Custody for Cash: A plea for help, when there is no place else to turn

This is the first in what will be a series of reports by the Independent Gazette chronicling the judicial systems and child custody practices of Lackawanna, Luzerne, and surrounding counties. Through exclusive Lackawanna County interviews obtained by the Gazette, a picture will emerge of a legal — not justice — system run amok, fueled by greed, kept intact through intimidation, and veiled in secrecy, a complex web in which the abuse of power is rampant, and lawyers routinely close their eyes to misconduct for fear of being blackballed — and losing their homes and practices should they dare to speak out. This is a fear of being severed from the “money feeding tube,” as one court insider observed.

Within the culture of the court systems of Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties jurisprudence victims, court officers, police, lawyers, and civil employees will only come forward under anonymity out of concern of retribution from the powerful and well-connected. Reports are emerging of bizarre behavior unbecoming of judges, constituting clear violations of the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct and kept under wraps lest swift and damaging retaliation befall the whistleblower. These whistleblowers describe judges throwing objects from the bench in fits of rage and making decisions in street clothes before receiving any actual evidence or testimony. Theirs is a legal system run afoul, where justice is often based not on facts, but on “who you know,” and delivered only to the well-connected.

In the aftermath of the “Kids for Cash” scandal the courthouse climate seems to have remained similar in Lackawanna County to that which fostered the Luzerne County travesty. Behavioral patterns appear to coincide, given surfacing claims that individual lives and the families associated with them have been wrecked by an over-aggressive, power hungry, and greed-filled judiciary.

In this initial “Custody” installment the Gazette will begin to focus on the recent conviction of Attorney Danielle Ross, the admitted felon and at one time sole guardian ad litem (GAL) for the Lackawanna Family Court. We will also look at the Lackawanna Guardian Ad Litem Program Review.

In June 2012, the Lackawanna Guardian Ad Litem Program Review report was issued by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). The office’s investigation was launched in response to a request made by Judge Thomas J. Munley, related on page 10:

In May 2011, President Judge Munley and County officials conducted an investigation of the GAL program based on allegations the program is a “Kids for Cash” scheme, and complaints about Ms. Ross’s billing practices. Mr. Browning was the main investigator.

The full report can be found at www.pacourts.us.

The Review paints a glowing picture of Ross and her work, as well as Judge Chester T. Harhut, who on June 17, 2008, agreed to select Ross to be “the sole GAL appointed by the Court. . . . Several judges commented the GAL program was set up with the best intentions by Judge Harhut,” according to the report. Judge Munley noted, “This court deems the GAL’s work to be very favorable. . . . There was widespread agreement among the family court’s judges, staff and service providers, that Ms. Ross is extremely dedicated to her GAL work. . . . Her work is exemplary.” Commendations such as the following are found throughout the AOPC’s assessment: “[Attorney Ross] does a fabulous job.”

The characterizations found in the AOPC report clash decidedly with those being presented to the Gazette by its sources. One of the court insiders who contacted us asked to remain anonymous for various reasons, claiming the report was nothing more than a “dog and pony show. . . . You know it is not right. . . . We have the investigated investigating themselves.”

Page 9 of the report states that “twenty-nine in-person and telephone interviews were conducted with judges, masters, court and County personnel, family law attorneys, child custody litigants and GAL program family service providers. Nine follow-up interviews with court staff and judges were held in February and March 2012. While most of the interviews were selected by JPD [Judicial Programs Department] staff, several individuals contacted the AOPC to offer information.”

Custody_slideOne young woman very critical of the family court system as a result of her own interactions with it confided in the Gazette, observing, “It seems the only people interviewed were persons with involvement in the corrupt system, with the exception of litigants. Which litigants? The nine follow-up interviews were with the judges. Several individuals contacted mentioned in the AOPC report to offer information? Who are they?”

The report states the attorneys recommended by the Family Law Section, Lackawanna County Bar Association, asked to remain anonymous and that the JPD was “grateful for their candor.” Why would these professionals require anonymity if they had nothing but wonderful things to say about the Lackawanna County Family Court and its sole guardian ad litem? Were letters from child custody litigants reviewed? If so, where are these letters? Who sent them?

The Gazette investigated who specifically were interviewed — and how many — for the AOPC guardian ad litem review. We pressed Art Heinz, spokesperson for the AOPC report, but no specifics were available to him at that time, so he merely advised us to look at the Review to answer our questions. No other details were available to us at time of printing, but the Gazette will continue to pursue information concerning this important matter and will publish its findings in future installments of this ongoing story.

