Task force calls for opening Family Court proceedings

Recommendation would air divorce, custody battles
The Family Court Task Force debates opening some Family Court proceedings to the public.  Shown are (l-r) Family Court Judge Michael Newell; Raetta McCall, of the Commission on Family Law; Patricia Dailey Lewis, of the Attorney General's Office; Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere; Lynn Kokjohn, of the Commission on Family Law; Mariann Kenville-Moore, of Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna; Child psychologist Joseph Zingaro; Family Court Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn; and Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel. BY KARA NUZBACK
November 1, 2013

Family Court proceedings, including divorce disputes and child custody battles, are closed to the public in Delaware, but that could change as a result of legislation calling for public input on the issue.

The Family Court Task Force met Oct. 29 at Legislative Hall.  The 13-member group was formed under a Senate resolution to study whether the parties in Family Court cases would be better served by opening proceedings that are currently closed.

Speaking before the meeting, a number of Delaware women told the group open hearings would yield fairer Family Court judgments.

Task force member Raetta McCall said Family Court judges do not always rule in the best interests of the child.  “Whoever has the power, whoever has the money gets what they want,” she said.

Bonnie Corwin, a New Castle County resident who formerly lived in Lewes, said, opening Family Court proceedings would give parties with no attorney the ability to observe other proceedings and learn how to address the judge and present a legal argument.

Corwin said she was a plaintiff in a Family Court case, and the judge was a friend of the defendant. “I was a domestic violence victim.  I was not permitted by the judge to cross-examine my husband about the domestic violence,” she said.

“I believe the system…has bred an environment of corruption,” she said.  “It’s secret.  There’s nobody that knows what’s going on besides the people in the courtroom.”

Corwin is the former wife of Sussex County Family Court Judge John Henriksen, who was removed from his post last year after a young female attorney accused him of making advances toward her.

Cynthia Smith said her husband lied in Family Court proceedings to gain custody over her three daughters.  She said she was extremely intimidated during her Family Court hearing.  “I felt like I was being abused so much in court,” she said.

Smith said she was not allowed to bring anyone into the courtroom with her for support, including a domestic violence advocate.  “It would be nice if I had my mom in there,” she said.

Task force Co-chairwoman Lynn Kokjohn said Delaware Code says anyone with a direct interest in the proceeding can enter a Family Courtroom.

McCall said it is not common practice for judges to allow anyone in a closed courtroom for support.  “We could ask, but the judge is going to tell you, ‘No,’” McCall said.

Both Smith and McCall compared their experiences in Family Court to rape.  “It’s a violation of your ability to be a whole person,” McCall said.

Group recommends open Family Court

After two hours of discussion, a majority of the task force voted to open divorce, property division, alimony, custody and visitation proceedings to the public.

Task force member and child psychologist Joseph Zingaro stipulated in his motion to open the proceedings that minors should never be allowed in the courtroom during custody or visitation hearings.  “I can’t imagine how that’s not going to traumatize them,” he said.

Family Court Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn, who voted in favor of open proceedings, said there is already a statute that allows judges to interview minors so they do not need to be present during testimony.

She added if the parents involved in the custody battle are minors, they should be an exception to the law.

Kuhn said 24 states have open juvenile dependency hearings, but many will close the proceedings for a variety of special circumstances. In states that hold closed hearings, people with a direct interest in the case are normally allowed to attend, she said.

Kuhn said typically only caregivers and family friends attend open juvenile dependency hearings; studies show the hearings are rarely populated by media.

It is important for the group’s recommendation to be clear – to protect victims and not to overburden the court, Kuhn said.

Task force member Patricia Dailey Lewis, of the Attorney General’s Office, said the recommendation should include clear exceptions that would allow judges to close the proceedings in some cases.

Task force member Janine Howard-O’Rangers, a family law attorney, voted against opening family proceedings to the public.  She said child abuse and sexual abuse cases should be closed to protect victims’ identities.  She also noted a perpetrator could bring friends into court to intimidate parties involved.

The task force unanimously decided the state should keep adoption proceedings closed because open proceedings could pose a safety threat to children or caregivers.

“Nowhere in the country are adoption proceedings open to the public,” Lewis said.

The group voted to discuss whether to recommend open Family Court records at a later meeting.

The Family Court Task Force will meet again at 1 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 10, at Legislative Hall in Dover.  The group’s final recommendation to leaders in the General Assembly is due Saturday, Feb. 15.

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