Thursday, January 1, 2009

Custody Cases in Women's History

A woman's ability to produce a new human directly from her body is an extraordinary power. Until recently in human history, a man had no way to prove any child was actually his.

Men asserted their power through laws that made women and children their property, giving men rights of ownership over all human production. As in many other cultures, Old English Common Law crafted marriage from the same fabric as slavery. Custom required a woman to take her husband's name at marriage: she had become his property.

Struggles over custody are nothing new. In her book Revolutionary Heart, (, Diane Eickhoff presents Clarina Nichols' account of her 1860 arrest and trial with other citizens intent on rescuing children from their violent father:

Clarina Nichols' writing and speaking helped spread awareness of custody as a women's issue. The power of abusive men to seize custody of their children would expand as they paid psychologists to allege that mothers were mentally ill or had "alienated," "brainwashed," or "coached" children against their fathers. Soon custody courts produced a river of revenue for lawyers and clinicians until children reached emancipation at age 18. These cases multiplied throughout the next century. The first Battered Mothers Custody Conference met at Siena College in Albany, New York, in 2004.

Nichols still inspires us as we write about children held hostage by 21st Century custody courts and the lawyers and clinicians who have built and exploited this market.


If you cannot record conversations on a camera, cellphone, ipod, or other recorder, then use “verbatims” to document appointments, hearings, children’s disclosures. Write as much as you can remember as soon as possible after it happens.

Verbatims look like a script and use people’s names or initials followed by precise words using this simple format:


This is an actual verbatim that I inserted into this post at a later date:

JH = Judge Higgins, District Courtroom 4C
PR=Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Roklan, State Prosecutor
JP=Jeffrey Pine, lawyer for MD; Pine is a former Attorney General
MD=mother of 3-year-old
HF=sister of MD’s ex-husband
AF=husband of HF

Situation: MD's ex-husband and his family have subjected her to repeated frivolous arrests and imprisonments, a well-known pattern of abuse called domestic violence by proxy. She is now being accused of taking photographs outside the home of HF, her ex-husband's sister, who claims to have a restraining order against MD. The Attorney General's office is aggressively prosecuting her.

DATE: September 2, 2009
TIME: 2 pm
PLACE: Garrahy Courthouse, Providence, RI District Court 4C and Superior Court 5G
OCCASION: Arraignment for MD (mother of 3-year-old AD).

District Court Judge Higgins sends MD to Superior Court Magistrate Gallo; Special Assistant Attorney General Peter Roklan is upset that Cumberland prosecutor did not cite MD as a probation violator.

JP: For God's sake, how many times are you going to prosecute this woman for the same crime? (JP leaves courtroom and returns to District Courtroom 4C.)

(In District Courtroom 4C:)

JH: I will not hear it. If your client is going to prison, it is just too bad, and you'll have to take it up with the AG.

JP: We just had a hearing in Superior Court and had a date set for a violation and/or bail hearing.

JH: My decision is final.

(Later state prosecutor PR returns to 4C.)

PR: She can't be released.

JP: There is not even a scintilla of probable cause on which to hold her. The restraining order was in the name of HF and the complaint was brought by AF and furthermore the restraining order was never served on MD and therefore was invalid. … Where are your balls? Be a man! Make a decision! You have the authority to make this decision!

PR: I am not in a position to make that decision.

Clerk: What is the final decision?

JP: I don’t know. It’s up to the AG, and he is not budging.

Clerk: The judge will not hear you. He’s left me in charge to note the final decision in the record.

JP (slamming his papers and file on the desk and pounding his index finger on the desk in front of the clerk): I want to be heard! You get that judge out here! I demand to be heard!

(Clerk leaves. A few moments later, Judge Higgins returns to the bench.)

JH: She’s going to the ACI, and that’s that!

JP: You will hear me, because if you do not, you are abusing your power and allowing the AG to perpetuate a malicious prosecution case. … HF has a restraining order against MD. However, HF did not file the complaint.

JH: That doesn’t matter. If MD was out on the street taking pictures, then she is in violation of the restraining order.

JP: No restraining order is presently in existence, because it was never served on MD, and if there is no knowledge, then there is no order.

JH: I’ll incarcerate MD until tomorrow and that will give them time to check the court records to see if the order had been served or not.

JP: That won’t be necessary. MD’s mother went to the clerk’s office and picked up the original that was never served from Magistrate Shepard’s clerk, and she has it with her.

JH: Do you in fact have it?

MD’s mother: I certainly do. (Searches in bag and gives it to sheriff who gives it to judge.)