Bruce Levine, Kids Rights

Bruce Levine, Kids Rights

Longtime family court critic Bruce Levine, who was the first informant to approach the Gazette, is demanding transparent hearings. “We need open hearings. Let the people have a voice; let’s once and for all get this out in the open. These people are ruining lives and families.”

According to published reports Ross’s own attorney, David J. Solfanelli, stressed that her tax evasion plea “had to deal with reporting taxes, and had nothing to do with her job performance.”

According — once again — to Gazette sources, the plea had everything to do with Ross’s performance within the family court system. One despondent father recalled an incident during which Ross sent her secretary, Sue McIIwee, to perform a home inspection. Upon his questioning the qualifications of McIIwee, Ross allegedly responded, “If you ever wish to see your children again, shut up and pay $50.” The Gazette has listened to numerous similar charges of children being used as pawns for Ross’s gain. Custody for Cash.

Bruce Levine, at times during his experiences with Ross likewise despondent, said, “The damage was done, my boys’ mother was dead. We moved away for a year, to heal, for bereavement counseling. During this time I was urged to sue, sue for negligence. But this was not about money, this was criminal. I decided I must go to authorities, and tell them about Harhut, Ross, and others. I vowed to do whatever it takes so that this would never happen to a loving parent or child again.”

Levine continued, “I met with the DA, the FBI, and all they wanted to talk about was the money, exclusively, the money that Ross charged and extorted. They only cared about the money, [and were] not interested in the emotional and irreparable damage done to my boys caused by Danielle Ross and the court system. No, Mr. Solfanelli, this has everything to do with Ms. Ross’s job performance.”

Levine’s son Jordan, 19, was only 15 years old when he found his mother dying, and says of Ross, “She knew everything was going wrong, and did nothing. She let things go.”

Focusing again on the AOPC report, we find on page 10: “In May 2011, after numerous complaints were made, Mr. Pines is brought in for assistance. Mr. Pines had independently received complaints as well. After Judicial Programs Department JPD’s assessment began, it was learned that local and federal law enforcement was investigating the program and individuals connected with it.”

The JPD became aware that law enforcement was investigating the GAL, the GAL program, and others involved, yet did not act to remove Ross, who was allowed to remain the sole Lackawanna County guardian ad litem for two more years! Based on the JPD’s own figures, Ross was appointed to an average of 111 cases per year. In 2011, Ross claimed to have been appointed to 629 cases.

Judge Harhut states in the AOPC report that at least some of his reasoning when implementing the GAL system was that “PFAs were being filed in divorce cases and fathers were not seeing their children.” “Is there a reason Harhut didn’t research this phenomenon?” questioned another Gazette source. According to a 2006 report by the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence titled 10 Custody Myths and How to Counter Them, studies show that 25–50 percent of disputed custody cases involve domestic violence. Furthermore, the ABA report claims that child sexual abuse allegations in custody cases are rare (occurring in about 6 percent of the cases). “If the GAL had bothered to properly investigate, and if Judge Harhut himself had bothered to hear testimony, rather than stifle it, perhaps these facts would have been clear,” observed our informant.

An inside source from the scandal-shaken Luzerne County Family Court system had this to say about the Lackawanna County allegations: “A lot of people are making a lot of money off children.”

The Lackawanna AOPC report claims several judges were “adamant” that Judge Harhut’s vision and passion for the GAL program was what brought them to family court — that they bore a lot of respect for both him and Ross.

To that claim a Gazette source commented, “Isn’t it nice that these other judges were adamant? The sheer volume of adamant parents is astonishing. Their opinions of Harhut and Ross were not included in this report. The report claims the AOPC received phone calls and letters from litigants — I’m certain they could have published an excerpt from a letter. The role of the GAL is to come in as an advocate for the child. Then why, when children begged for her help, did she fail them?”

As an Editor’s Note to this story, let it be known that the sheer volume of complaints and allegations received by the Gazette since launching its investigation into the local family court system has been overwhelming. Assertions of parents with disabled children being targeted by the system in an effort to collect state grants and Social Security payments. Tales of abuses by lawyers, judges, and the system as a whole. The fear of being bullied for speaking out. Accusations that very often cases are pre-judged with little or no testimony heard.

The Gazette has been very careful in our initial story not to name names of those involved until a full investigation can be made into each and every allegation. As more details become available and more informants come forward our readers may be assured that information will be reported in full, regardless of what connected or influential individual, group, or organization might be implicated. Follow our progress each week online as we first dissect AOPC’s findings at www.WilkesBarreScrantonIG.com, endeavoring to shed light and raise awareness on the local family court systems and the larger county judicial systems as a whole.

