California Family Courts Helping
Pedophiles, Batterers Get Child Custody
By Peter Jamison
published: March 02, 2011
Karen Anderson suspected that something strange was going on between her ex-husband, Rex
Anderson, and their 15-year-old daughter. Prior to the couple's separation in 1998, the girl
would sometimes put on high heels and makeup, "visiting" her dad while he worked late at night
in the family's basement. It was the same retreat in which he stored the dildos and artificial
vaginas he used to stimulate himself sexually.
After the divorce, Rex was given primary custody of his daughter, as well as the couple's 8-
year-old son. Karen says this was because he had a full-time job as a facilities engineer at Santa
Clara Valley Medical Center, while she was unemployed. While staying with her on weekends,
her daughter would sometimes say she hated herself and wanted to die.
In 1999, Anderson, a resident of San Jose, decided to take her concerns to Santa Clara County
Family Court. Like similar courts across the state, it is charged with adjudicating high-conflict
divorces — managing the division of property, child support payments, and the often bitterprocess of establishing a plan for shared child-rearing. She urged the court to investigateand "he-said, she-said" exchanges that characterize bitter divorces, the facts can be hard to tease out.
For this reason, SF Weekly has focused exclusively on cases, both in the San Francisco Bay Area
and the rest of California, where allegations of domestic violence or child molestation were
backed up by criminal convictions — and, in one case, a murder-suicide. In all of them, the
courts seem to have failed to follow basic procedures, including some dictated by state law, for
weighing evidence of a parent's abusiveness before making crucial custody decisions.
Absent an exhaustive review of the state's family courts, it is impossible to say how common
such cases are. The reasoning that guides custody decisions can also be difficult to decipher.
Court officials — including a number of those approached for this article — frequently decline to
explain their decisions or recommendations, citing client confidentiality or judicial ethics.
Still, advocates of reform say a few widespread problems lead to poor court decisions, such as
inadequate procedures for investigating abuse; the use of controversial and potentially
dangerous psychological theories about child welfare; and a prejudice toward joint parental
custody, even when one parent is clearly violent. Compounding these issues, critics say, is a lack
of accountability for judges, attorneys, custody evaluators, and other court personnel, who enjoy
immunity from lawsuits even in cases where they make decisions that do obvious harm to
children and parents.
"The family court system is supposed to work in the best interests of the child, but very
infrequently does that happen," says Susan Wilde, a Berkeley psychologist and expert on child
abuse intervention. "Families find themselves in the grip of a system that has no responsibility
to them or to the children, that just kind of runs amok."
Karen Anderson, who now lives in Manteca with her daughter and son, still looks back ruefully
on her experience in the Santa Clara Family Court. Her allegations about her husband were met
with skepticism not only by Packer, she says, but by the attorney, Miki Minzer, whom the court
had appointed to represent the interests of her children. "They didn't believe me," she says.
"The children's attorney, I was so angry with her ... she treated me terribly during the whole
(Anderson's case is distinct from that of California Protective Parents Association executive
officer Karen Anderson, a resident of Amador County and well-known activist on family court
reform. The two women are not related.)
Minzer now practices law in Colorado.She declined to comment on the Anderson case. "I am not
in a position to speak with you about that case," she wrote in an e-mail. "I have no authorization
from my former client to do so. I am sure you understand."
Packer likewise declined to comment, saying in an e-mail, "The ethics of client confidentiality are
such that I cannot speak to you about this case, or any other case." Stewart retired in 1999
shortly after hearing the case; he died in 2004.
If the way events unfolded in the Anderson case sounds odd, it should. Despite the enormous
impact of family courts' decisions, they are in many ways unrecognizable when compared to
other branches of the judiciary, particularly in their lack of mechanisms for due process.Family courts have no juries, and litigants who lack the money for a private attorney have noneed" for a restraining order, "because there is no issue of violence at all."
Sing agreed to issue a restraining order — protecting Rivers alone, not her family members, and
issued for one year, instead of the customary five — "so that you both can cool down and calm
down and hopefully be better to each other and the kids." The judge refused to modify
Perryman's joint legal custody of his son. "It is good for the child and it's in the best interest of
the child to have continuous and frequent contact with dad and with mom," she said. She also
denied Rivers' request, made out of concern for her own safety, that custody exchanges take
place at a police station. Instead, she ordered that the child would be handed off between
parents at the home of Perryman's mother in San Francisco.