JH: It is not possible that this was not served on MD.

(Judge reads, then speaks to PR)

JH: You’ve got to dismiss this case. If you don’t, I’ll 48A it.

JH (to JP): There is no valid restraining order in existence. AF does not have a restraining order against MD.

JH (to MD’s mother): I know you paid bail money, and I want you to go right down there and get your money back.

JP: Judge, her husband and his family have her arrested every time there is an issue of custody in family court.

JH (to JP): This is what to put in the dismissal stipulation. Do it now.

• report words as precisely as possible
• include actions in parentheses
• make it easier to recall and document conversations
• keep a more accurate record than a narrative description
• help you keep calm when your child's disclosures upset you
• help you avoid asking your child about disclosures (which might contaminate the disclosure)
• make the event more accessible for a reader to envision it happening

WARNING: When you document troubling comments that your children say to you, do not show these records to court officers or clinicians who may use them against you, as if you were “alienating," "brainwashing," or "coaching" your child to say these things against an abuser. However, the verbatims you keep of your child's disclosures may some day help your child to comprehend early traumatic experiences. For more about the search to find traumatic causes of DID, see The United States of Tara explanation:

Evaluate Clinicians and Lawyers

It is generally not a good idea to file professional complaints in the midst of litigation, though it could force an abusive contractor or judge to leave a case. (One Family Court judge left the system because lawyers practicing before him also loaned him money for his gambling habit. This did not prevent one of those lawyers from becoming a Family Court judge. The court system ignores ethical failures when no one bothers to complain.)

In Rhode Island, you can file well-documented complaints against clinicians with the Department of Health:

You can file well-documented complaints against lawyers with the Disciplinary Counsel:

You can file well-documented complaints against judges with the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline:

In addition to filing complaints against contractors (clinicians, lawyers, etc.), you can register your concerns in numerous online websites when you google a contractor's name and state. Your comments will appear in a single paragraph. Be sure that what you write is accurate, provable, and not intended to harass. Here is an example that is posted at:


(This appears to have been removed, but you get the idea. Here is what it said:)

Lori Meyerson’s work fails national standards

RI Family Court recruited psychologist Lori Meyerson in 2004 for a case involving a former court employee who sought custody of his 10-year-old daughter despite a long history of police involvement relating to domestic violence and weapons charges. Chief Judge Jeremiah’s aide David Tassoni stated that he had been searching for a guardian ad litem who “understood parental alienation” to serve at no charge in this case. Without visiting either parent's home or seeing the father and daughter together, Meyerson recommended removing the girl from her mother and giving her to her father, against the advice of the girl's physician and her therapist--both of whom Master O'Brien stopped from seeing the girl, based on Meyerson's recommendation. On the witness stand, Meyerson minimized the girl's fearful comments and the father's remarks about slicing the mother's face. Meyerson criticized the mother's behavior without recognizing it as symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although O'Brien decided against awarding custody to this father, the case established Meyerson's role in Rhode Island Family Court cases. She moved from a cramped office in Riverside to a suite at the Regency Plaza and became the Court’s leading promoter of the so-called “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” In 2006, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges warned that references to “parental alienation” fails to meet evidentiary standards and should be stricken from custody evaluation reports. See page 24 of Navigating Custody and Visitation Evaluations... at the NCJFCJ website. Complaints against Meyerson and others who base recommendations on “parental alienation” should be submitted with documents to the RI Department of Health, using complaint forms on their website, to the professional standards and ethics committee at the RI Psychological Association website, with copies to: Parenting Project, 134 Mathewson Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Building a Chronology

Custody scams depend on creating confusion with rumors, lies, false accusations, secret meetings, and undocumented decisions in judge's chambers. These true stories can sound incredible.

The first step I have found most useful is to get documents in order, including police, medical and court records, reports, correspondence, lawyer's itemized bills, children's drawings, school papers, and especially photos and recordings. Pin down everything that helps to explain how this story grew, including people's motivations and litigation strategies.

I begin by putting a date at the upper right corner of every possible document, giving year first, then month and day: YYYYMMDD. I hole-punch the pages and place original drawings in plastic sleeves to organize chronologically in notebooks.

