Mt. Rainier and Lenticular Clouds - Dec. 2008 copyright: JMM

January 27, 2011

The Family Law Community Takes a Hit

The family law community in Pierce County is pretty small.  We work with the same attorneys over and over again.  Staff knows staff.  Everyone knows the Judges, their Judicial Assistants and Court Reporters, and they know us.  That's not to say that there isn't conflict because there is, and a lot of it.  Sometimes with family law, the lawyers are sniping at each other as much, if not worse, than the divorcing couple is.  

But when something really bad happens to someone in the legal community, even one who has been in an adversarial position with you, it hits everyone hard.  Because it could just as easily happen to any lawyer or Judge that works in this field.  I don't believe in god or anything, but that expression, "There but for the grace of god, go I" comes to mind.

We had a terrible tragedy come to light over the past few days.  Back in October, a woman filed a Petition for an Order of Protection.  The Temporary Order was granted, which restrained the other side from harassing her, but only until the hearing.  At the hearing, the Commissioner heard her testimony.  She told him that the man was the father of her child, but he had been violent in the past and she had taken out Restraining Orders in Thurston County about 5 or 6 years ago when he'd hit her a couple of times, but mostly now he was just calling her incessantly and occastionally making threats.  He was in and out of prison, she did allow him to see their kid, and even visited him while he was in prison.  He was going to be out in 3 months' time, and she was afraid of him.  The Commissioner ruled that the reasons she stated for needing the Order of Protection did not meet the statutory requirements, and denied her request.  Technically she wasn't in imminent danger because she'd even visited him about 6 times while he was at the work release center. 

Weeellll, the other night the guy got out of prison. Apparently she told her friends that since she couldn't get the Order of Protection, she felt that she had to be nice to the guy, in order to keep him from going off on her.  So she invited him over to discuss the Parenting Plan she was trying to get in place, which would allow him residential time with their kid.  And while their 10 year old daughter hosted 4 friends for a sleepover in the room next door, they argued and he stabbed her to death.  The children heard the fighting and screaming.  The little girl saw her mom covered in blood, dead on the floor and will be traumatized for the rest of her life.  

The Commissioner did his job, but he's starting to take a beating in the media, especially from the family of the murdered woman.  It's easy to obtain the transcript of the hearing and all of the documents if you go to the Courthouse and request them. That said, I'm not going to name him here, because plenty of news agencies are covering this story, if you want the specifics.  This Commissioner a tough nut, I will say that for him.  He puts family law attorneys through their paces when they enter final divorce documents on the Ex Parte Docket.  He will refuse to sign final papers and assign case law for the attorneys to look up; in essence sending the attorneys back to the drawing board, even when all of the parties agreed on the documents.  

But right now, I feel really, really bad for the Commissioner.  I do.  I empathize with this man and this situation.  He doesn't have an easy job.  No one who works in family law will say it's easy. It's definitely interesting, but extremely tragic.  I learn new things every day.  I have seen some really fucked up situations, including DV.  But only because some people can afford to hire an attorney, we are able to ensure that the request for a Protection Order meets the statutory requirements.  Unfortunately, this has happened before, and it will probably happen again.

It's a horrible position to be in, as a Judge or Court Commissioner, in family law.  You literally hold the future of these people's lives in your hands, and you have to sift through the all of the vitriol and bullshit, and try to find some middle ground.  You have to consider the law and all the statutes, and see who makes a better argument.  If the woman had an attorney, all the i's would have been dotted and the t's crossed.  But who can afford a lawyer?  Hardly anyone.  More people than not try to do it themselves, with little to no guidance.  You have the lack-of-education-factor with many of them.  The Commissioners and Judges have to struggle to not show their frustration outwardly at the Pro Se people that show up for the 1:30 DV Docket.  Now this Commissioner has to live with the media backlash that's already started.  It hits the whole family law community hard when something like this happens.  I don't know the Commissioner personally, but I feel like I do.  I cannot imagine what he must be feeling now.  I'm sure that there will be plenty of vocal detractors in the legal community with an axe to grind, but we won't be among them.  My boss is as distressed as I am about how he is being treated by the media.  This kind of thing is a judicial officer's worst nightmare.  No matter how often you grumble about what the Judges and Commissioners did or did not do, you don't want to ever see something like this happen to a colleague.  

The system is broken.  It needs to be fixed.  I'm the first person who will admit that a piece of paper labeled "Order of Protection" is not going to help, and any victim of DV will tell you it's a joke. However, and unfortunately, if one isn't on file with the Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA), the cops can't take the offender to jail if they break the Order.  That is, if you can get the cops to show up.  The instances of DV are increasing and the law enforcement budgets are shrinking, so cops are stretched thin.  The Commissioners and Judges are bound by the statutes to issue, or not issue, Orders of Protection.   I don't know what the answer is.  Everything in the legal system is so convoluted, especially went it comes to family law.  Issues have gotten so complex that the forms have gotten longer and longer.  How are uneducated people supposed to figure it out? Even with the help of the staff at the Family Justice Center, it's very complex.  Hell I couldn't even figure out the latest version of the Order of Child Support, and I've been working in law since 1990!  That form has grown to TWENTY PAGES!!!

Now a woman is dead because her fears came true, a Commissioner is under fire & being vilified in the press, and more likely than not, feels just horrible about it.  A little girl has lost her mom to murder and her father to prison for that crime.  He's been charged with Murder 1, which means they may seek the death penalty.  The 4 girls who were in the house that night, and their families, are going to be dealing with the psychological ramifications of this for a damn long time.  

