

Do you have it with you? Gifford asks.

Vilker hesitates. Tracy’s attorney objects. Judge DiSegna overrules him.

Yes, says Vilker.

Gifford insists on seeing it.

Vilker demurs, explaining that HIPAA protects the confidentiality of a therapist’s work with a patient.

The Court overrides the law, Judge DiSegna explains. She orders the doctor to produce whatever documents she has.

This is one of the reasons the most respected psychologists, like Dr. Vilker, refuse to do evaluations for Family Court, though it is a coveted market for some.

One psychologist told me that the good he intended to do for his patient was entirely undone when Family Court twisted his words to imply exactly the opposite of what was true.

We need good therapists like Dr. Vilker to help the Court understand symptoms like Tracy’s, and also to help their colleagues confront the damage Family Court is doing to the integrity of their profession.

At one point Judge DiSegna says it might surprise Dr. Vilker to know Jenny had “confessed” that Tracy had ordered her to fail at school. Dr. Vilker says she would need more information to comment.

I suspect Dr. Vilker might have another perspective on whatever it is that Jenny actually said. But the judge sealed that document and seems to be taunting Tracy by leaking a tiny portion of it in court while withholding the rest.

Judge Shawcross did the same last time Jenny endured a grilling by lawyers in chambers only to have nothing come from it: No contact with the parent she openly longs for.

Shawcross, too, sealed her testimony, but revealed a small part, saying Jenny felt guilty—as if she were the one who caused the chaos that began in this room on April 23rd, 2008.

The irony is that Jenny and Tracy were not even here the day it started. Yet they are the ones being treated as criminals for nearly four years. And Jenny, like many children whose lives are decimated by Family Court, believes she is responsible for the persecution of this cherished parent, whom she knows to be especially vulnerable.

Does it satisfy Attorney Gifford, who started it all, to know that Jenny feels responsible?

When Dr. Vilker returns to court this Wednesday, will Gifford press to see how much confidential information she can extract from the therapist? Will she continue to intrude on Dr. Vilker’s schedule, to run up her own billable hours and run down the clock so Jenny can no longer choose her high school?

This is another common Family Court tactic for batterers—-to punish any witness who steps forward, to break down the victim’s support system, and to compound the cost for everyone.

This week I plan to write at about the cabals of court.

Then I’ll describe the cabal that lived off this case and how it ended all communication between Jenny and her lifeline mom, as Gifford predicted it would, by taking action to further alienate the minor child--all to her serious detriment.

Here's the first letter "Tracy" sent "Jenny" at camp in 2010 before her letters were intercepted and sent to Gifford and Perkins.
(Enlarge it with a single click.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

10.F. The Education of Dr. Vilker

Psychologist Ronitte Vilker came to court Friday to testify about her work with "Tracy." It is not something psychotherapists want to do, but the hearing was one of the most valuable I have seen in this courtroom.

Tracy sought out Dr. Vilker's help voluntarily. This therapist operates on a higher plane than the handful of psychologists whose patients endure (and pay for) sessions under the duress of a court order.

Vilker has been seeing Tracy since 2009. They focus on the trauma of the court proceedings that produce "ambiguous" loss and grief.

Can you define that? asks Judge Debra DiSegna.

When a child dies, Vilker explains, there is finality that allows the bereaved parent to grieve, get some closure, and gradually move on.

But Tracy has been cut off from normal communications with her daughter for years. She does not know where or how "Jenny" is or what the future holds for them. The court process never comes to a conclusion. There is no possibility of closure. This ambiguity means that healing cannot come.

Such loss is traumatic for Tracy--and certainly for Jenny as well, the doctor adds. From her work with children she asserts that Jenny will need therapy for what she is going through right now.

(Her explanation is relevant to every custody case where lawyers plunder the deepest pockets of family wealth by prolonging the process until a child ages out of the system at 18.)

What is Dr. Vilker's diagnosis of Tracy?

From her Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) she gives the code for Asperger Syndrome, noting that this name will not appear in the DSM's next edition, but probably something like High-Functioning Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Do many people have this disorder? asks Tracy's lawyer, Keven McKenna.

At M.I.T., says the doctor. ASD is common among engineers.

Only recently has our understanding evolved to recognize that these neurological wiring disorders occur on a spectrum. Higher functioning individuals can learn in childhood to compensate for symptoms, like their difficulty picking up social cues. Though Tracy was not diagnosed in childhood, her mother and uncle helped her in ways much like the therapy given to children with ASD today.

Tracy has been diligent in seeking therapy. At first she met weekly with Vilker, then twice a week and never missed a session. She has improved steadily, says the doctor. She has gained coping skills. Even in the courtroom, the doctor notes, she saw Tracy get up and stand against a wall, a technique she learned to calm herself.

I look at the stenographer . . . the sheriff . . . the judge listening intently. Vilker is describing behavior we've all seen in this courtroom.

Attorney Gifford asks which ASD characteristics do not apply to Tracy. Dr. Vilker reads through the codes: Tracy does not have any problems with language skills. She does not lack empathy. Indeed, she is well known for going above and beyond to help others, adults and especially children.

