Ripped Apart

Divorced dads, domestic violence, and the systemic bias against men in King County family court.

By Nina Shapiro

Jan 18 2012

Jim’s first indication that his life was about to be turned upside down came the night he got home from work and was approached by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy.

“Are you Jim?” the deputy asked.

“I am,” he replied.

The deputy then informed him that not only was he no longer welcome inside his own house, he wasn’t allowed even to collect his things. The officer handed him a suitcase his wife had packed and a $3,000 check—also from his wife, who earned far more than he did.

“What are the grounds?” Jim asked.

“It’s all in there,” the deputy said, thrusting a sheaf of papers into his hand.

The papers informed him his wife was filing for divorce. Worse, she had requested, and been granted, a temporary protection order based on allegations of domestic violence. The order—issued at a hearing that took place without Jim—took effect immediately. It required him to vacate his house and refrain from “any contact whatsoever” with either his wife or his 3-year-old son.

In it, his wife wrote that she felt like she had to “walk on eggshells” around Jim due to his unpredictable temper. He would scream to such an extent that “veins in his neck were bulging” and “spittle from his lips was hitting me in the face.” She also described him yelling at their dogs, roughly handling their cat, and driving aggressively and recklessly.

But there’s one thing she never claimed—that Jim had ever hit her or their son. Nor did she accuse Jim of threatening either of them.

Jim, an insurance agent periodically unemployed, had at times performed more child-care duties than his wife, according to a court-assigned social worker hired to assess each spouse’s parenting skills. Observing interactions between Jim and his son, and talking to friends, relatives, and neighbors, she called the bond between them “relatively strong, happy, interactive, comfortable, playful, and full of physical play and affection.” Yet it would still take 15 months for Jim to be allowed to have normal visits with his son.

Had he been charged with domestic violence in criminal court, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and the standards of due process are high, this might not have happened. But Jim’s fate was decided in a very different venue: family court.

It’s a court like no other—a hugely busy and rancorous place where the most personal aspects of people’s lives are not only on display, but judged and reshaped in proceedings that often last no longer than 20 minutes. Appointed commissioners, rather than elected judges, make many of the most crucial decisions. And the standard of evidence (known as “preponderance of the evidence”) is the lowest allowed by law.

For years, dads’-rights groups have claimed that family court overwhelmingly favors women, particularly when it comes to custody. In former times, when dads generally did far less hands-on child-rearing than moms, those claims tended to be viewed as the ranting of bitter misogynists.

But parenting roles have changed. And the “judicial system,” says veteran family-law attorney Deborah Bianco, “is way behind the culture.” Bianco is one of a number of mainstream family-law attorneys—representing both women and men, and often female themselves—who now say they too see a bias against men.

Rhea Rolfe, an attorney who once taught a “women and the law” class at the University of Washington, recalls sitting with a male client in a commissioner’s courtroom one day. There were maybe seven or eight cases heard. “She ruled against every single man,” Rolfe recalls, “and two of them were unopposed.”

“In any other arena, the evidence gets you the ruling,” observes attorney Maya Trujillo Ringe. “But in this particular arena, the dad has a much bigger uphill battle.” So much so, she says, that she and other attorneys often joke that “if you put a skirt on the dad, same facts,” he’d win primary custody. “You can overcome the bias,” Ringe adds, “but it takes a lot of work and a lot of resources.”

Attorney Jennifer Forquer agrees, noting that “fathers will routinely be sent to parenting classes” by commissioners. “It doesn’t matter if they took paternity leave, if they changed diapers. If a mother makes an allegation that a father’s parenting is deficient, he ends up going.” If a dad wants to make such an allegation about a mom, she says, “you have to be careful how you present that.” Commissioners are not inclined to believe it, she says.

By far, though, the most damaging allegation—the one that can change everything in an instant—is domestic violence. That’s why, Rolfe says, “there are attorneys who will advise a client to accuse the other party of domestic violence in order to gain an advantage.”

The accusations may not constitute what the general public thinks of as domestic violence. “Frequently, it’s not a big thing that you did, but the woman claims to be afraid,” says Rolfe.

Yet commissioners—and what Bianco calls a “little cottage industry” of professionals used by the court to assess and treat domestic violence—tend to give those allegations credibility and see a man’s denials as further proof of his guilt—the ultimate catch-22.

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Source: Seattle Weekly