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.
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."á
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.áThe 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."