This is the second in a series of reports by the Independent Gazette chronicling the judicial systems and child custody practices of Lackawanna, Luzerne, and surrounding counties in Pennsylvania. The Gazette, through exclusive interviews, begins to paint a picture of a legal — not justice — system run amok, fueled by greed, kept intact through intimidation, and veiled in secrecy. A complex web has evolved in which the abuse of power is rampant, and lawyers routinely close their eyes to misconduct to avoid being blackballed. The fear of being severed from the “money feeding tube,” as one court insider observed, is a very real dynamic.
Jurisprudence victims, court officers, police, lawyers, and civil employees will often come forward only under the protective cloak of anonymity, out of concern of retribution directed at themselves and their families from the powerful and well connected. Reports of bizarre behavior unbecoming of judges are kept under wraps, lest swift and damaging retaliation befall the whistleblower. Theirs is a legal system run afoul, where justice is often based not on facts, but on “who you know,” and delivered only to a select few, it would seem.
More whistleblowers emerging
Since reports of the scandal were first published in our February issue, reporters have been swamped with accounts of abuses suffered at the hands of the courts — accounts local as well as from across the country. Maralee Mclean of Colorado provides one such example. Mclean relays, “I have testified before Congress. I was issued a gag order not to speak publicly about my case, and would face jail time if I did. I was not deterred — locally I did speak to the press, and my case was well covered, and not until I appeared on CNN Presents, an international hour-long program, was my pending jail time suspended. My book, ‘Prosecuted but not Silenced,’ is a case study of what is happening in many courtrooms, where good mothers are having their children taken from their arms and handed over to their abusers. Judges are not held accountable — there is no accountability, and I will never stop fighting this.”
Closer to home, one professional in Luzerne County had this to say: “I have worked as a professional therapist for almost thirty years, and I must say, it is the most egregious case in all those years I have ever witnessed.” This in response to just one of the pending cases in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties brought to our attention by individuals asking that their stories be told and investigated. The therapist continued, “I brought this case to the Corbett administration, the [Pennsylvania] Attorney General’s Office, and other related agencies, and was told, ‘You open your mouth, you talk . . . you are fired.’ ”
The intimidation factor
That’s the intimidation, that’s the pressure brought to bear, which the Independent Gazette continues to hear about from those not only being processed through the court system, but from those professionals working within it. As one informant wondered aloud, “Why would you want to commit professional suicide? Either by speaking out, exposing what is going on in the courts, or, in your case, writing about it in a newspaper?”
Former Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith, following a Luzerne County Council meeting in early February, stated that “When I was county controller, I received numerous calls from various constituents genuinely concerned about parental rights and custody of children being stripped away by the legal system in the forms of intimidation and financial hardship.”
Speaking during that same council meeting, David Schwille, the newly hired head of the Luzerne County Human Services Division, was asked about concerns over the Children and Youth Department amidst reports of intimidation. “We are not a bunch of ‘baby snatchers,’ ” he said.
In a telephone interview follow up, Schwille told the Gazette, “I have only had one call since starting two weeks ago concerning a case that might not have been handled correctly.” He went on to state that he possesses almost 25 years of experience in both the public and private sectors of child welfare and that “in the last seven or eight years the system has moved light years ahead from where child dependency was in the 80s and 90s.” When asked about accusations of heavy-handed actions by the agency, he responded, “Yes, you do hear about that, and you have folks that have their own agenda, but that is not the policy of the agency.”
When asked about his use of the term “baby snatchers” before council when pressed concerning department abuse of power, Schwille claimed, “It was a euphemism. That is the misconception of the agency, and we do hear we are ‘crumb snatchers’ and ‘baby snatchers.’ ”
When pressed for comments on the former Lackawanna County Guardian ad Litem Danielle Ross, who recently pled guilty to tax evasion, prompting the suspension of her law license by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Schwille replied, “I am not familiar with Danielle Ross.”
Internal court workings coming to light
Current Congressional candidate and former civil rights attorney Andy Ostrowski stated on a local talk radio program in early February that, “We have an intimidated lawyer class. The people who control the information control the lies.” This assertion dovetails with questions raised about the report issued by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), the Lackawanna County Guardian Ad Litem Program Review, an inquiry initiated by Judge Thomas J. Munley. After hearing the document read aloud to other court officers, one court insider who asked to remain anonymous remarked to the Independent Gazette, “We know it is not right. We have the investigated investigating themselves.”