Could what began during the Clinton Administration with legislation widely viewed at the time as motivated by altruistic intentions — the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act — have become bastardized by a system that has come to care more about greed than the health and welfare of children?

 

Lou Jasikoff
  • Louis R. Jasikoff
  • http://www.jasikoff.com
  • Lou is the founder and producer of the WBIG family of publications. He's been active in politics most of his adult life, and is passionate in building the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Independent Gazette into an independent press organization that is respected for its independent journalism, educating the public on stories and issues often not discussed in today's biased and controlled media.




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121 comments
Moral Obligation
Moral Obligation

Northeast Pennsylvania Cesspool of FAMILY COURT wrongdoings and abuses.  Join the MOVEMENT FOR TRUTH, JUSTICE AND REFORM today. KIDSRIGHTS@LIVE.COM              

nancyalfred0089
nancyalfred0089

A couple of weeks ago I was in a dark period in my life, the man I love to bits had gone off with someone else, that was when I was told about this Esango Priest. Well he told me he could see that we would get back together that gave me hope, and he was right, because this week we have moved in with each other and we are so happy. A big thank you to Esango Priest. If you are in need of an angel please get in touch with my Esango Priest via email:esangopriest@gmail.com

DistraughtParent
DistraughtParent

My case has been going on 9 years and we are attending our 74th Court appearance since 2008. There is documented proof that the father is physically and mentally abusing the children, who are diagnosed with anxiety and depression at ages 9 and 12 (1st diagnosis was in 2007). The father's mental health records were Ordered by 2 Judges, then myteriously "forgot about". The former GAL, John Bellino never had credentials to act as a GAL, demanded cash or he threated to remove my visitation (witness listened while the phone was on speaker) on a "here say seizure disorder"-a child can ONLY be removed is there is drugs,/alcohol abuse, criminal behavior or abuse.  Ironically, the father has documented mental health issues, an alcohol problem and proven abuse BUT has custody. We were Ordered to see a psychologist (John Bellino's personal friend) who has been introuble with the state on 2 occassions, his lisence is currently on probation for "gross incompetence in the field of psychology, failure to disclose vital documents in child custody cases, etc and ONLY takes cash. Ironically, he gets in trouble with the state for the 2nd time right when he generated a report full of lies and met with me for 20 minutes, the children for 10 minutes and the father isn't interviewed.  Ironic. Then my Neurologist report that's in my favor gets "lost lost" in the Judge's chambers.  Now the PA Judiciary Board is investigating.  The Judge dismissed 5 major Contempts' of Court and is ironically friends with my Attorney, who stated, "This will be 1 Hearing because Freemont's report in inadmissable and will cost $2500." $6500 later, dismissed another Contempt WITHOUT my consent and charged me $750 for him to file a Contempt is ironically dismissed.  The father has no exhibits and I present all emails, phone records, text messages and witnesses but the Contempt is dismissed.  Now he recused and we are going back to the Master, who has made unethical/illegal decisions in the past, is friends with the former GAL and fired Master Tom Collini and now the June Hearing won't be on record. There is so much more to this case in Luzerne County and it's the children that suffer! They ignore the PA Custody LAW that was passed in 2010 and signed by Ed Rendel. The FBI contacted me in 2008 when the former Judge Conahan was hearing the case and the father's former attorney states on record, "I have inside connections in Wilkes Barre.", I sat down face to face with an agent and I still have contact with them.  There is factualy someone behind this case as a Court system would NEVER give primary custody to a father with documented mental health issues, an alcohol problem, proven abuse towards the children, filings on a here say medical issue that doesn't exist (physician reports with testing) and an unstable environment for the children. Luzerne County needs advocates as every office doesn't know where to direct you, however, they receive calls EVERY day in Harrisburg and the Courthouse.

Moral Obligation
Moral Obligation

Don't stop!!!! Keep corrupt officials and abusers in the public eye!!!  Thank you

AnitaBracken
AnitaBracken

This is happening in Minnesota Le Sueur County Just kicked the crap out of a ptsd mom. The County Attorneys childless family members placed an order to keep the mothers kids.  judge approved all   county requests and was negligent to rule on the mothers requests. There were no state and federal laws that supported removal but the county worker broke into the home and removed them illegally. The ptsd parent started having physical reactions of terror while in court houses 



MadAngel1
MadAngel1

Every where we are facing this corruption that's affecting our families and children. Even some of use parents who can not be together anymore but wish to share equal custody are fighting against attorney and judges in our States (I'm in Portland Oregon) to try and force parents into bitter fights rather than mural understanding is all you can find within the family court system. None of this is in the family or children's best interest (not mine for sure) the only ones benifiting from all this is the courts and their cohorts.

