Sunday, July 5, 2009

Digitizing Your Documents

Custody cases bring a blizzard of paper. Those of us who live these cases or write about them wade through boxes and bags of paper--police, court, medical records, psych evaluations, children's drawings, photographs, school records, handwritten notes, journals. Some of the pages have been crumbled in rage, torn, tattered, stained with coffee and tears.

In courthouses I wrestle with pronged folders and pour a small fortune into copy machines. I research cases at state archives, law offices, private homes. Some people deliver boxes to me or beg me to take them away, because these reminders give them nausea, anxiety, depression.

When parents ask me to investigate their cases, I tell them I need access to all the documents. This is true and also a test. Will they show me only those documents favorable to them? Sometimes naive reporters get conned into telling a simplistic, one-sided story, often without realizing they have become part of the scam.

Most protective parents give me access to everything, including documents of the back-story that show what was happening in their family long before they went to court. Often there was a long history of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or coercive control, sometimes reaching back into prior generations.

Most protective parents are deep in debt to lawyers and court contractors. None of them has ever paid me. This is important: I am obligated to no one, except the best interests of the children.

To figure out what is going wrong in these cases, I sort papers into chronological order and document the history through textual analysis. Will I find similar patterns from case to case? In past years I produced articles for my Overcoming Abuse column in the Providence Journal (1990-1996), for op-eds, and other publications.

One woman scanned and emailed scores of documents to me. How could she do it so fast? She recommended the Fujitsu ScanSnap. Their portable model proved to be just what I needed to carry into homes and courthouses to quickly turn documents into fine quality PDFs.

Here's how I used it:

I entitled each scan with the family name and date that would electronically organize documents in chronological order.

I set up a file called Parenting Project Cases. Within that, each family has their own file.

Usually I type the family's name first, then the date, starting with the year (4 digits), then month (2 digits), then day (2 digits).

In this case, I needed to merge documents from two families, showing the relationship between them in two different states. So I wrote the date first.

[UPDATE: I am now preferring to write the date first (using the court stamp date if available), followed by the family name. Each family has its own file. This will allow me to merge several families chronologically later in a separate merger file if I want to look at the performance of a particular judge, guardian ad litem, or expert. I can color each family's chronology differently and paste several lists in a new merged file, where they will line up chronologically with the different colors making it easier to distinguish the families.]  

In another case, I put the family's name first. I clicked a few times on the name/date column to be sure the list of PDFs had all lined up chronologically. Once they were in order, I could copy and paste the list into a long Word document, making an index. Here are a few of the entries (with names, initials changed):

Jones 1995ff AB Summary of Events.pdf
Jones 19990827 Police Report.pdf
Jones 19991006 CDE Arrest.pdf
Jones 19991019 Police Report.pdf
Jones 19991024 FG Fee Agreement 1.pdf
Jones 19991106 FG Notice of appeal.pdf
Jones 20010301 HJ arrests KLM.pdf
Jones 20010301 Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010301ff Incident Diary.pdf
Jones 20010302 Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010307 FG bill A.pdf
Jones 20010307 FG bill B.pdf
Jones 20010307 FG bill C.pdf
Jones 20010315 FG Fee Agreement 2.pdf
Jones 20010320 Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010321 A Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010321 B Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010321 C Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010326 FG bill Misc.pdf
Jones 20010328 Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010330 Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010330 Police Report.pdf
Jones 20010330 CDE Arrest.pdf

[UPDATE Since posting this, I have improved my process by standardizing several abbreviations, such as using PL, DF, STIP after the date to indicate whether court documents were introduced by plaintiff or defendant or by stipulation that both agreed to. I indicate ORDER followed by judge's name. I have learned what terms I may want to search for, such as the names of certain "experts".]

An entire family file of scanned documents in chronological order, with the additional Word document as an index (plus any emails relating to the case) can be saved on a CD, making it relatively easy to share with others, including reporters, and to flip through the history of the case on a monitor.

The ScanSnap, laptop computer (plus cords, adapters, power strip, staple remover, stapler, notebooks, snacks) fit easily into a small wheeling suitcase: An office on wheels!