Connecticut family courts are filled with horror stories. Why? One could blame the parties for not getting along, but that is ridiculous since people separate precisely because they don’t get along. The answer lies in both family lawyers who exacerbate conflict and with the court’s failure to timely resolve conflict.
Here are five true family court stories. Names have been changed for privacy.
A family court attorney in Vernon filed a contempt motion against John for being five days late with a child support payment. It turns out the attorney got the math wrong. The child support wasn’t late. The same attorney filed another contempt motion for unpaid child support the following year. At court, John proved that he made the payments on time. The attorney had failed to review her client’s bank statements, where the weekly child support payments were clearly visible – skipping an ethical obligation of due diligence before filing her contempt motion.
Rafaela and Chuck could not agree on a post-divorce holiday schedule for their children, and a trial ensued at the Putnam family court. For each holiday, Rafaela wanted to have the children every other year. Chuck’s attorney argued that Chuck should have the kids every Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Fourth of July since these are American holidays, and Rafaela is an immigrant, seemingly ignoring that the children are U.S. citizens where U.S. holidays are the primary holidays observed. To give the appearance of compromise, Chuck’s attorney then fabricated fake “holidays” for Rafaela, presenting those days as holidays in Rafaela’s country of origin, even though they were not.
Adam and Susan are unmarried with one child, Benjamin. Adam desired parenting time and filed a custody case in Hartford family court. Adam submitted a parenting plan that included a proposed standard alternating holiday schedule to Susan’s counsel and the guardian ad litem (GAL). Neither opposing counsel nor the GAL gave feedback, a counterproposal, modifications, an alternative parenting plan, or any other suggestions relative to any other aspect of the plan. This forced the case to a multi-day trial, the outcome of which was effectively the same holiday schedule originally proposed by Adam. The attorney’s failure to act in good faith and with diligence resulted in great expense to both parents, while needlessly usurping valuable court resources.
In the New Britain family court, a judge ordered Milton to participate in family counseling, stating that future parental disagreements must first be addressed there absent an emergency. Milton avoided family counseling. When new disagreements arose, Milton’s attorney continued to file court motions despite the lack of prior attempts to engage family counseling.
As part of the weekly parenting schedule, Robert wanted to pick up the children at 6:15 a.m., but Sheila thought that was too early, as young children need a good night’s sleep. To argue for the 6:15 a.m. exchange, Robert employed three different family attorneys from three different Connecticut law firms in front of four different judges. The three attorneys also argued that Sheila should pay some of Robert’s legal fees on the matter.
In cases like these, the family court system falls short of its stated objective to resolve conflicts and to do so in a “timely way.” Instead of acting in children’s best interest, these attorneys sow further discord between parents.
There are, of course, family attorneys who attempt to help and heal their clients through alternative dispute resolution such as mediation and collaborative divorce. However, when overly aggressive lawyers run to the clogged-up family courts, other more important issues involving domestic abuse, child neglect, parental alienation, or contempt of court are not resolved in a timely manner. Family court should not be blood sport. Such action reflects poorly on the whole legal profession, and it is something that all attorneys must help resolve.
While attorneys are paid by their clients, taxpayers pay handsomely for courts and judges. Overly aggressive lawyers unnecessarily usurp time from judges and other court officials, the costs of which could be better allocated to reduce taxes or benefit schools, domestic violence programs, parent education programs, children’s museums, or numerous other things that benefit our children.
Unfortunately, there are many similar stories from around the state. Connecticut has a broken family court system. It is harmful to children, families, and domestic abuse victims. Cases are taking too long to be resolved, and it is costly to taxpayers. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and fix it. It’s not rocket science.
Martin Kulldorff is a professor of medicine at Harvard University (on leave), a senior scholar at the Brownstone Institute in West Hartford, and an advisor to the National Parents Organization. He lives in Ashford. Maureen Martowska is a retired attorney and mediator with a long career advocating for the disabled. She is a member of the Shared Parenting Council of Connecticut and a former member of the Parent Empowering Parents (PEP) Advisory Board at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University.