Exposing & Fixing the Broken Family Courts
Challenge: For the past few decades, a severe crisis in the family (divorce) court system has been wreaking havoc in the lives of more than a million abused children of divorce and their protective parents in Marin County and across the nation. Since its inception in 2006, when Kathleen and a few local human rights activists co-founded it, KRC has worked with the Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) to expose and fix the family court crisis through a unique blend of multimedia relations (video/web/photo exhibits/earned & social media), legislative advocacy, leadership development training and grassroots organizing.
Approach: When we first learned that divorce courts were routinely awarding custody of sexually and physically abused children to these kids’ alleged abusers, KRC realized that the family court crisis needed to be brought out of the shadows and better exposed by “putting a human face” on the crisis, pulling victims out of isolation and into community, and helping them share the horrors they were forced to endure. We also recognized that the story of this crisis needed to be framed properly for the media and for state lawmakers – as a widespread crisis that was caused by “system failure,” rather than the random complaints of a small group of disgruntled, losing litigants, as California court officials had routinely come to suggest.
KRC produced a 2008 documentary film about the Marin County crisis called Family Court Crisis: Our Children At Risk, which generated a steady stream of emails and calls from all over the world, from parents describing nearly identical divorce nightmares wherein their children were forced by the courts into ongoing contact with physically and sexually abusive parents (plus an alarming number who’d been killed by a parent). We also created a photo exhibit and online slideshow, exposing the plights of dozens of mothers, fathers and children whose lives had been ravaged by a corrupt and broken court system.
Despite many years of parents being told by reporters that they could not report on such a “he said-she said” type of story, the KRC team managed to generate hundreds of television, radio, print and online stories, including two hour-long episodes of the nationally syndicated Dr. Phil Show, an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, columns and stories on the Huffington Post and Daily Beast, numerous radio interviews on KPFA, Montana Public Radio and other stations, plus two hour-long KGO Radio shows on the crisis. We’ve clocked many hours helping reporters develop in-depth feature stories in SF Weekly, Capitol Weekly and the East Bay Express. We also inspired a yearlong television investigative news series in Los Angeles called Lost in the System, which profiled dozens of cases of parents who were losing custody of their children to domestic violence batterers and molesting parents.
KRC also helped organize and mobilize hundreds of impacted parents from across California to testify at multiple legislative hearings in Sacramento and San Francisco. We played a major leadership role working with Senator Mark Leno to secure the unanimous passage of a legislative audit request, which revealed serious deficiencies in the Marin and Sacramento Family Courts. We also worked closely with then-Assemblywoman Fiona Ma to usher her Assembly Bill 1050 into law, giving children 14 and older the right to testify in California family courts.
Results: A social crisis that was recently dismissed by the California Assembly Judiciary Committee staff as the mere ranting of a few disgruntled litigants is gaining national notoriety and is being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice. KRC helped our client take an unknown human rights crisis in the family courts out of the shadows and into a statewide and national spotlight. Our work helped CJE and its allies create a perfect storm of media, policy and community education that has improved California laws protecting abused children, inspired a hard-hitting, investigative TV news series about the crisis in Los Angeles, and most importantly, has given hope to the million-plus protective parents who have lost their jobs, their homes, their savings accounts and their children in a broken family court system that is accountable to no one.