On a computer Word document or Excel spread sheet, I use the same date-format to list documents and events. For example:

19981023 Sue and Joe meet
19990225 Sue and Joe marry
19990511 Sue enters shelter
19990603 Sue goes home
19991008 Joey born
19990108 Police report: Joe arrested 1st time
19990109 3-page letter from Joe apologizing
19990115 counseling with Chris Smith, LCMSW
20000220 Joe goes to Florida with his girlfriend
20000225 Joe sends postcard to Joey from Florida
20000310 Sue files for divorce

As the list grows more extensive, I often color-code entries. For example, every entry referring to the guardian ad litem has its own color. Every appointment with a specific court-ordered psychologist has another color. When these two contractors meet together, each one's name is highlighted in its own color. Sometimes converging dates reveal connections among contractors who function as a cabal.

When you do this, you build a data base of critical details that will assure accuracy and accessibility for many writing projects.

When you think chronologically, it is natural to use an active voice, which is a much stronger form of writing than the passive voice. It is simpler to say I ate an apple than An apple was eaten by me. Name the actor before the action. This makes the sentence more chronological and simpler to grasp without having to read it again.

One of the easiest ways to improve writing is to circle these static verbs: is, are, was, were, will be. Try to rewrite without them. This forces us to think more precisely about what is happening and to write more succinctly with active verbs.

Lessons in good grammar and writing skills are online. Just google these subjects. For example, by googling "passive active," you can find handouts like these:

Social workers and psychologists sometimes use the passive voice as if it makes their assertions sound objective, scientific, and authoritative. I call this writing style the Voice-From-On-High. (I will add some examples from court reports by guardians ad litem and clinicians.)

When custody stories get too complex, listeners drift. Audiences appreciate our efforts to keep words precise, focused, and brief.

Shape and polish everything you write like a jewel. Set it aside; read it again. Shorten words, phrases, sentences, until they flow smoothly with no confusion about the meaning. Do not use five words if two will do. You will gain facility at using the same story for different purposes, perhaps in a letter to the editor, an op-ed, a freedom-of-information letter to a government official, statehouse testimony on proposed legislation, a blog, a song, a children's story.

As I became familiar with several custody stories, I combined themes they had in common, such as: profiteering by lawyers and clinicians; teen dating violence leads to custody scams; how information gets extracted from children in court-ordered visits to use against them in court.

Try to observe court hearings and people's interactions directly. Write about what you see and hear. Quote documents directly and annotate them, substituting pseudonyms for the children and their family. Avoid hearsay or speculation that will make your story less credible.

Finally, do not give up when others cannot tolerate these stories.

Many people have experienced horrendous forms of abuse. True stories about childhood abuse and official malfeasance can awaken painful memories. Those who turn away may have good reasons to feel fragile. Some are trying to hold back a flood of rage and despair.

Do not try to tell the whole story at once. It is better to give your readers too little than too much, which can be overwhelming and frighten people from this cause altogether.

Ending custody scams will take time. We need to equip ourselves for a long, steady campaign.

Give your audience reasons to hope. Among the best reasons for hope will be you and your writing.

Good Government Allies

Many of us writers tend to be reclusive. But we cannot mount an effective movement alone. Our untested ideas are often sophomoric. (That can feel embarrassing, but it is perfectly normal!)

Be intentional about seeking comfortable friendships with people who know more about state government than you do. Build a network with allies. Together extend your reach to a wide range of experts. Respect their time and ask succinct questions to inform your strategies and compensate for any blind-spots.

To change the custody courts, we must change the law. The primary way to do that is by writing bills and lobbying for them in the state legislature, which has responsibility for domestic relations and child protection.

Lay people often feel intimidated trying to write legislation, which involves careful analysis of existing laws and definitions. It is not enough to simply insert a good idea. All new legislation must be harmonized with existing state laws.

To do that, work with your allies in the community to find a sympathetic state legislator who will submit your ideas as drafts to legislative lawyers, who can refine them and connect them to existing laws.

These legislative counsels will produce two companion versions of the bill--one for the House of Representatives and one for the Senate. You will need a legislator in each house to shepherd through this legislation, ideally a representative and a senator who actually sit on the House and Senate committees most likely to consider the bill.

The next phase is developing talking points and testimony for legislative hearings. Organize witnesses who will tell a legislative committee how they have been affected by problems in the existing law. You may need to help them write succinct statements explaining the impact of this law and why it needs to be changed. Set up a model hearing so your witnesses can practice presenting their statements and answering questions effectively.

Draft sample emails, letters, and phone messages, and organize a campaign to persuade legislators on the committees hearing your bill to promote it with their leadership and to make sure it passes. Identify those legislators who can best influence the governor to sign. Then your bill becomes law.

