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:

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.