DOVER — Accountability.
That’s what folks who bared their souls at Legislative Hall earlier this week want from Family Court proceedings in Delaware.
Behind closed doors as civil cases determine the future of fractured families, some aren’t convinced judges and attorneys are giving them a fair shake. Children’s views of mom and dad and financial futures are impacted by what is determined within the chambers.
The issues are serious family matters including child custody and visitation, divorce, termination of parental rights, paternity and other domestic situations in need of resolution.
Without accountability to a watchful public, some are concerned that the Family Court System may be tilted away from justice and more toward money and power.
State legislators have heard enough constituent concerns to authorize a task force analyzing whether Family Court needs to be held in the public view. Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 9 was the start of a 13-member group that held its third meeting on Tuesday.
Before the two-hour meeting, the task force opened the floor to public discussion in what turned into an often emotional, occasionally contentious and sometimes procedural discussion of how Family Court impacts lives in the throes of stress and turmoil involving loved ones and former spouses.
Several spoke up, and the sentiment was an addition to emails and earlier feedback the task force has received from those wishing to comment on their experiences in the system.
Semi-retired social worker Brendan Buschi of Milton, who said he has testified in Family Court proceedings in Delaware and five other states, said citizens need to see the actions that further abuse children involved.
“The judges, lawyers, therapists and advocates always come away with the benefits, never the children,” said Mr. Buschi, who said the status of proceedings should be determined by what benefits the children involved.
Mr. Buschi continued with “Regardless of how the lawyers spin their clients’ cases, money and property are the underlying concern … Children are just part of the property to be settled.”
Clayton’s Matthew Watson has been through the Family Court System as his family split and lamented the lack of public oversight in his hearings. He described cases as games of “dirty pool” and said whoever plays the dirtiest wins.
“If open, witnesses hold the court accountable,” said Mr. Watson, who said statements he’s made in proceedings have later been nowhere found in official court recordings.
Mr. Watson said he worries about the accountability of litigants and attorneys, focusing on lawyers who “are scared to death of judges and how they might tick them off and (affect) future business.”
Traveling to research
Then there was Dover resident Cynthia Smith, who said she was appalled enough by her own Family Court experiences to travel to Hartford, Conn. to research that system of open proceedings.
Ms. Smith put together 108 pages of research on Connecticut, and another 47 from the state of Washington. She concluded her thoughts with “In an open system, judges are less likely to rely on discretion in their decisions as opposed to using and applying the law to come to a decision when the public and press are present.
Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, is on the task force and was given responsibility for pulling together information on what other states are doing to open their courts.
Bonnie Corwin of Claymont contended that alleged domestic violence by her husband went overlooked due to her well-connected ex-spouse’s relationships with judges, and she was eventually rendered homeless after a series of adverse rulings to her.
While task force member Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Middle Run Valley, said he believed most judges are rendering decisions that accurately depict justice in quite difficult family matters, he said the public is served by seeing those matters determined before them, not just by reading a court order afterward.
“While I certainly honor the credibility and competence of the courts, there is some level of things that just don’t seem right,” Rep. Ramone said. “ … Giving the judges some level of scrutiny is acceptable to the search for a positive net outcome.”
Progress was made Tuesday, and the task force agreed unanimously to recommend that child custody and visitation hearings should be presumed open, with judges having discretion to close them to minors who might be adversely affected. Earlier, divorce, alimony and property division hearings were deemed best to be presumed open, while adoption and termination of parental rights appearances should remain closed.
Public view preferred
Sitting at the back of the second-floor Senate Hearing Room on Tuesday was John Flaherty, the Delaware Coalition for Open Government president who thinks that open government too often doesn’t get applied to the judicial branch, only legislative work.
Mr. Flaherty said the Family Court debate has been ongoing since 1992, when the Delaware House of Representatives debated now-shelved House Joint Resolution 23 that would have brought open court proceedings to the First State.
“You should adhere to Delaware Constitution (language in Article 1) that says courts should be open,” Mr. Flaherty said. “That trumps any statues and resolutions.”
The weighty discussions have pushed back the task force’s original target date to provide a report of findings to the General Assembly, and results are now expected by mid-April instead of Feb. 15.
The task force will meet on Jan. 23 from 10 a.m. to noon, with public discussion available from 9-10 a.m. Other meetings are planned, though coordinating calendars for task force members would determine the times and dates. Task force members are not paid for their service.
For more information on the task force, go online to legis.delaware.gov.
General Assembly task force members include Sens. Lawson and Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, and Reps. Ramone and Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington.
Two Family Court judges are on the panel — Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn and Michael Newell. Judge Kuhn said that courtroom safety for all is in peril at some proceedings if the court doesn’t have the authority to clear some potential hotheads.
Also discussed Tuesday was potential personal information disclosure lapses in open court settings, along with the chance for identity theft and the airing of “dirty laundry” among parents.
“I don’t think anyone at this table is not committed to getting to an appropriate place,” Judge Kuhn said during Tuesday’s meeting.
“This is about representing the interest of all parties involved …”
Other members include Dr. Joseph Zingaro (child psychologist), Patricia Dailey Lewis (AG’s office), Tania Culley (Office of Child Advocate), Janine Howard-O’Rangers (family law attorney), Lynn Kokjohn and Raetta McCall (both of the Family Law Commission), and Mariann Kenville-Moore (public member).
Ms. McCall said an evaluation of open court is critical because “You may only get one chance to have a case heard” and any case should be heard “fairly and justly.”
Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DSNAnderson on Twitter.