Most Americans receive their impressions of what goes on in court from courtroom dramas in the movies or on TV, or from serving on juries – in other words, law as it is practiced in criminal proceedings or in lawsuits. In such cases, there are extensive rules of procedure and evidence that judges are required to follow. Not only that, but the judge is not the one making the decision; the jury is.
Few people realize that family law cases don’t look anything like this. There are almost no rules of procedure or evidence that the judge has to follow, and the judge is the lone decision-maker. In this context the potential is overwhelming for unfairness in the procedure and bias in the ruling. Family law judges are free to do almost anything they choose (short of sleeping with one of the parties, which did finally get a judge in Massachusetts in trouble in a case that I followed). They can choose to listen to a party or to refuse to let him or her speak. They can examine certain evidence or refuse to hear it. They can allow certain witnesses to testify and refuse to hear from others, or refuse to let the parties have a hearing to put on witnesses at all. Most people would be stunned to observe what happens in family law; it’s kangaroo court.
Which brings us to the latest news in the Wendi G. case. For the second time a judge has declared that he won’t look at the evidence of child sexual abuse and yet is going to punish Wendi as if she’s making her children’s disclosures up. This time it’s Judge Jon Hulsing of Ottawa County (MI) Circuit Court. (Last time it was Judge Thomas Kane in Colorado; you can read my blog entry from August 25th.)
Here’s what happened: On this past Tuesday, September 27, Wendi had to go to court because her ex-husband, Mr. C., filed a motion to terminate all contact between Wendi and her children, meaning no phone calls and no visits even with supervision, and to suspend all parental rights for Wendi – meaning she couldn’t even speak with school personnel. The hearing began with testimony from Mr. C. which took up the morning session. After lunch Judge Hulsing asked for a meeting with the attorneys in his chambers. He then returned to open court and presented his ruling. Yes, you read it correctly; the judge ruled before the mother’s case was ever presented, having heard only from the father.
During the meeting that had happened in the judge’s chambers, Wendi’s attorney, a national voice for abused children named Alan Rosenfeld, requested an evidentiary hearing where Wendi would be able to present witnesses and other evidence. Such a hearing is crucial to fairness and safety; Mr. C. is claiming that Wendi should be cut off the children because she had no reason to take the children into hiding, and Wendi can’t defend herself against this charge if she can’t present the evidence of sexual abuse. But Judge Hulsing stated that he would not grant an evidentiary hearing until after Wendi’s criminal trial on kidnapping charges, which is still more than a month away.
Judge Hulsing further stated that even at that time he will not allow the videotape of the forensic interviews with Wendi’s children to be introduced into evidence. The highly-trained forensic interviewer team, which included a police detective and three human service professionals, did not find any evidence of the children’s statements having been pressured or coached and elicited detailed and credible descriptions of multiple incidents of sexual touching by the father of the daughter, some of which the boy reported having witnessed. (I have read the full report of the forensic interview team.)
Wouldn’t the judge be eager to see this evidence, so that he could decide for himself whether there was adequate reason to cut a mother off from her children? And wouldn’t he want to know whether there’s reason to be concerned for the children’s safety, since they are currently living with their father? Objective observers are forced to conclude that the judge has already decided that no significant evidence exists -- without looking at it. But what if Wendi and her daughter are telling the truth? Then the children would be currently at risk, and they would be suffering serious punishment – being isolated completely from their loving mother – for the offense of disclosing what was happening to them.
Judge Hulsing then came out into the court room and ruled that Wendi cannot have any contact with her children for the next five weeks because he doesn’t want her to “sandpaper” the case. He did not explain why he is concerned that Wendi would influence the children’s statements but not concerned that Mr. C. might do so. And not only has no one presented any evidence yet that the children’s statements to the forensic interviewers were coached or pressured, the children expressed in those interviews being afraid of their father but not their mother; the risk of “sandpapering” would thus appear to be more serious in the paternal home. Ah yes, but the judge refuses to read the reports of those interviews, or watch the tapes.
Judge Hulsing stated that Wendi can put in a new request for an evidentiary hearing once her criminal trial is over, and at that point the judge will be willing to consider whether she may have “supervised phone contact” with her children. It would appear, thus, that he has already decided that no outcome could persuade him to resume the children’s normal relationship with their mother. Our society is educating children that if someone touches them sexually they should “tell someone,” but these children appear to have paid the highest price imaginable for having done so.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1) Write to the Judicial Tenure Commission and protest Judge Hulsing’s refusal to allow Wendi G. to present her evidence. Refer to Wendi's case number which is 2009-063448-DC.
Judicial Tenure Commission
3034 West Grand Boulevard, Suite 8-450
Detroit, MI. 48202
Letters can be anonymous if you aren't comfortable giving your name.
2) File a formal complaint (anyone can do so, but you will have to give your name) with the Judicial Tenure Commission by going to the website at jtc.courts.mi.gov/. This process requires the extra step of filling out a form and taking it to be notarized, but there would potentially be a significant impact if large numbers of people filed formal complaints, so I’m hoping that you will. Again, use the case number shown above.
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