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Taking action
Reforming family court. Plus, Senator Kennedy steps up.

A SPECIAL REPORT by Phoenix staff writer Kristen Lombardi on the state of the nationís family-court system (see "Children at Risk," News and Features, January 10) prompted an outpouring from readers (see "Letters"). Itís clear from Lombardiís report, as well as from our readersí emotional responses, that reform of the family-court system is badly needed.

Itís unreasonable to expect that such reform will happen anytime soon. Court reform is a vexing undertaking, particularly when it involves venues that deal with highly charged divorce and custody proceedings. That said, there are aspects of the family-court system that any observer would find problematic. The judge in a family courtroom is the only arbiter of justice. More often than not, there is no real means of appeal. There are no juries. And, as with other forms of civil litigation, unless you can afford an attorney, you donít get one.

Under such a system, claims of child abuse made by one parent against another can easily be dismissed as a tool designed to manipulate the court. At a minimum, such claims should be investigated by people skilled in examining criminal complaints. They should be professionals who have no relationship with any party in the proceedings ó neither the parents nor the children. Currently, guardians ad litem, who are charged with protecting the best interests of the children involved in such proceedings, are called upon to explore such allegations ó even though they are rarely skilled at criminal investigation.

Ex parte hearings, in which judges make rulings with just one party present ó oftentimes the other party isnít even aware that the hearing is taking place, nor is he or she told of it afterward ó are used to such an extent that credible arguments can be made that constitutional rights of due process are routinely violated. These hearings should be utilized only rarely.

The use of the bogus psychological disorder "parental-alienation syndrome," the brainchild of Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist affiliated with Columbia University who has not opened his research to peer review and who publishes his books, audiotapes, and videotapes on the "syndrome" through his own vanity press, should be banned in family court.

These measures are small steps. But they would be a much-needed start. As Lombardiís report suggests, the number of abused children placed in the care of the abusing parent by family-court judges is small. But just one such child is too many.

FINALLY, SOME life from the Democrats! On Tuesday, Senator Ted Kennedy gave a wide-ranging ó and feisty ó address to the National Press Club criticizing President George W. Bush on everything from a possible war with Iraq and relations with North and South Korea to Bushís judicial nominees.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, Democrats have been fearful of engaging in any meaningful debate on foreign policy. In the latest show of fecklessness, we heard nary a peep from Democrats when Bush-administration officials blamed the current crisis in North Korea on "appeasement" policies put in place by the Clinton administration, as Vice-President Dick Cheney recently did on CNBCís Kudlow & Kramer. Kennedyís answer to this criticism was direct: "The sudden emergence and escalation of the crisis with North Korea is the result of a US foreign policy that was AWOL on that issue for the first 21 months of the Bush administration. Then the administration lurched into an unsustainable overreaction when it initially refused even to talk unless the North Koreans backed down.... What a contrast with the previous administration, when peace was a consistent priority in our foreign policy and there was a clear understanding of the complex challenge on the Korean peninsula. I have great respect for Governor Bill Richardson, but it is ridiculous that North Korean envoys had to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to find someone in America to talk to."

He ripped into Bush for not doing enough to protect American security at home and for having "squandered" global goodwill toward the US in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in favor of an "immediate, unilateral war with Iraq" by way of a "chip-on-the-shoulder" style of foreign policymaking. He slammed the Bush stimulus package as "tax breaks primarily for those with the highest incomes." And he skewered the president for having attacked affirmative action plans on, "of all days," Martin Luther King Jr.ís birthday. Kennedy even managed to work in a slam of the GOPís politicization of stem-cell research and a call to end workplace discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

The Democratic Party has shown few signs of life since the humiliation of the midterm elections. Kennedyís speech was a gratifying call to arms for those who still believe, as Kennedy said Tuesday, that if America is to be a great country, we must "truly advance the cause of opportunity for all" and that if America is to be a leader in the world, we must maintain a "decent respect for the opinions of others."

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: January 23 - 30, 2003
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