“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity, do ordain . . .” So begins the U.S. Constitution.
Those words found in the Constitution (further bolstered by the Bill of Rights amendments) are the very words by which we are governed, the cornerstone of our Republic, the blueprint for democracy. Yes, We, the People, have it within our power and right to insure that justice is served, and that we are secure in the blessings of liberty . . . but only if we so choose to exercise that right. Yes, We, the People.
Custody for Cash series
It was February 2014 when the Independent Gazette published its first article on the family courts. Dubbed “Custody for Cash,” that first headline read “Custody for Cash: A plea for help, when there is no place else to turn.” Since running that story, the Gazette and its staff have been overwhelmed, not only with pleas for help, but with horror stories told to us by families, moms, dads, grandparents, professionals, and law enforcement. Very often they have come on the condition of anonymity, stricken by the fear of retribution. A fear that speaking out will cause swift and painful retaliation, eventually leading to the ruination of their careers, the loss of their jobs, or worse yet: the loss of their very children and grandchildren. These stories have come from our local communities, from around the state, and from around our nation. We have found certain counties in Pennsylvania to be hot spots, generating a plethora of complaints, including Lackawanna and Luzerne counties.
The bureaucracy of workers benefit financially by a system that converts children into cash while destroying their families and their lives.
One of the lessons that should have been learned, at least locally with the “Kids for Cash” scandal, was that We, the People, cannot and should not exhibit blind confidence in what is happening in our courts. Yes, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) issued a review following the Kids for Cash scandal, offering 51 recommendations concerning the family court/guardian ad litem (GAL) system in a glowing 112-page document, letting Us, the People, know that the errors of the courts were on their way to being remedied. It is a review that praised the efforts of one Judge Chester Harhut as well as Attorney Danielle Ross, the former Lackawanna County guardian ad litem (GAL) who pleaded guilty to federal tax charges and is currently serving jail time.
It has been suggested to the Gazette that while convicted of tax evasion, Ross had engaged in what would better be described as a shakedown, demanding cash payments for more visitation time and other favors only the GAL could offer. Remember, the APOC report was a review done by the courts to investigate the courts. Gazette scrutiny of the AOPC review has found it to be riddled with errors and omissions, and not really designed as an independent review of our court system. It seems, rather, to be an effort to protect the courts themselves . . . just one of the reasons why an independent citizen review board (ICRB) is needed.
Since February the Gazette has looked into many aspects and reports of malfeasance not only in the family court system, but also in the Office of Youth and Family Services (formerly Children and Youth). We’ve researched reports of improper document shredding, gag orders, intimidation, disappearing files, and, in general, a total disregard of established law by judges themselves. Complaints of judicial misconduct find their way to the Judicial Conduct Board (JCB) of Pennsylvania, whose mission statement in part reads: “The Board is committed to preserving the honor, dignity, independence, and integrity of Pennsylvania’s judiciary.”
[The review board] will be comprised of ordinary citizens from the community: business owners, local media, and reporters dedicated not to finding fault, but to finding and searching for the truth.
Yet while the membership of that board has changed, it is the same body which failed to act on complaints against Judge Conahan for years, and became a source of concern for the Gazette when researching our September article “Millionaire to Welfare.” In that case, a divorce case, a complaint against one Judge Tilson was lodged by Elaine Mickman which was later summarily dismissed by the JCB, even though the chairman of the judicial review board at the time was James E. McErlane, a partner in the law firm of Lamb McErlane. James E. McErlane’s firm had represented Elaine’s ex-husband previously. The system is set up such that the courts are — in effect — policing themselves, and in the case of family courts, are allowed to operate in darkness. This is yet another reason why an independent citizen review board is needed to look into how justice is currently being administered in our courts.
Retaliation is alive and well
On numerous occasions members of the Gazette staff have been asked, or more accurately have been told, to leave family court while merely attempting to observe the proceedings. The reason given was that our removal was necessary to protect the identity of the children, and only individuals directly involved in the case or court officers were allowed to stay. We must question whether this is just another example of selective enforcement of rules by the courts. The Gazette has been told by court insiders that who is permitted to remain in a courtroom is an arbitrary decision. A connected member of the community who claims to have an interest in the case has often been allowed to stay and observe, while grandparents in other cases have been told to wait outside, with sheriffs standing at the ready to ensure that those seniors did not approach too close to the closed courtroom doors. Other litigants have been instructed to “stay away from those Gazette people” or their children would not be returned to their custody. And in one recent case, the court was petitioned to hold a woman in contempt unless she immediately retracted statements she had given to the Independent Gazette.
