We, in America, like to say that what happens behind closed doors is nobody else’s business. But what if what happens between consenting adults results in the rest of us having to pay out billions of dollars when things go wrong?
It is happening year after year. Taxpayers are footing the bill for countless ugly divorces, separations and couples who have babies out of wedlock. Experts who keep track of this call it “family fragmentation” and estimate that we, collectively, pay more than $112 billion annually in an oftentimes vain effort to fix the problems of troubled couples.
The Institute for American Values, a conservative group with a mission to “study and strengthen civil society,” added up the public’s cost of supporting divorcing and unmarried households. Using figures from 2008, it looked at the justice system’s cost of dissolving a typical marriage, and the average amount of a custodial parent’s reliance on government programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, Head Start, housing assistance and cash payments. Over the course of the previous decade, the institute concluded, taxpayers shelled out more than $1 trillion.
The institute found the biggest annual bite was the $19.3 billion that went to operate our justice system. What is happening in family court to rack up this kind of a bill? Well, first, understand that since the mid-1970s about half of all marriages fail. At any given moment, there are millions of Americans in the court system fighting their partner for divorce, custody or a change in a previous order.
Family courts are overwhelmed. Judges often have no particular expertise in dealing with domestic issues and often let the warring factions repeatedly go at each other in court. Hearings are held months apart, and many judges hope the frustrated couple ultimately get together long enough to reach their own settlement. In the meantime, the clock and the meter keep ticking. Often, the only winners are the lawyers who can rack up enormous fees.
Various states have appointed task forces to look at ways to streamline the process, but still words such as “national crisis” and “flawed and frustrating” are used to describe family court’s enormous backlog.
California’s Elkins Task Force studied the problem for two years and, in April 2010, announced 117 recommendations to streamline court inefficiencies. What’s changed since then? Not much for the women and men who seek judicial help.
Adam Bram of Los Angeles says his contentious divorce case is typical. After living together as a couple for just 11 months, his wife filed for divorce in March 2010. Now, more than 3½ years later, their case is still stuck in court. A proposed settlement blew up last December, and Bram has not been able to see his almost 4-year-old daughter since then.
From the outset, the wife claimed Bram was a drug addict who could not be trusted alone with their child. Bram, who had gone through a stint in rehab back in 2004, was eager to prove his wife wrong. For more than two years, he submitted to court-ordered random drug tests, which found nothing in his system but doctor-prescribed drugs for his prolonged back pain, muscle tension and his attention deficit disorder.
Superior Court Judge Mark Juhas — who happened to have served on the Elkins Task Force — never ordered Sarah to return any of the $200,000 she admitted taking from Bram. By the spring of 2011, court documents show, the money was gone. She was not punished for defying the court’s order not to spend the money.
Juhas never declared that Bram was, indeed, fit to parent the child alone even after he passed drug tests and agreed to go to co-parenting classes, and a psychiatric evaluator concluded that he did not need to have his visitations monitored. (Repeated calls to the wife’s divorce lawyer, Mark Vincent Kaplan, were not returned.)
Bram, who happens to be an entertainment lawyer, could not grasp the willy-nilly way family court worked. He admits he became frustrated with the indecisiveness of the system. He most likely made the judge unhappy and worked against his own best interests when he filed motion after motion. Nonetheless, Bram paid the $4,400 monthly bill for a monitor just so he could see his daughter. Finally, he could no longer afford to pay for the monitor, the drug testing, the co-parenting classes and his legal bills.
“We were in court longer than the marriage was,” said Bram’s lawyer, C. Brian Martin. “And it all comes down to the huge backlog of cases that goes on. The judge gives you 20 minutes today, and then the next hearing is 45 or 60 days away.” Martin, a family court veteran of 30 years, says the system is so broken he can’t even suggest fixes or foresee a change.
In the meantime, we taxpayers continue to pay for this albatross of a system.
As for Bram? The couple are now officially divorced, but the court still has Bram’s claim for joint custody on the calendar. “My next hearing is now set for October,” he told me with a choke in his voice. “Which means I’m going to miss my daughter’s fourth birthday.”
“Lawyers often have no concept of the psychological effect of all this on the children,” attorney Martin added. “And judges often don’t care.”
And that comes back to why we should all care about why the family court system is failing in America — the children. Warring adults and their lawyers scream louder and longer than the countless kids who need to be nurtured by both parents. Whatever happened to deciding things “in the best interest of the child”?
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.