How far is too far: Was a local judge justified for jailing kids in contentious custody battle?

Stephen Henderson talks with Larry Dubin, professor of law at the University of Detroit Mercy, and Renee Beeker, president and founder of the National Family Court Watch Project, about Oakland County Judge Lisa Gorcyca’s controversial decision to detain three children caught in a custody battle. Gorcyca initially ordered the children to Children’s Village — a juvenile detention facility — because they refused to comply with her order that they eat lunch with their father. They are now at a summer camp after public backlash to the judge’s order. Both Dubin and Beeker talk about the role of the court in personal disputes, how court battles affect kids and what the system should look like for families in difficult situations. 

  • Personal frustration: Dubin and Beeker believe that Gorcyca acted out of personal frustration with the case.  Beeker says Gorcyca “completely and publicly lost her mind”.  She says Gorcyca did not like how the older child spoke to her and made a rash emotional decision based on that frustration. 
  • Kids are not litigants: Dubin and Beeker both agree that this decision was “shocking”. Dubin says that that the parents, not the kids, are the litigants. He says that it is highly unusual to hold children in contempt of court in a civil suit and calls this decision coercive. 
  • Safety concerns?: A commenter asks if a judge might issue this type of order to separate them from a parent, if the judge thought the kids were in danger.  Dubin says that this is not the situation in this case and the kids appear to be well cared for. He says that if there was a reason to suspect the kids were in danger, the judge would formally involve Child Protective Services, not detain the kids or send them to camp. 
  • Courts and abuse: Beeker says that courts should be more sensitive to the possibility of abuse or domestic violence. She says that the oldest child’s claim that their father abuses their mother should be taken more seriously, and that “no evidence found is not absence of evidence”. She is clear that she is not insinuating that there is abuse, just that the court should be more responsive to the possibility.  She also points out that mediation does not work in cases of domestic violence or emotional abuse. 
  • What is the court’s business?:  Many callers believe Gorcyca was simply doing what she could to connect the children and their father in the face of a difficult mother, who may have been controlling or “brainwashing” the children.  Dubin says that the role of the court is limited, and judges must accept restrictions on their behavior.  He also says that if there were reason the believe the mother was an unfit parent, the judge could award the father custody instead of taking action against the kids. He says the court is “micromanaging” personal relationships.  Beeker agrees and says that the court effectively controlling the intricacies of family dynamics is impossible, so the judge should step back.  
  • Teens alienating parents: Beeker says that when she divorced, her teenage daughter did not want anything to do with her. She says that “you can’t court order a kid to love somebody”, and that in her personal experience the best thing to do was to allow her daughter to have space. She says that now that her daughter is an adult, they are “the best of friends.” 
  • Possible trauma: Beeker says, “People don’t realize the trauma these children will have, the lack of trust they’ll have in the court system”.  She believes the court should consider its own emotional impact, as well as the impact of family members themselves. 
  • Discussion vs. backlash: A caller who works with Gorcyca says that she has a good reputation for handling sensitive issues and expresses frustration with the level of criticism Gorcyca is facing. Dubin says that this is part of the territory for a judge. He says that it is likely that there are lawyers who disagree with Gorcyca’s actions in this case, but will not speak up because they have to maintain good professional relationships. 

Click the audio link above to hear the full conversation.  

Image credit: Brian Turner

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