Gifford asks if Vilker has given Tracy any other diagnosis than ASD?


What is it?


Did Tracy ever say that "Barbara" abused her?

Yes. But that was not the focus of the therapy.

Gifford pursues another line of questioning. Does Vilker know Dr. Karin Huffer, who writes about Legal Abuse Syndrome--how courts traumatize litigants and how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides accommodations for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including that induced by abusive tactics in the courtroom? Vilker has heard Huffer's name, but not much else.

Then Gifford asks a question that makes my jaw drop.

(Unlike most other courts, many Family Court judges do not let people write in the courtroom. So I cannot record anything exactly.)

But Attorney Gifford asks something like: "Does Tracy take any responsibility for why she has no contact with her daughter?"


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

10.E. Accommodations in an incivil court

Attorney Cynthia Gifford was gleeful after court two weeks ago. She had rattled Tracy into giving long, involved answers that exasperated Judge DiSegna enough to scold her: "But I'm giving you accommodations!"

Not quite, for the judge does not allow Tracy's ADA assistant (under the Americans with Disabilities Act) to sit close enough to touch Tracy during cross-examination. How can the assistant overcome a nervous system that grows frantic under aggressive questioning?

The assistant's touch could break through the panic. She could slide a card into Tracy's view that reminds her: YES or NO. Touch is essential for someone with a neurological disorder.

Seating this assistant so far away is like saying to a sign-language interpreter for the deaf: "Just don't use your hands." What kind of accommodation is that?

Judge DiSegna asks repeatedly: "Do you need a break?"

The Mean Girls take charge on the breaks like troubled sixth graders--Gifford's partner, Cherrie Perkins, and her posse. They shadow Tracy if she leaves the room.

In the courtroom, Perkins clatters her bangles, smirks and stomps. Outside the courtroom, she points her finger at her head and turns it in circles.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

10. D. “You’re making me dizzy!”

Last week, Judge Debra DiSegna expressed irritation at “Jenny’s” mom, “Tracy,” who kept standing, swaying, and fidgeting while attorney Cynthia Gifford grilled her in cross-examination.

Tracy’s attorney, Keven McKenna, objected repeatedly, questioning the need for such a barrage of insinuation that appeared calculated to trigger Tracy’s symptoms of high-functioning autism. Judge DiSegna overruled McKenna and demanded answers.

Tracy’s ADA aide was not allowed to sit beside her, where she could have touched Tracy’s arm or leg to focus her back on her body in the way that helps those with neurological disorders. McKenna and the aide searched for the magnets Tracy uses to calm herself and settled for coins she could shift in her palms.

Two days later, at the Family Court’s statewide training on the neurological and psychological impact of childhood trauma, the keynote speakers cogently described what was happening to Tracy in DiSegna’s courtroom. (I’ve posted more on this conference at

Licensed clinical social worker Robert Hagberg and Dr. James Greer described how “rockers” need physical movement to “quell their overactive limbic systems” as a normal and necessary balancing function of the brain’s cerebellar vermis. When teachers (or judges) think words should be sufficient to stop this behavior, they are simply mistaken.

Tracy and her brother were both born with autism, which may have contributed to later traumatic episodes. She was four when a playmate teased her by pulling away a pillow as she jumped. Her crash onto cinder blocks split open her skull. At nine she tried to pet a dog who bit away part of her face. Repeated surgeries gradually rebuilt her face and skull until she was twenty, when she said she could not endure any more reconstructive procedures.

She went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force with top clearance until she left in fear of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” strictures on gay and lesbian service members. An Air Force friend agreed to father a child for her and her partner, Barbara, who gave birth to Jenny in 1996. Tracy adopted Jenny. The girl’s birth certificate includes both mothers’ names as her legal parents.

Barbara’s attorneys, Cynthia Gifford and Cherrie Perkins, now appear intent on triggering Tracy’s symptoms as if to imply she is an unfit parent. Scores of photographs since Jenny’s birth--full of exuberant activities, trips, pets, and friends--convey the unmistakable bond between Jenny and Tracy, whose disability has never hindered her from being an inspired and nurturing mother.

Last week, Tracy testified that throughout 2008, she never even met Judge Laureen D’Ambra, who signed the emergency ex parte order that gave temporary sole custody to Barbara. In 2010, Dr. Robin Stern, M.D., Chief of Psychiatry at Kent County Hospital, testified that Tracy was not mentally ill. She wrote:
[Tracy] has no signs of psychosis, delirium, severe depression, panic disorder or substance abuse. Her presentation is consistent with what is called High Functioning Autism. A person with this disorder can present as paranoid, especially under conditions of increased anxiety and stress. They can look more disturbed than is actually the case. They are frequently misunderstood by someone unaware of autistic behavior as they have difficulty picking up appropriate social cues.
In terms of how her behavior would impact on a child, I do not see any dangerous or concerning impulses, thoughts or activity. Children are much more adaptable in the setting of unusual behavior and a daughter who is accustomed to a mother with autism would not be alarmed or confused. I would be more worried about the impact of loss on a child whose mother has been taken away.
Judge Raymond Shawcross disregarded Dr. Stern's expertise in 2011 when he ruled that Tracy was mentally ill. The history of this case illustrates how cabals, rife with rumors and false insinuations, influence far-reaching judicial decisions—a subject for another post.

