Monday, March 16, 2009

In tough economy, Tennessee's divorce industry is destroying people's lives and those of their children; tomorrow on Hill is bill to help fight back

I wish I still had my newspaper column in The Tennessean, not for celebrity, for the ability to bring the following evil to as broad as audience as possible.

Tennessee's divorce industry is robbing good people of income they can ill afford in this tough economy and destroying the lives of children as the most imperiled pawns in all of this mess.

Tomorrow at 9:15 a.m. in House Hearing Room 30 is legislation that represents taking back this legal mechanism to serve the public. The "Avin and Preston Law" -- named for two children who have been most victimized by a divorce industry geared first to robbing Tennesseans of their hard-earned income and dignity -- will be considered before a House subcommittee.

I can think of no better place for my TV media colleagues to be hear some unbelievable horror stories amid incredibly difficult economic times. Some parents who do not have custody are only getting to see their children for three hours in a year under supervised visits. And they have to pay for visits that begin at $48 an hour and run up.

Who can afford that in today's economy?

These fathers and mothers are not drug addicts, prostitutes and ex-criminals. These parents are hard-working Tennesseans who just don't have the money that the ex-spouse has to hire the best attorney and influence the judge and a guardian ad litem.

This injustice is not men versus women. Both genders have been victimized. Fathers' rights group have joined with former officers in NOW to push this legislation.

But you don't have to feel sorry for the spouses. Pity the poor child or children who want to see both parents, without some stranger looking on. This situation is outrage in a nation that supposedly cherishes family values.

This is the outrage that must not stand. And I wish I had my column to wage this fight.

The New York Times just published a story on the mistreatment of non-custodial spouses in New York City. Some parents are on waiting lists to see their children. Income determines justice, something the lady holding the scales with a blindfold never told us about.

Custody battles are rarely gentle affairs, but if you are poor, such fights can carry an added frustration: waiting months to get a court-approved visit with your own child.

In cases involving allegations of domestic violence, which are increasing, or other issues, such as drug abuse and long absenteeism, judges often require that child’s visits with the noncustodial parent take place only in the presence of a professional, like a social worker.

But when judges order supervised visitation, neither the court nor other government agencies pay for the service, a growing problem in New York City and across the nation.

Because he cannot afford to pay for supervised visitation, which routinely costs $100 an hour, Juan Manuel Fernandez, 51, of Washington Heights, said, he has not seen his two daughters, ages 6 and 11, since last October.

A year ago, he said, his wife walked out, moved the girls to New Jersey, and told the court he was threatening her. He denies the accusation, but the judge in his case ruled that supervision was necessary. So now he is waiting for free supervision through a nonprofit agency, which can take months.

“It’s very hard to have to wait to see your own kids,” Mr. Fernandez said in Spanish, through a translator.

“Imagine it, they’re just little girls. I felt like crying when I had to leave them,” he said, especially because he knew it could be a long time before he could see them.

In supervised visitations, a third party oversees the handoff of children between parents and then monitors the interaction. The concept is not new, and sometimes the supervision can be done by a member of one of the couple’s families.

Still, more judges think it is safer to order professional supervision, particularly in cases involving domestic violence or sexual abuse, drug use, mental illness, a history of criminal activity or jail time, or simply longtime absenteeism.
When these factors turn up in custody fights, for low-income couples, the ensuing costs for supervised visits can be insurmountable.

The only option for most of those families is to get in line for free supervision through a nonprofit agency. But only a handful of groups provide the free service, and they say because of financing pressures, the wait can often reach six months.

Jacqueline W. Silbermann, deputy chief administrative judge of New York for matrimony matters, says of supervised visitation, “You can order it, but unfortunately we don’t control the resources. So finding affordable services is a very serious, serious problem.”

Now all of us know that it is quite easy to make an accusation in a divorce case. And most attorneys and their industry feed the already existing anger that led to a separation to make everyone adversaries. That means more money for everyone in the divorce industry and days in court in which each side tries to win, not do what is best for the child.

One would think the judge is there to resolve matters fairly. That's increasingly is not the case in Tennessee. The more money in the estate being battled over, the longer the proceedings go. And then when a guardian is appointed, that means even more money to pay her costs.

In Tennessee, that guardian comes from a non-profit agency that uses all the high hourly fees to help fill their budgets. So the longer there is a guardian in a case. the better the non-profit does.

Money corrupts, absolutely.

So that is why I am making my appeal to my TV journalist colleagues. You are the only hope left in Middle Tennessee and beyond to enlighten the populace to the evil that eats away at our society.

Please show up tomorrow morning and talk to law-abiding Tennesseans and parents who are experiencing the worst of nightmares from a legal system that is serving itself during the worst of economic times.

1. *HB0677 by *Cooper B, *DeBerry J, *Jones U, *Turner M, *Jones S. (SB2213 by *Ford, O..)
Child Custody and Support - As introduced, imposes various requirements on court ordered supervised visitation. - Amends TCA Title 36, Chapter 6, Part 3.

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