Start by reaching out to potential allies who may not have thought about this issue, but who might support your bill as part of their own legislative package. Coalition partners might include organizations promoting good government, like Common Cause and League of Women Voters, and others who work on issues relating to women and children, such as Coalitions Against Domestic Violence, National Organization for Women, American Association of University Women, and United Way. The American Civil Liberties Union may be a potential ally, but may be more likely to protect civil liberties of the accused over those of alleged victims.

Research your state's legislation promoting good-government. These are hard-won tools that can help us end the scandal in custody courts. Start with Google or another search engine: Search for good-government themes (such as: open meetings, conflict-of-interest, financial disclosure, ethics commission, whistleblowers' protection, etc.) + your state. Here are some Internet links to begin:

Open Meetings Laws
The Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press offers an Open Government Guide as a complete compendium of information on every state's open records and open meetings laws. Each state's section is arranged according to a standard outline, making it easy to compare laws in various states.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
The state version of this federal law goes by different names. In Rhode Island, we call it APRA, for the Access to Public Records Act. It allows people to request information that government officials must provide within ten days. The Parenting Project used this law to get information from our child protection agency:

Anti-SLAPP Suit Legislation
The United States and California constitutions grant every person the right to participate in government and civic affairs, speak freely on public issues, and petition government officials for redress of grievances. Yet, individuals and community groups are often sued for exercising these constitutional rights. These suits are known as "SLAPP suits," or "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation."

Soon after Rhode Island's Anti-SLAPP Suit legislation passed, a batterer tried to name me and our agency as third parties in his custody case because we were helping his wife. Our attorney identified his motion as a SLAPP suit because he was retaliating against our public participation on behalf of battered women. The judge threw out his motion against us.

Merit Selection of Judges
Those states that elect judges put justice on sale, throw open the door to profiteering, conflicts of interest, and the cabals that run custody scams. Where does your state stand on merit selection and public evaluation of judges? In Rhode Island, the Parenting Project has testified against Family Court judges seeking elevation to higher courts, based on their roles in custody scams. We attended interviews of candidates for judgeships and for child advocate. We submitted questions for Judicial Nominating Commissioners to ask candidates. And we sent a petition under the State's Administrative Procedures Act asking the Judicial Nominating Commission to change its rules and to require candidates for chief judge in any court to submit written statements about the improvements they needed in that court. We recently submitted this op-ed to the Providence Journal:

(727 words)
Improve the process to choose our Chief Justice
by Anne Grant

Should the Judicial Nominating Commission ask candidates for Chief Justice how they might help our courts serve the public more effectively?

In September, the Parenting Project petitioned Rhode Island’s Judicial Nominating Commission under the Administrative Procedures Act to require candidates for chief of any court to submit written statements of their views about issues facing that court and their visions for improving its performance.

We wrote: “the invitation to provide such a document would, among other things, show that the JNC, and more particularly our state courts, rise above personalities and politics to the highest principles of jurisprudence. Seasoned attorney applicants who love the law, revere the court system, and recognize the need for continuous improvement would have the opportunity to focus proactively on the court where they hope to serve. We believe that many applicants would offer valuable recommendations.”

Although the Act requires a substantive answer within thirty days, JNC chairperson Stephen Carlotti replied that the Commission would not consider our petition until they had a vacancy to fill. They now have four vacancies following the retirements of Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams and Family Court Associate Justice Howard I. Lipsey and the deaths of District Court Chief Judge Albert E. DeRobbio and Family Court Associate Justice Gilbert T. Rocha.

The process to fill these vacancies needs fine-tuning. But now the JNC has no time to promulgate a new rule, which would require a draft, public notice and hearings on the proposed change. Commissioners can still ask applicants to discuss their concerns about the judicial process and their ideas for improvements. But it is too late this time to require written statements.

That’s too bad for the commission, the governor, and legislators, who might make wiser decisions if they had more substantive information about what these candidates will do if appointed as chief justice. Too bad also for the public whose lives will be directly affected by the court.

Why did the Parenting Project make our request to the JNC?

We are a group of volunteers, including professionals and litigants involved in Rhode Island’s Family Court, who worry about children’s safety. We started meeting in 1996 to focus on custody cases in which the court seemed to punish children who protested domestic violence or sexual abuse by removing them from the parent they sought to live with and “reunifying” them with the parent they feared.

Judges who preside over Family Court and Superior Court may be nearing retirement also. We hoped that the JNC would find merit in our proposal and recognize the urgency of inviting candidates to write their views and visions for improving a system that struggles with enormous burdens. Just as our nation weighed the ideas and proposals of presidential candidates, Rhode Island needs to evaluate prospective judges. The JNC’s nominating procedure is the only place where that can happen.

