Fed up with family court judges ignoring evidence of child abuse, last year Louisiana attorney Nanine McCool announced she was running for state district judge. A week later she was fighting to keep her law license.
“I don’t regret what I did,” McCool said of her actions that spurred the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to recommend she be disbarred from practicing law for a year. “If I lose my license for insisting that judges look at the evidence and apply the law before they make a decision, I can live with that.”
After more than a decade of practicing family law, McCool said handling multiple cases where abused children were not protected prompted her to run for a judgeship. “Parents go to the courts expecting to have the courts help them protect their children, and are stunned that not only will the courts not protect their children, but will actively seek to prevent the parent themselves from protecting their children,” McCool said. “That’s what makes you nauseous.”
Cindy Dumas, founder of Safe Kids International, has been asking people to write on Daily Kos about their efforts to protect children in family court. Saying the courts had failed to protect him, her son Damon married a stranger in Las Vegas at age 16 to become legally emancipated and escape the family court system.
McCool is running against
Louisiana 22nd Judicial District Court Judge Dawn Amacker, one of two judges that McCool had written a blog post about in 2011 concerning the welfare of two children in a custody case. In the post
, McCool, who was representing the mother, urged the public to call the judges and ask them to hear all the evidence before making a ruling.
The November 5, 2013, disciplinary complaint accuses McCool of multiple violations of professional conduct in regard to the blog post and motions she filed calling on Amacker to recuse herself from cases. McCool also was accused of encouraging the public to make contact with the judges to influence their rulings.
In the blog post, McCool linked to two audio recordings of the young children. “Harley and her sister Zoey have been telling their mother, their doctors, their therapists, teachers, friends and family that their daddy has been playing a game with them called ‘weewees and butts’ since they were four and three years old,” McCool wrote in the post. “Now consider that no judge has ever heard those recordings. Why? Because for 4.5 years, they have simply refuse to do so.”
The audio of the children is no longer on the internet. According to the complaint against McCool, a Mississippi judge who was hearing the custody case in 2008 ordered that no recordings of the children shall be made available to anyone but the counsel of record and the court. Whether the recordings were entered in the Mississippi case cannot be verified because the judge there sealed the case. The complaint against McCool notes that much of the information was taken from Louisiana filings.
In 2011 McCool was handling an adoption proceeding for the mother’s new husband who wanted to adopt the two girls, all residents of Louisiana. After child support is not paid for children for six consecutive months, according to Louisiana law, a stepparent has the right to ask the court for an adoption hearing over the delinquent parent’s objection.
Amacker presided over the adoption hearing but stayed the proceedings pending the outcome of the Mississippi case and refused to hear evidence regarding the children’s safety, McCool said.
Family court judges are often taught to be suspicious of abuse allegations during divorce proceedings, said DeAnn Salcido, a former San Diego family court judge who gave a child molester custody of his six-year-old daughter in 2003 and has been motivated by that mistake to change the system.
A divorce can spur a child to reveal abuse for the first time, yet this is the time a child is least likely to be believed, said Joyanna Silberg, a psychologist who led a Department of Justice-funded study examining family court cases where judges failed to protect children who were being abused. Family violence is often invisible because people are reluctant to jeopardize the integrity of the family unit, Silberg said. When the family unit is split during divorce, abuse victims, including children, have less incentive to keep secrets.
Some states have adopted “friendly parent” laws that favor custody to the parent who is more likely to facilitate visitations with the other parent. Protective parents, who are concerned about child abuse, can be judged harshly by “friendly parent” law standards.
Many lawyers advise their clients not to bring up abuse allegations because the risk that they will not be believed -- and the judge will give sole custody to the accused abuser -- is too great, McCool said. “If we all stand together we could stop this. We should not be afraid of losing our license for representing our clients fairly.”
But right now, many of her fellow family court attorneys won’t speak to her. “Most of them go along to get along because they have families to support and can’t afford to take a stand and risk being blackballed by judges,” McCool said.
If the Louisiana Supreme Court rules that McCool should be disbarred, she will not be eligible to run for judge. “The (Louisiana) Supreme Court is very political but I am still confident that its vision of the justice system is more like mine than the one the (Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s) recommendations reflect,” McCool said.
This is the 15th 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.