Saturday, January 7, 2012

Family Court 'Experts' Are Cause For Concern Family Court ‘Experts’ Are Cause For Concern The course I recall best from law school was Carol Weisbrod’s family law class at the University of Connecticut. At the time, I did not appreciate it. In fact, I thought it was downright bizarre, even offensive. You see, she used science fiction as part of the pedagogical material. At the time, I wondered what that had to do with the precise metes and bounds of the law, and with the tidy world of justice. Now I think she was onto something. Reason is overrated. The rawest of passions are on display in the family courts. I suspect that is because any divorce is one part murder, one part suicide and one part utter chaos. We are not rational animals. Science fiction helps reconceptualize the hidden ties that bind us one to another; hence the genius of Weisbrod’s use of science fiction. On the few times I appear in family court, it is usually in a post-judgment context, where things have gone horrible awry. I don’t get the hard and fast edges of a financial dispute; my cases involve the blood and gore of broken hearts, and battles over children. Nothing in my legal education prepared me for family court. Little in life did so. Family court is an emotional wasteland with hollowed out souls crying out in the hallways. It is a holocaust. Last fall, I completed half of a course the court’s now require of guardians ad litem for minor children. It is not that I want to appear in such a role in court. I do not. But I was talking to Judge Linda Munro, the chief family court judge in Connecticut, one day and she asked me how I was doing. “The economy is a challenge, but I’ll figure it out,” I told her. “What just might drive me from the law is not knowing how to meet my client’s emotional needs.” I sat through three of the six sessions of the course. (I need to make up the other three this spring.) What I learned there was an eye-opener. But what I see makes me uncomfortable. There is a vast infrastructure of experts, therapists, counselors, social workers, court staff and lawyers in the state, all of whom know one another, and all of whom march beneath the banner of “best interests of the child.” When conflict arises in a divorce about what is best for the kids, there are programs, protocols and resources to throw at the warring parties. I am just not sure I can sign on to the mission, however. Do these folks have any better idea of how to heal the wounds created by a bitter divorce than does a well-meaning neighbor armed with good old-fashioned common sense? What I see in the cases in which I get involved is a regime that simply promotes and extends the conflict by other, and expensive, means. Sure, my sample of cases is very low and not statistically significant. Yes, I get involved only in high-conflict cases. But I am still uncomfortable turning decision-making in the courts over to theoreticians about how best to help children through their parents’ woes. I sat through a deposition the other day of an expert in parental alienation syndrome. I marveled as I listened to him opine about fault, influence and consequences. I found myself wondering, as I do in every divorce case I get involved in, whether the parties and the community might not be better off letting juries decide the issues without the benefit of experts. All this deference to the sensibilities of the children might just be creating a generation of entitled monsters. If Johnny gets to decide he doesn’t want to see his father and the experts say that is all right, what kind of expert is that? Juries bring community values and common sense to a courtroom. Why don’t we trust them with decisions in divorce and custody? I worry that the community of experts, judges and lawyers become inbred when they deal with one another month by month in these heartbreaking cases. Therapists really don’t know best. Plato argued in “The Republic” that the rearing of children was too important a task to be left to private parties. It was a job for the state. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps Weisbrod was right, too. We need to think outside the box about family court. Maybe we need to read science fiction because the sad reality is there are too many broken lives in the family courts.• Norm Pattis is a criminal defense lawyer and civil rights attorney in Bethany. Most days he blogs at

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