Former Lackawanna solicitor Janine Pavalone blatantly lied about being audio taped by the Gazette, yet it was the Gazette that was admonished in Judge Moyles’ courtroom and threatened with violating federal wiretapping laws. Pavalone entered Gazette articles into evidence to be used against one father, who has since lost all parental rights to his children, and yet this is but one instance of articles published by the Gazette being submitted into evidence as grounds for retaliation. The courtrooms were never meant to be closed. In fact, former Democratic congressional candidate Andy Ostrowski has stated, “Go across the state and there are grand and cavernous places. The courts are the center of self government, where the rights between men and government were determined. Courts used to be open and people would fill the courtroom and watch justice be administered and that is no longer the case.”
Too many have complained that they are broken emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually, by a court system that has been allowed to operate in the dark.
Extent of public corruption is shocking
So why the need for an independent citizen review board? It has become apparent from the sheer volume of complaints over court abuse that ordinary citizens, case workers, professional staff working within the courts, whistleblowers, and others require a place to lodge concerns without fear of retribution from the accused. Reports of bizarre and sometimes abusive behavior in the courtrooms by judges themselves need to be aired and shown the light of day. Complaints of forced cash payments for services are often heard. Is excessive drug, psychiatric, and parental testing a necessary evil, or a way to keep the money food chain churning for the judicial system and its extended ecosystem? Too many have complained that they are broken emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually by a court system that has been allowed to operate in the dark. For those who still harbor doubts or assume these are complaints from disgruntled litigants unhappy with a fair and just decision, we ask that you refer to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane‘s November 2014 interview with CNN’s Sara Ganim. During this interview Kane states “Even I am shocked at the level of public corruption. I am shocked at how deep it goes and I am shocked at how powerful it is. I have never seen anything like this. It’s breathtaking — it has been described by the people familiar with what is happening as shameful.” Even those in positions of authority are gagged, as Kane currently is, and forced to endure the corrupt actions of a court system run amuck.
In the midst of so many disheartening stories, one stands out. A Luzerne County woman claims she was told by a caseworker that she was too young to be pregnant so it would be best to have an abortion because either way she was not going to be allowed by Children and Youth Services to keep that child. Not allowed? She told the caseworker that abortion was not an option for her, but the caseworker’s threat nevertheless came to fruition, as the child was eventually taken by the state. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it has been dark for far too long in our courtrooms today.
A system that cannot be trusted
The late former Georgia State senator Nancy Schaefer had this to say about child protective services: “The bureaucracy is huge. Look who is getting paid: state employees, attorneys, court investigators, Guardians ad Litem, court personnel and judges, psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, foster parents, adoptive parents, and on and on. All are looking to the children in state custody to provide job security. The Adoption and Safe Family Act offers cash bonuses to the state for every child adopted out of foster care. In order to receive the adoption incentive bonuses the local CPS would need more children; they must have merchandise that sells, so the buyer can choose. . . . The system cannot be trusted. It does not serve the people. It obliterates families and children simply because it has the power to do so. . . . The bureaucracy of workers benefit financially by a system that converts children into cash while destroying their families and their lives.”
It is a system which We, the People, need to look at. This will be the goal of the ICRB. Tough but legitimate questions need to be asked of our legislators, courts, and human services personnel. How much is each child worth to the state and county? Who owns the companies the courts order litigants to purchase services from? Do conflicts of interest exist in these arrangements? Is it ethical for solicitors to be allowed to continue private practice in the same county they work for? In one case, one of our reporters called a solicitor to find out how much it would cost to be represented in a child custody case and if they would face any problems and was told “Oh, don’t you worry about that — I’m on a list with them.” Are courtroom transcripts altered and have those performing the transcriptions ever been instructed to omit certain information? These are just some of the matter that demand scrutiny.
We, the People, need to demand more transparency in our courts. Cameras need to be in every courtroom. Some will claim that we need to protect the identity of minors, that we need to protect the children. Yet right here in in our own backyard we have precedent that we cannot trust the courts. If a reporter or concerned citizen abuses the privacy of a minor then they would need to be held accountable. But the question must be posed, were Judges Conahan, Ciavarella, or GAL Danielle Ross any more ethical, any more responsible, any more trustworthy than We, the People?
Who will make up the independent citizen review board, and what will be its role? It will be comprised of ordinary citizens from the community: business owners, local media, and reporters dedicated not to finding fault, but to finding and searching for the truth. Gathering information from those who work within the system, whistleblowers, and families caught up in the family court system. Matters of suspected criminal behavior will be turned over to state and federal law enforcement, including the local FBI, for further review, and an independent report with recommendations on how to better the system will be issued and released to our lawmakers and the general public. We welcome all who wish to be involved, and we especially welcome those who desire to help shed light on what is happening behind those closed doors. Your anonymity is assured; your truthfulness is expected. This is about your community, your family.
The next community outreach meeting, Protecting Children and Families, is scheduled for Thursday, January 15, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Elm Park United Methodist Church, 712 Linden Street, Scranton. All are welcome.
You can contact the Gazette staff by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (570) 266-8086.