Rhode Island is the only state where judges enjoy life tenure without review. Their salaries and pensions have long been among the highest in the nation. Two of Williams’ predecessors left the high court in disgrace in 1986 and 1993. Few would deny that our courts still have room for improvement.

It is hard to imagine any credible candidate seeking a lifetime position who would not expect to give specific reflections on critical issues and possible solutions related to that job. By urging applicants to undertake such analysis in writing, to describe best practices, and to envision improvements in our courts, the JNC could provide a valuable resource to Rhode Island.

Rather than examining applicants through the narrow lens of a single judicial position, such a rule could establish a process that encourages constructive dialogue within the community of judges and lawyers. This may catalyze positive change from within the system.

Candidates’ papers would stimulate discussion and produce a keener appreciation of judicial issues by students, journalists, and the larger public. These JNC documents would offer insight to each candidate’s thought process, temperament, and wisdom in approaching potentially divisive matters.

If the JNC fails to ask candidates to set forth their views and visions in writing, we hope Governor Carcieri, the leaders of the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, and the press will, at the very least, ask all judicial candidates this vital question: What are your priorities for improving the court where you seek to serve?

Anne Grant coordinates the Parenting Project at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence. She is a retired pastor and former executive director of the Women’s Center of Rhode Island (

Screenplay Structure

Here are some helpful resources to start thinking about a story as a movie:

I adapted the following from Michael Hauge, “Screenplay Structure/The Five Key Turning Points of All Successful Scripts,”


Stage I: The Setup

10% (10 pages, based on standard screenplays in which 100 pages=100 minutes)
Draw the reader/audience into the initial setting of the story. Reveal the everyday life that the hero has been living. Establish identification with the hero by making the hero sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful.

Turning Point 1: The Opportunity
At 10% (page 10)
Present the hero with an opportunity to create a new, visible desire that will start this character on a journey.

Stage II: New Situation
Next 15% (to 25%: to page 25)
The opportunity produces a new situation, and the hero reacts to it.

Turning Point 2: The Change of Plans
At 25% (page 25)
Something happens to your hero one-fourth of the way through your screenplay that will transform their* original desire into a specific, visible goal with a clearly defined end point.


At this point, you have defined your story concept and revealed your hero’s outer motivation. (The outer motivation is the visible finish line that your audience is rooting for your hero to achieve by the end of the film.)

Stage III: Progress
Next 25% (to page 50)
Your hero’s plan seems to be working as she or he takes action to achieve their goal.

Turning Point 3: The Point of No Return
At 50% (page 50)
At the exact midpoint of the screenplay, your hero commits to a goal. Up to this point, she or he had the option of turning back, giving up their plan, and returning to the life they were living at the beginning of the film. Hero burns bridges and jumps in!

Stage IV: Complications and Higher Stakes
Next 25% (to 75%: around page 75)
Achieving the visible goal becomes far more difficult. Hero has much more to lose if he or she fails. This conflict continues to build until, just as it seems that success is within the hero’s grasp…

Turning Point 4: The Major Setback
At 75% (around page 75)
A major setback occurs to the hero that makes the audience think all is lost. This disastrous event leaves the hero with only one option.


Hero must make one last, all or nothing, do or die effort as hero enters…

Stage V: The Final Push
Next 15% (to 90%: to page 90)
Beaten and battered, hero must now risk everything she or he has, and give every ounce of strength and courage they possess, to achieve their ultimate goal. During this stage of your script, the conflict is overwhelming, the pace has accelerated, and everything works against your hero, until she or he reaches…

Turning Point 5: The Climax
9% (to 99%: to page 99)
Several things must occur at the climax of the film: the hero must face the biggest obstacle of the entire story; The hero must determine their own fate; and the outer motivation must be resolved once and for all. This is the big moment where your placement will be determined by the amount of time you need for…

Stage VI: The Aftermath
1% (to 100%: page 100)
No movie ends precisely with the resolution of the hero’s objective. You must reveal the new life your hero is living now that he or she has completed their journey. There is little to show or explain, and the writer’s goal is to leave the audience stunned or elated. So the climax occurs near the very end of the film. (In most romantic comedies, mysteries and dramas, the aftermath will include the final five or ten pages of the script.)

* Rather than repeating unwieldy pronouns (she or he/his or her) I have sometimes used the "singular they." This has long been part of common usage. ("No one will get granny off that mountain unless they kill her first.") Rather than being a grammatical purist on this, I believe we can let grammar evolve to meet a greater need for inclusion of both sexes, with clear meaning and graceful expression.