What happened two days ago at the Washington County Family Court would be hard to believe if I had not seen it.
I was researching another case at the clerk’s counter about 2 pm when three women, perhaps in their 60s, appeared, asking where they could find “the courtroom with the woman judge.” The clerk directed them to Room 1, saying the judge would be there in twenty minutes.
They talked among themselves, comparing this courthouse to others they had visited. They eyed me suspiciously. Adversarial litigation breeds wariness.
They were soon joined by four others, apparently all guests of Attorney Cherrie Perkins, who greeted them with hugs when she arrived wearing heavy jewelry of silver and turquoise, wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, complete with spurs and a mean set of rowels—those spiked disks that let a horse know who’s boss.
It was an uncommon getup for a Rhode Island courtroom.
It was Friday afternoon, and Perkins’ friends were in a festive mood as if awaiting a spectacle. They settled into several rows behind Perkins, whose law partner, Attorney Cynthia Gifford, arrived with her client, “Barbara,” a mother intent on keeping her 15-year-old daughter, “Jenny,” away from the girl’s other mother, “Tracy,” who suffers an invisible disability on the autism spectrum.
Tracy is high-functioning, intelligent, gifted, and has held top-clearance positions in the U.S. Air Force. But she can become overwhelmed when confronted with aggressive stimuli and distractions.
Judge Debra DiSegna was endeavoring to provide accommodations for Tracy. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Tracy is entitled to bring an aide, who sits beside her. The aide uses calming techniques. She prompts and cues Tracy to slow down for the stenographer. She alerts the court when Tracy is growing distraught and needs a break.
The judge let Tracy stay seated at the defendant’s table instead of going to the witness stand, but required her aide and lawyer to move their chairs back. Gifford began her cross-examination, her voice trembling with stress.
Tracy answered precisely, but sometimes accused Gifford of goading. Without her aide at her elbow, Tracy grew hyper-vigilant, wary of trick questions. Gifford approached her. Tracy rose from her chair and backed away.
Four years ago, Perkins won an emergency ex parte order for Barbara to gain temporary sole custody of Jenny. The girl is Barbara’s biological child, but Tracy adopted her and cared for her from birth while Barbara pursued her studies and career. Though the two women separated, they successfully co-parented their daughter for more than a decade until Gifford and Perkins took charge of their lives.
Before that, Jenny had flourished, excelling in martial arts, track, and music. She plays in the regional youth orchestra. She used to go to summer science camps. The girl wanted to live with Tracy and attend an arts high school, but Barbara refused and got her lawyers to stop Tracy and Jenny from communicating altogether nearly three years ago.
In the courtroom yesterday, Perkins suddenly leapt to her feet. Her silver bangles clattered. Her boots shuffled across the aisle to confront a woman who held a cell phone. She wanted the deputy sheriff to check for pictures or recordings or text messages. While the Court waited, he obliged and found nothing.
When Judge DiSegna took a break and left the room, Tracy sat alone, her hands folded on the table.
Attorney Perkins, an officer of the court, stood with her friends in Tracy’s line of vision and laughed. One loudly exclaimed: “This is more lively than I expected!”
If Tracy were in prison, she would be allowed to testify in court on a monitor and telephone. She could avoid the smirks and bullying in the corridor, the provocations in the courtroom—although these may now give the judge important insights to what has been happening throughout this case.
Wouldn’t it be better if Tracy sat in a quiet room with her aide and a sheriff to assure the aide was not coaching her—so she could clearly communicate with the Court on a monitor, free of all this aggressive stimuli?
I wrote about this case long before Judge DiSegna inherited it. I searched back through our blogs to refresh my memory. It was in August 2010:
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: