Looking at the contact list on my phone, I find that at least half of my friends come from a divorced family – in fact, the parents of only two of my immediate friends remain together. According to the American Psychological Association, between 40 percent and 50 percent of American families do indeed end in divorce.

When my parents were divorced, they were able to come to an amicable decision about who would have custody over me and my sister. Many children aren’t that lucky.

My friend comes from one of the millions of divorced families. His parents went to court for a year, maybe two — it was a blur for him. He was 8 when it started. The battle between his two parents ensued while he was in elementary school and his brother was only a few years older.

When I asked my friend what he remembered about his parent’s custody battle, he said: “It was pointless and traumatizing. Nothing was resolved.”

 And the thought of ever stepping foot into another courtroom? He said, No way.

Courtroom observer

Over the summer, I was given the assignment to observe various cases in family court and then report back with my reflections and observations. I sat in on three distinct family court hearings, two of which revolved around a child custody battle.

Julie Paterson v. Geoffrey Marcus

Wednesday morning, June 19 at 8:15 a.m., the hallway outside of the courtroom is silent, except the shuffling of paperwork and shoes passing by. Julie Paterson has been fighting her ex-husband Geoffrey Marcus in family court for nearly 10 years. At the center of it is their son who is now 12.

Paterson’s history in court has been long and strenuous. Beginning in October 2010 with the dissolution of their marriage, various hearings have been held over custody of the couple’s son. Paterson requested this hearing to ask for a 50-50 percent joint custody of their son and for a request for an evaluation of the custody rights with Judge William Liebmann presiding the hearing.

Ultimately, Liebmann granted Paterson a custody evaluation under child evaluator Dr. Fred Norris but rejected Paterson’s request for joint custody on the basis of her history and past behavior. At that point, Paterson was told she would have to wait to see her son until they will return to the courtroom to report the status of the custody evaluation November 4 of this year. Since then, the couple has been revisiting the court over restraining orders on each other.

Iris Vest vs. Steven Vest

“We’re in business for you,” family Judge John Smiley told Iris Vest of Ventura.

Smiley was presiding over court case Iris Vest vs. Steven Vest on June 28 when he likened a family matter to a business transaction. Iris Vest, mother of four, didn’t seem disturbed in the slightest. Vest is a veteran of family court — she has been in and out of the courtroom since 2010. In December 2018 Vest lost her parental rights of one of her children.

Vest requested the hearing to get all four of her children on an equal custody schedule. The hearing seemed to drag on endlessly. Smiley didn’t enter the courtroom until 9:31 a.m. even though it was on calendar for 8 a.m. After spending 15 minutes discussing her case, Smiley called for a 10-minute break, saying, “I’m going to finish my coffee.” Vest was allowed the 10 minutes to decide how the rest of the hearing would continue.

Vest didn’t seem frustrated, however, with the slow pace of the morning.

“I’m going to go with the flow,” Vest told her two friends who came along with her.

Upon reflection

After observing family court in three distinct settings, including child support cases, one word comes to mind: insanity.

I came into the courtroom with a naiveté that only a college student can possess. A little alarmed having to write this reflection, I ask myself What do I really know about family court?

Here is what I know: It is messy with emotion. There were too many sides to the story that contradicted each other or seemed to speak too loudly about the same issue. In the testimonies I heard, their facts seemed to be clouded in anger, sadness or both.

Also: No one wins. Even if the court determines that one parent is more fit to take care of their child, the process to get to that decision is painful and harmful to each of the parents and their child(ren). The constant filing of hearings by each of the parents resembles the tennis match.

With this being said, why does the court system allow parents to continually go to court for years — maybe a decade — fighting for the right to see their children and be able to take care of them financially? Also, why do the parents turn the attention away from their children to who is the least fit to be a parent?

Children have grown up in the court system, not knowing anything but being caught in between their two guardians. Parents spend more time behind the petitioner and respondent stands than with their kids. The emotional consequences are enduring and exponential.

This leads me back to my friend’s words:

Pointless and traumatizing.