reneeglo
reneeglo

Grand county, Utah is just like it.  Is it worthwhile to write my story even though I am not in that county or state?

custody4cashvictim
custody4cashvictim

My children and I are being victimized by Luzerne County Courts and the lawyers that LIE within this county. It is corrupt and heartless! I have vowed to my children that I will seek justice in bringing all of these MONSTERS to light...to save not only my children, but so many other families affected as well! IT MUST STOP! The children need to be heard and I hope one day soon this will happen! ~Time is our best friend ~

CharlesBombico
CharlesBombico

Why does Lackawanna County continue to pay a Senior Judge we do not need. The county is in financial trouble yet they may be spending over 170 thousand dollars to keep a part time judge . They need to retire him today

MarshaLynch
MarshaLynch

We also have a very serious problem in Erie County.   Any hope in bringing some awareness to this area?


CustodyForCashVictim
CustodyForCashVictim

I brought my parents to several hearings with me.  Each time they were promptly "kicked out."  GRANDPARENTS!  Very active Grandparents who are not only witnesses, but also a major piece of my childrens' support system.  They were not asked politely to wait outside, they were rudely KICKED OUT as if they had NO business in the courtroom!  Is that right????

chwatchbird1
chwatchbird1

All Lackawanna Family Court hearings should be covered by the press and any or all family members should be allowed to attend no exceptions. Also the public should be welcome if all is above board as claimed.

VickieCorrell Rick
VickieCorrell Rick

Aren't almost all family court hearings with juveniles?  They are never open as far as I have experienced.  That is why they get away with the corruption.  If children weren't juveniles there would be no need for family court.  

John Waldorf
John Waldorf

Generally Familt Court hearings are open to the public except I rare cases dealing with juveniles .

chwatchbird1
chwatchbird1

I have a question. Are family court proceedings in Lackawanna County open to the public? If not why? If these proceedings are legitimate then open them to the public!!!

TeranceHealy
TeranceHealy

When people are the most vulnerable, the Family Courts failure to follow law and procedures creates an environment which can only cause further damage to the family.  The "Confidentiality of Information" is not done to protect the child (it's clear the child is hurt by their actions) or to protect attorney client priviledge.  Confidentiality is done to protect the corrupt judges once they have been manipulated into misconduct by lawyers.  The system is designed to protect the juducuary.  

Once an act of misconduct occurs in a court, the judge's action causes a complete and absolute loss of constitutionally protected rights.  No one can help.  The litigants are left to be terrorized by issues which cannot be discussed.

It is Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information which causes the problem.  No lawyer, prosecutor, district attorney or Attorney General may prosecute a sitting judge within the state.  It requires a Federal intervention.  Typically Federal intervention only happens at the request of the DA or the AG.  

This is why Cash for Kids continued so long.  Even once the judge reported it to the FBI, SHE was disciplined for violating Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information.  They also alleged treason and sedition.  BUT she did the right thing.  She was not lawfully permitted to act because of Rule 1.6.

Listen to Kathleen Kane.  She follows the Constitution, the PA Constitution and the Rules of Professional Conduct.  It is Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct which requires her to ignore judicial corruption.  YES, The PA AG cannot prosecute a corrupt judge.  Same LAW in every state.

The Constitutional Challenge of Rule 1.6 is attempting to address this unconstitutional law.  It allowed Cash for Kids, It allowed the Foreclosure crisis nationwide.  It causes extreme injustice in the US Courts.

The Challenge is in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  JUSTICE IS COMING.  

chwatchbird1
chwatchbird1

People go to the Scranton Times Site read about GAL Ross

YouStoleMyKid
YouStoleMyKid

Without Bruce and many others including Lou change for the better would not be happening. They stole my CHILDREN and that will never change. 

YouStoleMyKid
YouStoleMyKid

The Cat is Out if the Bag. Rivers are flowing. 

CustodyForCashVictim
CustodyForCashVictim

@AnitaBracken This is terrible!  Courts do not consider the psychological damage their actions/decision cause and/or exacerbate!  Children suffer PTSD as well as a trauma response to having been abused for example.  The courts do not seem to care enough to review professional/medical testimony outside of their own contracted evaluators.  SO many things NEED to changed within the courts.  It is time to shed light on all of this and demand a REAL change!

VickieCorrell Rick
VickieCorrell Rick

@MadAngel1 Look for groups forming in your area and state.  If there are none start a facebook page and start getting people onboard to help make change.  We are all in this together.

