In the Middle Ages, disputes were originally settled on a battlefield by knights. Consider the court room a battlefield, rather than a place for justice and protection of children or victims of family violence.
JUDGES: Judges are at the top of the court pyramid. Although other judges can hear custody cases, the trend in California is to have particular judges assigned to unified family courts and given special training. There are also commissioners, judges pro tem, referees, and private or retired judges who hear cases. All of these justices have complete power over your case.
WARNING: Judges are immune from law suits pertaining to rulings made as part of their job duties! (Government Code 820 et seq)
MEDIATORS: Many California family courts assign Family Court Services mediators, employed as part of the court system, to help people in custody disputes talk through and solve problems (Family Code 3160 et seq).
Although often helpful, mediation can be a real problem in family violence cases, as indicated by the factors below.
WARNING: In many California counties, mediators make recommendations to the judge!
If you and the father cannot solve the custody problem in mediation, the mediator, in "recommending counties," issues a report to the court regarding custody. This means family court mediation is not actually confidential. Because the court orders you to go to mediation, and the mediator then reports each of your positions, attitudes, and requests back to the judge, along with his own opinions and recommendations, this practice has been called "entrapment" by attorneys.
Mediators have great power, because judges usually rubber-stamp their recommendations, even if the mediator has no expertise in child development, substance abuse or family violence.
We have very little advice to offer here, aside from suggesting that you behave in a completely calm and friendly manner with the mediator. It is best to speak only with the mediator, rather than engage the father in any conversation.
Some protective mothers show their willingness to work with their abuser by offering to "co-parent" in writing, in order to ensure a written record of the exchanges. (Be sure to keep all documents in your binder.)
By remaining polite, businesslike, and pleasant, you may find that the abuser's facade will eventually crack and his true abusive personality will be demonstrated.
WARNING: Mediators are immune from law suits, since they are part of the court system!
If you can't agree about custody during mediation and the mediator does not make a strong recommendation, usually the next step is that a psychologist is appointed by the court to evaluate the family (Family Code 3110 et seq).
This evaluator holds tremendous power in your case. The judge almost always rubber-stamps the evaluator's recommendation.
WARNING: Many psychologists minimize or ignore child abuse and family violence!
Here is the next Catch 22: professionals may describe the family violence in their report accurately, but then go on to describe you, the protective mother, as "hysterical," "deluded," and "alienating." They may recommend that your child be placed with the offender because of the dreaded "Parental Alienation Syndrome" (PAS), which is a non-diagnosis that does not meet even minimal legal standards. However, it is virtual death to the protective mother in a custody dispute.
WARNING: Your child's therapist may minimize or ignore disclosures of abuse!
Finding a family law attorney who is skilled, ethical, truly working for you, and who doesn't charge exorbitant fees is a real challenge.
Many protective mothers have unnerving stories of attorneys who charged them reasonably, were friendly and helpful, and at the last minute, "threw" the case to the father in overt or subtle ways. Other attorneys simply take your money and refuse to return calls. Your best bet is to find and ask that attorney's other clients about their experiences. The Internet may be helpful.
WARNING: Attorneys may seem great when you begin, and then sell you down the river!
YOUR CHILD'S ATTORNEY-
The judge may appoint private counsel or a representative, a "guardian ad litem" for your child. (Family Code 3150 et seq)
WARNING: It is practically impossible to get rid of an attorney for the child.
A Special Master is a legal or mental health professional who takes over the case instead of a judge. (Family Law Code 20034 et seq) They believe they are masters, which makes you a servant.
WARNING: Once in place, the Special Master has total power over your case!
...Continue on to COURT PROCEEDINGS, ISSUES, SUPERVISED VISITS
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