The AOPC report under scrutiny
In its initial article on the Family Court system, the Gazette began to take a thorough look into that AOPC report to determine whether there existed room for questions about its objectiveness: who was interviewed, and more importantly, who was not interviewed. The connection between Judge Harhut and Danielle Ross. Connections between all family court judges, court administrators, attorneys, law enforcement, case workers, and professionals in the medical field. The full 112-page report can be found at www.pacourts.us. The first third of the report and a whistleblower’s critique of it may be found at www.custudy4cash.org, and additional commentary will be included in our upcoming issues.
As investigation into the Lackawanna County Guardian Ad Litem Program Review continues, the Independent Gazette has identified two more blatant inconsistencies between what is presented in the review and actual findings. First, the AOPC review cites statistics provided to them by the Lackawanna County Family Court Clerk’s Office pertaining to the number of custody cases filed in the county in 2011. The county reported 416 new cases; however, according to statistics published online at www.pacourts.us per the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, there were actually 424 new cases filed that year. The Unified Judicial System (UJS) and the AOPC are one and the same, yet statistics differ between their own website and the review published in June 2012. There are eight custody cases unaccounted for in Lackawanna County in 2011.
Additionally, the AOPC denies charges that too much weight was given to Ross’ recommendations pertaining to custody cases. Ross herself stated that the judges “hardly ever” accepted her recommendations fully, but again, according to the UJS, of the 424 custody cases filed, a judge processed 35, or 7.4 percent, while a “non-judicial officer” processed 338, or 71.2 percent of these cases.
Compounding the previous discrepancy, Ross also appears — according to the AOPC report — to have been practicing law while attending high school or shortly thereafter. Page 35 of the document states that Ross “has been a practicing attorney since 1994.” A yearbook photo confirms that Ross graduated from West Scranton High School in 1994. Calls to Ross for clarification went unanswered.
Call the media, then an attorney
One frantic woman phoned the Gazette tip line within two weeks of our breaking the Custody for Cash story — to relate one of many personal accounts of tragedy directed to the paper. “I just got a call from my child’s therapist and was told we have an emergency court hearing coming up. Would you be able to come to court with me — I do not want them to take my child.” I said, “Of course. When and where?” She continued, “That is one of the problems. Very often [the notice] is [made] last minute and a date and time was not yet set.” The next day the Independent Gazette received a text message from her stating, “I was speaking to my mother this morning and she said, ‘It is a sad state of affairs in this country that when you are summoned to court the first person you call is a reporter, and not your attorney.’ ”
Publisher’s Note: possible remedies
One measure that has been suggested is to place cameras in every courtroom in America, starting right here in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. The Independent Gazette wholly endorses this action. Those in opposition may cite a lack of precedent, but we have plenty of precedent right here in the area, documented by the recently-released documentary Kids for Cash. The precedent established is that the public at large can’t trust the judges, court officers, or lawyers to come forward when abuse is taking place in courtrooms. Our safety, our children’s safety, and the safety of court officials is in jeopardy, which is why jurists need to be watched, recorded, and videotaped while in session, no different from the taping of police interrogations, designed to both hold police accountable and to protect all parties involved.
A second issue that will likely be raised by those preferring a lack of transparency will be that we need to protect the “privacy of children.” Who protected the children during the Kids for Cash proceedings and who is protecting the children and families in Custody for Cash—are the judges, the lawyers, the court administrators? We need cameras in family court as much as, if not more than, in any other courtroom. Consider that a recording would be a “black box” of sorts, similar to those found in airplanes. When pilot error occurs or a mechanical malfunction of some sort, the black box is sought to find the real story. The same diagnostic tool needs to be available to litigants when judicial malfunction occurs in the courtroom, with the video being available only through subpoena to protect all involved parties. The secrecy must end.
This will not be an easy task, for there are powerful forces that will resist change and accountability. They believe it best to operate in secrecy. The Gazette has begun reaching out to local elected state representatives to initiate legislation that will require that cameras be placed in courtrooms and we encourage the same of our readers.
Another systemic issue that requires a remedy, the fear of retribution which silences whistleblowers, could be alleviated by creating a safe haven for the public, lawyers, and professionals to come forward under complete anonymity, greatly reducing the likelihood of retribution and economic intimidation. The Independent Gazette will soon be rolling out a program to make that possible. Reports of complaints to the Corbett administration, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, district attorneys, and law enforcement very often have resulted for plaintiffs in more intimidation, rather than the hoped-for hearings. We encourage you to read the Lackawanna AOPC report, and the glowing endorsements for the judges, the program itself, and Danielle Ross, as well as the initial questions we are bringing forward. Look for the third installment of Custody for Cash in our April edition.
Follow all reports on our Custody4Cash coverage at www.Custody4Cash.org.