Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Showdown in Shawnee County: We finally got some hell instead of corn (Topeka, Kansas)

"What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more Hell."
Mary Elizabeth Lease (1853-1933)
Kansas political activist, suffragist, populist, writer, and lecturer

Not too many years ago, Thomas Frank wrote a book called "What's the Matter with Kansas?" where he wondered whatever happened to the spirit of progressive Kansas voices like Mary Elizabeth Lease.

After attending a custody hearing as a court observer in Shawnee County, Kansas last week, I can tell you that Mary's spirit still lives on--in Claudine Dombrowski.

Unfortunately, I also saw that the corruption and special interests that Mary railed against all her life are still with us too.

It's taken me a week to gather my thoughts together, because my experience as a court watcher was inspiring, maddening, frustrating, and revolting--all at the same time.

Claudine Dombrowski is a Kansas mother, a domestic violence survivor, who lost custody of her daughter to her abusive ex-husband, Hal Richardson, in an ex parte decision.

For those of you who are not legal experts, an ex parte decision is one decided by a judge without requiring all of the parties to the controversy to be present. Basically we're talking about a legal proceeding brought by one person in the absence of and without representation or notification of other parties.

In the United States--or so we're told--the availability of ex parte orders or decrees from both federal and state courts is sharply limited by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which provide that a person shall not be deprived of any interest in liberty or property without due process of law.

In THEORY, this has been interpreted to require adequate notice of the request for judicial relief and an opportunity to be heard concerning the merits of such relief. A court order issued on the basis of an ex parte proceeding, therefore, SHOULD necessarily be TEMPORARY AND INTERIM in nature, and the person(s) affected by the order must be given an opportunity to contest the appropriateness of the order before it can be made permanent.

In REALITY, this has never happened in Claudine's case. The ex-parte hearing took place in 2004. Six long years ago. That's an huge piece of somebody's childhood. Since then, Claudine has been on supervised visitation although I NEVER heard Hal Richardson's attorney, Jason P. Hoffman, bother to articulate A SINGLE REASON AS TO WHY. In fact, Claudine has never been accused of or investigated for child abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, or any other abuse you can think of.

But more about that later.

The purpose of this hearing was to finally get Claudine unsupervised parenting time and to force the court to follow established Kansas law per Chapter 60, article 16. This states that a parent must be allowed "reasonable parenting time" unless it can be DEMONSTRATED that the parent is dangerous or somehow harmful to the child.

I've mentioned that I did not hear one single accusation regarding Claudine's parenting abilities, much less any evidence, even of the flimsiest sort.

So what did I hear? I heard utterly ALARMING AND FRIGHTENING attacks on Claudine as an outspoken advocate for victims of domestic violence and as a human rights activist. I saw an obsessive fishing expedition orchestrated by Jason Hoffman, who was demanding that the authorship of various domestic violence blogs and websites be publicly revealed--even ones that I know for a fact that Claudine has no connection with. As if being a domestic violence advocate was some sort of act of treason or crime against the state!

Where the hell are we? I kept asking myself. China? Burma? North Korea?

I also witnessed an obsessive line of inquiry as to whether Claudine had removed all references and photos of her daughter from the Internet. Through all this, Hoffman did not produce one piece of timely evidence to suggest that she had not. In short, another ridiculous piece of legal grandstanding.

Oh, and another thing. The specter of ALIENATION! Despite the fact that the father (and his cronies) had limited this mother to supervised visitation since 2004, and that the father had conveniently obstructed all visits since last summer, Hoffman had the nerve to accuse Claudine of being an alienator or potential alienator! Never mind that if ANYBODY should be labeled an alienator, it's Daddy Dearest. For me, this moment crystalized how the whole "alienation" label has become increasingly bogus with every passing day. That Daddy has shut off a child from contact with a non-abusive, fit, and loving mother isn't "alienation." That Mom might have some residual anger or frustration about the situation is. Horse patootie.

One other party in this scam deserves special recognition. Jill Dykes, who has been connected with this case as a guardian ad litem, showed that she was utterly incapable of even the barest appearance of professional objectivity. Throughout the entire hearing, she was literally at Daddy's elbow, sometimes whispering into his ear. This is neutrality? This is the best interest of the child? Though she objected to unsupervised visitation being granted, she produced zero evidence to support her position. There was something about a letter, not written by Ms. Dykes, but by somebody else who was conveniently unavailable for questioning or cross-examination. Such a coincidence. And even that letter was said to be quite old--didn't catch how old.

Generally, her reasoning came down to a distorted circle of pseudo logic: Ms. Dombrowski should be on supervised visitation because...she's been on supervised visitation. Not good enough, Ms. Dykes. Can you come up with better? Didn't think so.

It seemed quite apparent that Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Richardson, and Ms. Dykes thought they could play the same old games and get away with it. And maybe they would have.

Except in the audience, there were a half dozen observers from Topeka, Kansas City, and even out of state, who were scribbling down every word. Because all of us had heard about the blatant constitutional violations in this case, and all us had decided to bear witness to it.

I'll give credit to Judge David Debenham. Maybe he has seen the light, and realized what a legal travesty and constitutional outrage this case has become. Or maybe he just felt the heat, with all the court watchers present.

The end result is that he ordered limited unsupervised visitation. Just two hours on a Sunday to start. And the right to telephone twice a week.

But it's a start. And it's an opportunity for this mother and daughter to start a healing process that is long overdue.