Tonight, I am most concerned about Jenny, who is still forbidden to communicate in any way with Tracy. Tomorrow, Barbara will bring their daughter, now 15, to answer questions from the lawyers and Judge DiSegna. Will they grill her in the same taunting, abusive way? Or will they hear what she needs to say?

Last Wednesday, Attorney Gifford tried to condemn Tracy for bringing Jenny into the courthouse to observe public hearings in 2009.

Tracy had picked up Jenny when snow closed her school. But there were still plenty of opportunities for learning. And Jenny had pressing questions that needed answers. What better way for a conscientious parent to teach a smart youth about the forum where these decisions are getting made than to take her into an American courtroom and watch? Predictably, Judge Shawcross exploded and ordered them out of his court.

But the court file still holds Jenny's handwritten affidavit in green ink:

I cannot take living like this anymore, because it is driving me crazy. I am depressed and angry because of this whole custody battle . . . . I don't know how the whole court thing works, but I know somewhere, someone has said something inaccurate or I could be with [Tracy] right now. . . . . There is sooo much more to tell you about my situation and what I want. May I please talk to you?

On Wednesday, Attorney Gifford accused Tracy of trying to tell Jenny what her rights are under the law that allows 14-year-olds to go to Probate Court for a guardian ad litem of their own choosing.

Last Friday, Chief Judge Bedrosian’s statewide training introduced a panel of youth who had lived in the foster care system. They compellingly asserted their precept: “Nothing about us without us.”

Whenever I research custody cases, it is an important principle for me to try to detect the children's concerns. The last time Jenny spoke to me in private, she despondently told me that no one assigned by the court was listening to her. She deserves the opportunity to speak fully, without any harassment from lawyers, about her needs and hopes for the future.

In addition to ADA accommodations, the Family Court needs to accommodate this basic principle: Nothing should be ordered for Jenny without respecting her voice in the process.

Monday, January 23, 2012

10. C. Jenny's dream school

I've been learning about the Jacqueline M. Walsh High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. A charter school founded in 2005, it became the first public high school in Rhode Island to accept applicants based on their audition or portfolio. Their culturally diverse student body pursues rigorous academics with individualized work in their chosen field: visual arts, dance, music, or theatre.

Based in the Pawtucket Armory, the JMW High School has a mission:
To provide an intensive, high-quality, conservatory-style high school education in and through the arts
and a vision:
To fully challenge and nurture high school students with exceptional talent in the arts who wish to pursue careers in the visual and performing arts.

JMW is the only school in Rhode Island with art programs approved as "Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs of Study." What an ideal school this could be for "Jenny," already a performing musician when she graduated from eighth grade in 2010.

But her two parents disagreed.

One of them, "Barbara," had money for lawyers to bring an emergency ex parte motion and persuade a judge to award her temporary sole custody in 2008. Everything went downhill from there as Barbara’s lawyers tried to stop the girl from communicating with her other mother, “Tracy,” who had nurtured her talents since early childhood.

Tracy was forbidden to attend Jenny's track meets, performances, and eighth grade graduation. Barbara confiscated a basketful of cell phones from their daughter’s attempts to contact Tracy.

How would Jenny’s world be different if she were at the JMW High School, a total environment of students and professionals devoted to the arts, where she could establish long-term contacts and relationships?

Last Wednesday, Tracy tried to persuade the judge: It’s not too late for Jenny to audition for next year.

Barbara’s attorney, Cynthia Gifford, minimized the loss: After all, Jenny plays in the band at her local high school. And she won a coveted seat in the state symphony orchestra.

Which proves she is motivated to excel and is missing out on one of the finest opportunities this state offers gifted students like her.

It’s too expensive, Gifford counters, as if to say: Why bother? Why encourage this girl to try?

Tracy says it might cost $500 a month, but there are scholarships, and Barbara is paying far more on attorneys to limit Jenny’s options. Tracy says she would gladly move to Pawtucket to cut the cost.

Tracy is a very good parent. But that is not evident in this courtroom, which has grown morbidly sick with sarcasm hurled back and forth between Barbara’s attorney and Tracy.

Barbara’s other attorney, Cherrie Perkins, talks to me today during the break, thanks me for noting her correction last week.

She tells me she is not an evil person. She started out really good, working at the Women’s Resource Center.

I tell her I don’t think she’s evil. I know she’s smart. So why doesn’t she help Jenny go to the JMW High School?

Why not use her compassion and intelligence to protect children from this dismal adversarial system?

"Someone as smart as you doesn't need to be in this line of work, doing this to people."

“I have to make a living,” she says.


Attorney Gifford is mangling the language the way lawyers do. She constructs convoluted questions out of leading statements she wants to get into the record:

Is it not true that the record shows you hold a grudge against Barbara?

I can barely imagine how these verbal gymnastics fry the circuits for someone on the ASD spectrum, like Tracy, who is intensely precise and literal.

Finally Tracy exclaims: "What kind of question is that? I can’t answer yes and I can’t answer no!"