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Isabella Brooke Knightly and Austin Gamez-Knightly

Isabella Brooke Knightly and Austin Gamez-Knightly
In Memory of my Loving Husband, William F. Knightly Jr. Murdered by ILLEGAL Palliative Care at a Nashua, NH Hospital

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Family Law Audit Finds Sloppy Record-Keeping

Family Law Audit Finds Sloppy Record-Keeping

SACRAMENTO — Family courts in Marin and Sacramento counties can't prove that many of the professionals they hire to sort out emotionally charged custody cases have the required training and experience to do their jobs, according to a state auditor's report released Thursday.

In Sacramento, seven of 20 court-employed mediators and evaluators couldn't show the auditor's staff that they had met qualification and training standards set by state law and the California Rules of Court, the report found. The same was true for seven mediators in Marin County Superior Court, according to the auditor.

That lack of documentation means court leaders can't evaluate whether family court professionals have the skills "to guide the parties through mediation effectively or to assess properly a family's condition and ensure that the outcome is in the best interests of the children," the auditor concluded.

The report also faulted the courts for poor tracking of complaints against evaluators and mediators and for weak policies regarding conflicts of interest among family court officials.

The 113-page report, commissioned by the Legislature in 2009, cites shoddy record-keeping and a failure by court officials to strictly adhere to policies of the state and sometimes their own courts. It does not, however, link any lack of training to a child being harmed. And it does not address the more hot-button allegations made by some court critics of chummy relationships between judges and family court staff.

"The scope of the audit was rather limited but what they did uncover was, I think, fairly scathing," said Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, a Mill Valley-based parents group that has been critical of family court operations statewide.

"This document clearly delivers the proof that unqualified court employees are making these decisions that affect thousands of children," Russell said.

While leaders of both courts generally welcomed the auditor's recommendations for better documentation, they also challenged a number of the report's findings.

"All Family Court Services mediators and evaluators currently meet the minimum qualifications and training requirements under the law," Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge Steve White wrote in response to the report. "The court will not assign any matter to a FCS mediator/evaluator who fails to meet the mandatory qualification or training requirements."

Marin Presiding Judge Terrence Boren questioned whether the auditor was nit-picking.

"While the court intends to implement the recommended changes … it is questionable as to whether some of the recommendations actually enhance internal controls and accountability. Frankly, some of them fail the test of materiality from the court's perspective," Boren wrote.

State law requires a family court mediator to have a master's degree and at least two years experience in counseling or psychotherapy when they are hired. They must also complete 40 hours of initial training in mediation plus at least 12 hours a year of ongoing education. Evaluators have to meet certain licensure or court-certification requirements as well as continuing training requirements.

For years, family court critics have lobbied lawmakers to overhaul what they say is an insular judicial system that favors wealthy parents and has little accountability. Court leaders counter that much of the criticism is brought by disgruntled parents angry with their experiences in the heated arena of child-custody battles.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, led efforts to secure the state audit of the two family law courts. He called the auditor's findings "disturbing."

"In the private sector, if I hang a shingle on my door and declare myself a psychiatrist … and I can't [prove that] I am, I don't get to call it a book-keeping error. I get called a fraud and probably get taken to court," Leno said.

The family courts "are making immensely important decisions and these courts can't even prove that these employees should be in their jobs," he said.

Leno said state Auditor Elaine Howle told him Thursday that she would be reviewing the courts' progress on making the recommended changes over the next year.

"We will give them time to self-correct, but if there's need for legislative action, there will be," Leno said.

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