VickieCorrell Rick
VickieCorrell Rick

@reneeglo It is worthwhile to share your story.  There are people meeting with Congress on April 10th to change the way these agencies and family court operate.  If you need further assistance contact me. vc9722@aol.com

Ron Shegda
Ron Shegda

@MarshaLynch Marsha, Please send me a PM on FB, if You are a Member.  We have a Coalition organized in PA against County abuse.  Ron Shegda

EagleOnTheTree
EagleOnTheTree

@chwatchbird1  There are legitimate safety issues involved with some of the family law hearings.  I know about this and to this day suffer extreme PTSD response (and was subject to one in court) even going near the courthouse when there's not a hearing.  


In an ideal world, all family members should be allowed to attend. Unfortunately in this world we have child abusers, molesters, and people who have threatened to kill others -- who end up, being parents, also in these courts.  As an adult (and a fairly courageous one) I was one time in a court hearing with the entire (well most of it) "tribe" sitting across the aisle from me, and the cause of action was my attempt to restore a restraining order. It was extremely intimidating.  I had no attorney, my ex (thousands in arrears on child support) somehow had one.  When the time came, everyone else was again thrown out of the courtroom, the judge went "off the record" (I think) and we were ordered to go "work it out' outside the courtroom.  No matter how diligent or brave someone may think they are in certain situations, I was not able to fully advocate for a "parenting plan" with the man who'd threatened to kill, threatened to kidnap (and later did) sitting across from me.   


It does sound like this particular court has some major issues; maybe video is another solution.  I"m just speaking from my own perspective here, and don't have a solution.  On the other hand, if how the courts work was better understood and some other issues addressed, probably half the cases wouldn't even be in the courtrooms to start with. Like, show us a legitimate cause of action, for starters!


chwatchbird1
chwatchbird1

@VickieCorrell Rick I have to agree with John. I was under the impression all family court proceedings were open to the public per the Pennsylvania Constitution, with the exception of Philadelphia & Pittsburg. I also read that the Philadelphia Bar Assoc. has a petition to make the family court hearings public.

EagleOnTheTree
EagleOnTheTree

@TeranceHealy  

I've been looking at this Rule 1.6 also.  Sounds like a built-in conflict of interest.  

However we still need to look at the funding (federal grants/contracts) influence.  But we already know that the judiciary is writing law through the administrative sector.


I've learned some things in the last few days alone (like about a week) on connections between some mediation centers (staffed/run by family lawyers doing business with the state) and what another whistleblower called (incorporating law firm, in the 1980s) an FBI/CIA front firm.  See defraudingamerica.com (I'm blogging).  Trying to fix the legal system from within the legal system just won't work.  



I say it has to do with the public's will to look at who's paying whom.  Unfortunately, that's a self-education task most aren't going to bother with; but IF you get enough of the basics, which become part of your understanding -- then your value just got multiplied -- 


I also feel that Kids4Cash (referring to Luzerne County) could've been avoided if more of us were tracking all the diversionary programming through the courts, knew about such things as "ModelsForChange" (MacArthur Foundation) of which the PA group that filed for the parents, was a participant.


http://familycourtmatters.wordpress.com  Operations, Analysis, History of the family courts (from client -- not provider -- point of view).  

chwatchbird1
chwatchbird1

@YouStoleMyKid What is Kids rights?? Is this a registered bona fide organization?? does it have a web site?? who is in charge?? what are their qualifications. Please keep in mind  I am asking these questions to be sure that anyone who contacts this site is protected. Why are you doing this where is Bruce??

LarryEWarner56
LarryEWarner56

@CustodyForCashVictim @AnitaBracken The deal is any Judge,Magistrate,etc.none of them read the case against both parties,He or she( The Judges etc,.) come in the courtroom 30 to 38 mins late at every trial,hearing that I witnessed=of friends and families that had their rights stepped over=true...


AnitaBracken
AnitaBracken

@CustodyForCashVictim @AnitaBracken  I am studying human services I know they abused this poor mom to take away her kids the county violated state and federal laws. Then judge was in on it. The guardian ad litem and the caseworker. If any one is in minnesota I will help if I can. In the meantime i will fight and expose this corrupt inhumane abuse 

VickieCorrell Rick
VickieCorrell Rick

@chwatchbird1 @VickieCorrell Rick  My husband and I were kept out of the courtroom in a CYS case.  By law yes we were suppose to be in the courtroom by Schuylkill County corruption law they would not permit us in to witness and defend.  

Trackbacks

  1. […] filed by parents who alleged that Danielle Ross, the court’s only GAL, was engaged in a “kids for cash” extortion and tax evasion […]

  2. […] by parents who alleged that Danielle Ross, the court’s only GAL, was engaged in a “kids for cash” extortion and tax evasion […]