Last week on my podcast “The Fringe,” which can be heard with a VIP subscription to PJ Media, I interviewed Carolyn Deevers, a family court activist in Missouri who was once a victim of the system herself. After many years of navigating the system and learning hard lessons, Deevers dedicated herself to helping other parents who are fighting the same battles. She runs Family Court Watch Missouri on Facebook and tries to help parents with solid tips that will help them set their cases up for appeal. Sadly, there isn’t much you can do to win in family court, but Deevers says there are several ways to make sure you have the right to appeal to a higher court. None of these ideas should be treated as legal advice. They should be shared with your attorney to get an expert opinion. Sadly, many parents fighting these battles don’t have attorneys, or their attorneys work against them and with the court system.
1. Court orders magically changed? Here’s how to stop that.
Litigants in family court often report that court orders that said one thing suddenly say something else when they are loaded up to the docket software. It is illegal for court orders to be changed in any way, but Deevers says she’s seen it happen many times. Deevers says as soon as a court order is signed, get screeenshots, photographs, or copies (or all three) as soon as possible. If you have a record of the original order before any change was made, you can prove that it was tampered with.
2. Use your motions to strike a guardian ad litem (GAL)
In Missouri, litigants have 10 days from when they are assigned a guardian ad litem (GAL) to strike her from the case. Research the guardian and talk to people who have had experience with that person. If there are concerns, the litigant can file a motion to strike. If the motion to strike is denied, the litigant will have a record of the motion for an appeal later.
There’s a common saying that a person who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer. This can be true. Litigation is a complex beast and it’s easier to have a lawyer to help you navigate it. But what do you do if your lawyer has taken your money and hasn’t filed anything on your behalf and isn’t fighting for you? Deevers says pro-se is an option. “A pro-se litigant will be able to file way more and put way more evidence in front of a judge,” she said. The downfall of this tactic is that judges are often biased against pro-se litigants, and not knowing court decorum and the process can hurt the litigant. It’s a risk, but some people in family court feel they have nothing left to lose.
4. Record everything.
Deevers says that every meeting, every phone call, every email, and every communication with the group of family court actors must be recorded. If you live in a state that does not allow recording of phone calls, you have to make the decision for yourself if the risk of fines or jail is worth having the evidence of malpractice or fraud. At this point, the lack of transparency in our court system should be considered criminal and any attempt to expose it should be considered heroic. But the swamp will protect itself and it does not want the public to know what goes on behind courtroom doors. Lobbying your representatives to remove recording restrictions in court is key, along with civil disobedience when necessary. Remember that if you are somewhere where there is no “expectation of privacy,” even in a “one-party” recording state, you may record without informing the people with you that you are recording. This would mean that a public building, outside, in a store, in a library, in a federal building, or anywhere else where someone could overhear your conversation is considered “public” and is protected by law.
One way to get around recording laws, according to Deevers, is “reasonable accommodations.” If you have a case where motions are disappearing and files are going missing and the evidence doesn’t make it onto the record, you can petition the court for the right to have everything recorded by you under reasonable accommodations. “If it is denied you would still have that request on the record for an appeal,” said Deevers.
5. File Everything Electronically
Deevers says that every motion filed with the court should be done electronically so there is an electronic timestamp that cannot be refuted. Don’t forget to take screenshots and hard copies for your files in case your motions go missing.
6. Get to know the Operating Rules on Reporting
Most of the people in the court system, if not all of them, are mandated reporters. Get to know your state laws on what must be done when reporting child abuse and hold your mandated reporters to it. If a GAL or other court actor does not report disclosures of child abuse properly, you can make a record and file it with the court. The family court judge may not do anything about it, but when you appeal the ruling later you’ll have evidence that the operating rules were not followed.
Deevers gave more tips on navigating the system in the interview on “The Fringe.” Sign up for VIP today to hear more!