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Custody Feud: Fair Hearing Denied

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Gina Kaysen Fernandes: A Daytona Beach, Florida, mother who lost custody of her two girls -- whom she believes are being sexually abused by their father -- was dealt a crushing legal blow in her latest courtroom clash. Linda Marie Sacks recently shared her heartbreaking story with momlogic, describing how a judge punished her in family court for raising concerns about her children's documented abuse.

linda marie sacks

After going public with her story, Linda Marie filed an appeal with Florida's Fifth District Court of Appeals in her third attempt to regain custody of her kids. The self-described "squeaky-clean" mom has only been allowed to see her teenaged daughters two hours a month during supervised visits. "After three years with only 64 hours of contact with my children ... enough is enough, " says Linda Marie.

This week, Volusia County Judge Shawn L. Briese canceled a scheduled hearing and refused to allow the testimony of a clinical psychologist who believes Linda Marie's two daughters are victims of child sexual abuse. Dr. Kathy Pearce intended to testify about case notes she recently reviewed from the children's therapist's file. "I had seen the summary of [the therapist's] files but I had never seen her actual notes," Pearce says. "There was much more there than I ever knew."

Linda Marie faced an uphill legal battle from the get-go. Her wealthy ex-husband hired aggressive attorneys to maneuver his way through the courts. He also paid out-of-pocket for his own psychologists, who are essentially hired guns intended to repeat his version of events on the stand. The teens' father has admitted to inappropriate behavior (such as wiping down the vaginas of his school-aged daughters); the evaluator, meanwhile, has claimed that the father's sexual behavior was within "normal limits."

Cashing in on child-custody fights

Legal watchdog groups say that family courts are ripe for corruption. "The whole system is set up to churn fees," says Kathleen Russell of the Center for Judicial Excellence. In high-conflict custody cases, a family court judge typically assigns "court appointees" to provide counseling and evaluations of the parents and their children. The costs of these sessions -- which are paid for by the parents -- can add up quickly. "It's a very lucrative industry," says Russell. "These mental-health professionals are making a handsome living."

What concerns Russell most is that there's no regulation or oversight of this cottage industry. Many of the accused abusers will pay the evaluator directly, which can lead to collusion. The court appointees also have legal immunity that prevents them from being sued for unethical behavior. "There's no checks and balances, and no questioning of authority," says Russell. The court-hired professionals have significant power when it comes to determining a child's future. Judges generally defer to the appointees' recommendations before making a custody ruling.

Linda Marie says that the custody evaluator ordered to examine her case in 2004 never called the abuse hotline -- despite having a legal obligation to do so under the mandatory reporting laws.The psychologist dismissed the girls' abuse history and their father's inappropriate behavior. However, the therapist determined that Linda Marie had a better psychological bond with the children, and recommended that she be the primary parent.

Two years later, that same therapist reversed her decision and decided that Linda Marie's ex-husband should have sole custody of their kids. This change of heart happened (coincidentally?) when an associate in her office was hired to evaluate the father. "Money can buy the outcome you want, with total disregard to the children's welfare or safety," says Linda Marie.

While the family courts may initially have had good intentions by relying on mental-health professionals, critics argue that it's only making the situation worse. "These are criminal matters," says Russell. "They need to be investigated as crimes." She advises parents to avoid family court at all costs and try to mediate their divorces instead. If you end up in family court, Russell recommends that you collect as much evidence as possible, report abusive behavior when it happens and document it with photos.

There's no turning back for Linda Marie Sacks, who intends to keep fighting as long as it takes to get her girls back. "I have my sights on the U.S. Supreme Court if they do not give me my children back -- and a new judge," she says. While Linda Marie's case may seem extreme, it's not unique. "It's happening to thousands of mothers stuck in family court trying to protect their children," says Russell. "It's a bottomless pit."

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36 comments so far | Post a comment now
Vera  April 30, 2010, 8:28 AM

Why didn’t the judge question the “wiping down the vaginas of his school-aged daughters”? I wondered if he ever talked to the children themselves? I think the judge should appoint an independent individual who has never been in contact with either party. That person should evaluate the girls in a neutral location without the parents. The judge should be looking out for the children.

Barry Goldstein April 30, 2010, 9:44 AM

This case takes place in the context of a nationwide problem in which common mistakes and improper practices have resulted in thousands of children being sent to live with abusers. A new book, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY contains the most up-to-date research about the mishandling of domestic violence custody cases.
The book contains chapters by over 25 of the leading experts in the US and Canada including judges, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, journalists and domestic violence advocates. The problem is that 30+ years ago, at a time when no research was available the courts developed practices to respond to domestic violence csases. At the time there were widespread assumptions that domestic violence was caused by mental illness, substance abuse and the victim’s behavior. All of these assumptions proved false but the courts continue to use outdated and discredited practices.
Particularly harmful to children is the myth that women and children frequently make false allegations to gain an advantage. It appears this myth was used by the judge in this case in failing to protect the children. Custody courts have been particularly bad in handling sexual abuse complaints because they don’t want to believe a father could do something so heinous.
We would hope the courts would use the research in this new book to take a fresh look at practices that have been shown to work particularly poorly for children. When we see decisions like this one in which custody is given to the alleged abuser and the mother is given supervised or no visitation even though there is no evidence that she is unsafe, these cases have virtually always been decided wrongly. I hope the judge in this case will have the integrity to take a fresh look at this case based upon the up-to-date research instead of trying to justify the past decisions.

Kim April 30, 2010, 11:46 AM

The judge is more interested in his pocket book. This judge & all the other crooked judges will one day have to answer for their actions but by then it’ll be too late. That’s why payback is “hell”. I truly hope these girls are strong enough to survive the torture they are being put thru. It’s a shame we can’t trust the main people we should be able to trust. To the mom- I’d go public on evryone in this case w/all tv channels, paper, &websites. If my childs gonna suffer & b humiliated then ALL will know who’s hurting them & ALLOWING it. Aren’t judges appointed? He may not have a job soon

Cherry Simpson May 3, 2010, 7:52 AM

Thank you for posting this. So many people are unaware of this severe form of prejudice by the family courts against women and children. Thank you Kathleen Russell for helping to bring an end to it.

Earl Richards May 3, 2010, 7:59 AM

If judicial immunity is not ended for family court judges, then the family court judges will keep-on breaking the law.

Cynthia May 3, 2010, 8:36 AM

I have been in the family court for 8 years now.
The system will have to answer for their actions, evenutally.
Reform is on it’s way! You better believe it.

Gori Girl May 3, 2010, 10:00 AM

@ Kim, regarding “going public” — The media usually doesn’t care at all. At least, not until after a mother or her kids are killed or go missing. I’ve tried to talk to the press, and other mothers I know have as well, and the local news stations have told us that our stories “aren’t interesting.”

The common misconception that “it takes two to tango” doesn’t just come out of the judges’ mouths. The whole society prefers to blame the victim and turn their backs on mothers and children who are suffering.

I’m in one of the worst counties in California, and involved in a five year custody battle with a clinical sociopath, so I have a little familiarity with this subject.

andrea B. June 9, 2010, 12:49 PM

I know what she is going through (here in Mid-MO). Moms, and dads, if there are any, need to unite.
Only my kid is being poisoned with brainwashing against me. No bruises or anything can back me up. We had a counselor on the child’s side, and his dad keeps pushing to get his. When he found out I wanted frequent visits, which I deserve, he went into a private room with our son and coaxed him into saying something that stopped proceeding in its tracks, and now its time for more filings and counselors, and judges and money. This article validates my heart-ache and gives me hope. Hang in there mom.

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