Despite a mother’s cry for help, San Diego Judge DeAnn Salcido signed a court order in 2003 giving a father custody of his six-year-old daughter. He still had custody six years later when he was arrested and convicted of child molestation.
Salcido told me in a phone interview this week she wants to apologize to Joyce Murphy, the mother she did not believe. “I tried to reach out to her but she was not receptive,” said Salcido, who left the bench in 2010. “She is justified. All I can do is change my practices and try to change the system.”
Desperate to protect her daughter, Murphy fled with her child but was caught, pleaded no contest to felony kidnapping and lost most contact with her daughter. In 2009, the child’s father, Henry Parson, was convicted of molesting other young girls and Murphy was given full custody.
Recalling when she first learned of Parson’s arrest, Salcido said, “I was horrified. I had been trained to be suspicious of abuse claims during divorce cases. Child Protective Services said the allegation was unfounded — as a new judge I thought ‘We’ll just do 50-50 custody and move along.’”
Today, Salcido is working to change America’s justice system because she believes it has developed a culture of discriminating against women and children. “It’s absolutely a civil rights issue,” she said. “Whether it is family court or criminal courts, the system is designed to protect those with political power or wealth. Women who are going through a divorce are normally financially struggling and children don’t vote.”
Salcido will be speaking at the first Convention on Rights for Women and Children in the Family, which is being held from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. September 7 at San Diego Woman’s Club, 2557 3rd Ave., San Diego, California.
Wendy Murphy, a civil rights attorney who teaches at New England Law in Boston with a focus on sexual violence, also will be speaking. Murphy, who is no relation to Joyce, is a frequent cable news guest on legal issues who wrote the book And Justice For Some, which has the subtitle “Exposé of the Lawyers and Judges who Let Dangerous Criminals Go Free.”
Safe Kids International founder Cindy Dumas organized the event. “Women’s and children’s rights to stay together and stay safe are being violated in epidemic proportions,” Dumas wrote on the event’s Facebook page. “Children are being routinely placed into the custody of abusers and molesters, and mothers are being retaliated against when they try and protect their children. It is time to come together and demand these human and civil rights be enforced.”
Dumas also organized the effort on Daily Kos where mothers and children who have been victimized by the justice system tell their stories.
The convention will work to change how family courts resolve contested custody cases. “We believe we are talking about less than five percent of the cases in family court — but that is a lot of children not being protected,” Dumas said in an interview last week. “We’ve gotten the right to vote, we have the right to work but we haven’t gotten the rights in the family. When we try to enforce our rights in the family in the courts it doesn’t work. There is an agenda to keep the fathers in control.”
One potential proposal is to move these custody cases into civil court where a jury will decide the verdict, Dumas said.
The convention is collecting signatures from people who support their Declaration of Rights for Women and Children that should be enforced by the justice system.
For Salcido, the conference is a chance to try to make a difference now that she is an attorney who appears in family court. “I’ve changed my practices and tried to open my eyes,” she said. “I was told not to believe people in divorce when they make claims about sexual abuse or domestic violence.”
When she was a judge, Salcido learned that the attitude judges had towards women was often one of distrust. She said that during a meeting of judges discussing misdemeanor domestic violence cases, “One fellow judge told me that a woman in his case wasn’t complaining about crimes, she was just on her period.”
In 2010 Salcido resigned her judgeship after California’s Commission on Judicial Performance censured her for making inappropriate remarks during hearings in hopes of landing a TV deal. She claims the punishment stemmed from her complaints against other judges. “I was accused of playing to the camera,” she said. “Truth is, I am who I am, camera or not. I was tarred and feathered.”
One problem in family courts is the large number of cases that child welfare officials declare unfounded without adequate investigation, such as the case involving Joyce Murphy’s daughter. “A box was checked that showed the allegations were unfounded,” Salcido said. “I thought that meant the case was investigated. I found out later that could mean there was no investigation because when CPS learned the case was in family court they wouldn’t devote resources to it. They would leave it to family court to sort out.”
Another issue is judges using the court as a springboard to high-paying work for lawyers who appear before them. “They are hoping to be hired as a private mediator by lawyers representing rich clients,” Salcido said.
While family court is not considered a prestigious posting, often judges close to retirement will volunteer to go back in hopes of landing a lucrative private industry position, Salcido said. Those judges are financially motivated to rule in favor of law firms where they would like to work. “They don’t want to antagonize attorneys who could turn out to be a future paycheck.”
Salcido said that judges should not be allowed to go from the bench to doing work for a private law firm — just like government officials are not allowed to become lobbyists for the first year after leaving their job — nor allowed to work for mediation companies without a waiting period.
The public also should examine its attitude toward domestic violence. “I often got more protestors when I was hearing a case about animal abuse than when the case involved the abuse of a child,” Salcido said. “When you can find a reason to blame the victim then you don’t have to burden yourself with compassion.”
This is the 12th in a series of articles for Daily Kos about the treatment of abused children in the U.S. family court system. M.C. Moewe is a former criminal justice and investigative reporter for several newspapers with a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Texas. Email m AT moewe.com or use this link.