And so will we.

8 comments:

  1. What a horrible tragedy. I am so sorry that you are going throught this, Jo. While your compassion for this commissioner is laudable I think he stinks. Why not grant this order of protection? Who would it hurt to err on the side of safety for the woman and child? I assume the bio-father argued against the petition? If he didn't object would the petition have gone through? The bio-father could still petition for supervised visitation if contact with the child was his concern, right? This jerk has been in jail numerous times? He should be automatically denied access to them until he PROVED he was NOT violent, instead of her having to prove he WOULD be violent. The laws make no sense sometimes and the people in charge need to follow the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law.

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  2. My heart goes out to all those that have had their lives negatively impacted by this horrible person.

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  3. It's hard when there are people who don't take someone seriously. They wait until something really horrible will happen before they make any move. It happens all the time everywhere. Even on TV shows. People call the victims paranoid when taking too much precautions but what do they call them when it all comes true? Dead.

    That little girl needs to be watched now. She may have the tendency to do the action she saw. At her young age, she saw it done. She may not even comprehend it as something wrong. She just doesn't understand until she gets the consequences herself.

    What a real life tragedy!

    http://brownbugz.blogspot.com

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  4. I'm sorry, but her friends should have intervened and got her out of the situation. She should have gone to a "safe house" or somewhere safe. Instead, she invited him into her home. Granted, it was out of fear, but still she set herself up for the inevitable. I'm not saying she asked to be murdered. There is no solid answer as to what can be done in these situations. Even if she had been granted an order of protection, everyone knows that's not a solution. Many times they fail. The onus is on the prison system to monitor the movements of the prisoners they release. He should have never been allowed to go near her home as an order of his release. I agree with BROWNBUGZ in that it's always after a tragedy that action is taken. Why do we always have to have human lives sacrificed in order to examine our laws?

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  5. Dear Jojo,
    My thoughts are for all who are involved in this matter.
    But now YOU. You have just written an article that should be published in the newspapers. It is clear, sensible and sensitive. You do not take sides and respect all parties concerned. Thank You.

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  6. What a tragedy. It's appalling that justice is only open to the rich. Over here, our wonderful new government is restricting legal aid to such an extent that things like suits against drug companies for damage done by their products will no longer be available to ordinary folk. In a very shortsighted way they have also decreed that it will not be available in family court and divorce cases unless domestic violence is involved. So people (mostly women) will have to claim that it is involved so that they can get legal support.

    It's a lose:lose situation.

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  7. While I’m sure I would feel differently if I knew the parties involved, I have essentially no sympathy for any judge/commissioner/lawyer who takes the heat for this sort of situation. As you noted, the system is screwed up big time. We have set up a situation in the American legal system where there are often only two choices: hire an attorney (an option unavailable to many due to financial reasons) or go pro se (an option unavailable to many due to lack of legal education/experience). And why are these the only two choices? Because attorneys want it that way.
    When I was studying for my paralegal certificate, one of the first things that was impressed upon me was that, as a paralegal, my hands would be completely tied when it came to offering even friendly advice to friends or family. Ironically, I had more protection as a person off the street to offer up opinions on legal situations than I would as a trained professional. A discussion between friends discussing a legal situation would be construed as just that—two friends talking, exchanging opinions. But if I engaged in the same discussion once I was a paralegal, that’s UPL baby! –A one-way ticket to unemployment and possible fines and prosecution. The Bar, as it stands now, will brook no compromise between making clients pay full attorney fees or going before the court in (often) complete ignorance.
    There was a recent movement here in Washington to certify legal “practitioners” of some sort—professionals who fall somewhere between paralegals and full attorneys who could handle the more routine legal matters (including uncontested dissolutions) to help make the legal system more affordable, especially in those practice areas that endure many pro se litigants. Because these potential clients were not paying attorneys anyway (since they couldn’t afford to), the program was unlikely to dilute full attorneys take home pay. To analogize it to the medical field, not only do we have doctors, but we have physician assistants, midwives, nurse practitioners, etc., all of whom help make medical services more affordable. Doctors seem to have no problem with this reality, but attorneys? Attorneys will piss all over the legal system to mark their territory before they will ever admit that a professional doesn’t necessarily have to have a full legal degree to be of competent service in the legal system. Needless to say, the program died a slow and painful death.
    And that, in my opinion, is why this woman wasn’t granted the protection order she sought: she couldn’t afford an attorney and she didn’t have the savvy to do it on her own. Just the way the attorneys who run the legal system want it.

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  8. Gail - Sorry, I don't agree w/ your take on the Commissioner. I read the Petition she filed and it was vague at best. Her having visited him was detrimental to her request.

    Bev - The wounds are going to be open for a long time.

    Brownbugz - It does seem like it takes a tragedy to get laws changed.

    Nantz - I agree with you. It's a shame any of this had to happen and that the vic couldn't get help before he got out of jail.

    Elka - Thank you so much for your kind words! :) One of the lawyers we know wrote a letter to the paper sticking up for the Commissioner. It was the right thing to do.

    Val - the poor and indigent always get screwed over.

    Pernicious - I'm very glad to see your comments. I was hoping you'd see this post, since you are a local like me. Rule 54 paralegals are able to do some things, but yeah, they can't help with any kind of advice. I know I broke the rules, but I helped a friend get divorced in Seattle. Her story was extremely compelling and she needed help and has zero money. There's also a paralegal service called We The People who does cheapo divorces for people & files them mostly in Lincoln County, but there is no one to help people with the DV stuff. It's just so wrong.

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