Under California Family Code Section 3044, findings of domestic violence are supposed to carry
a "presumption" against any form of custody for the abusive parent. Sing confirmed at the April
14 hearing that Perryman had abused Rivers; he admitted as much in open court. Had there
been any doubt about the question, however, it was quickly dispelled.
Later in April, Rivers hired Kim Robinson, the Oakland attorney, who discovered that Perryman
had pleaded guilty just a week before the hearing to misdemeanor spousal battery in Alameda
County, where Rivers had reported the incident to police. (He had originally been charged with
one count of felony domestic violence, one count of misdemeanor battery, and misdemeanor
child endangerment, since his son had been present at the time.)
In light of this further evidence, Robinson urged the judge to modify the custody order. Sing
again refused, in what Robinson says is a violation of state law.
"She just did not care. I gave her a second chance, and she did not take it," Robinson says of
Sing. "Her explanation was that she did not see the father as a danger to the child."
Ann Donlan, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court, said Sing was on vacation and
would not be available to comment on the case. Even if she were available, Donlan added, "it is
not permissible for her to comment on the specifics of any case."
Perryman, a soft-spoken man with a warm demeanor, acknowledges during a recent interview
at his home in the Lower Haight that he struck Rivers. "I did make a mistake," he says. But he
asserts it was done in self-defense, after she pushed him to the floor during an argument while
he was holding their son.
"When I was pushed down, it put me in sort of a protective mode," he tells a reporter, with
Derrick Jr., now 16 months old, perched on his lap and sucking from a baby bottle. "I did strike
her. My thing is, I wasn't the one who started it." Rivers' facial bruising, he says, did not come
from his slapping her but from a shove during the same altercation: "I pushed her in the face,
and her eye caught the bottom of the palm, and that's how her face got bruised."
Perryman says he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence only so he could get out of
jail — where he was held for more than three weeks after his arrest — to appear in family court,
ensuring continued custody of his son. "I would have pleaded to murder as long as I could have
gotten out to make the court date," he says.
"This is about the child," he adds. "Both parents should have custody. If neither parent is a
danger to the child, why shouldn't they?"What Robinson says was an unwillingness to appropriately
weigh evidence of criminal behaviorin the Rivers case is, according to court officials elsewhere, characteristic of the culture of at least
some of California's family courts. In one instance that recently came to light, an officer of the
court was actually punished for seeking to investigate such evidence too thoroughly.
Emily Gallup, a Stanford-educated mediator in the Nevada County Family Court, was fired after
her supervisors criticized her for reviewing parents' criminal histories when making her custody
recommendations. In a March 2010 written reprimand of Gallup prepared by Court Executive
Officer Sean Metroka, and obtained by SF Weekly, Metroka states that it was "unprofessional
and unacceptable" for her to have requested a criminal history report in a recent case she was
handling. "I admonished you not to take the role of a court investigator," he wrote.
Research on parents is part of a mediator's job, as it is for evaluators, minors' counsels, and
judges — no single court official is specifically designated as an "investigator." Metroka says that
Gallup went too far, conducting criminal background checks in cases where they weren't
relevant. "It's easy to violate [parents'] due-process rights if you try to make more out of a case
than is there when it's presented to you," Metroka says. "Emily's position is that in every case a
mediator should investigate and get every piece of evidence she can before the mediation."
Just last month, Gallup prevailed in a grievance against the family court system over her
dismissal. Arbitrator Christopher Burdick found that she "had reasonable cause to believe that
Court's Family Court Services department had violated or not complied with statutes and rules
of court," and ordered an audit of the court to investigate the claims in her grievance.
"They're making these monumental decisions based on air," Gallup says. "They think if you
have too much information about a parent, that makes you biased. My contention is, if you have
more information, that will make you less biased."
In addition to mediators like Gallup, family courts make extensive use of psychologists in
researching and adjudicating child custody. There is arguably no branch of the legal system
where psychological theories — including some that are highly controversial — are more
influential. And critics say the courts' less than rigorous approach to investigating allegations of
child abuse is formalized in one such theory, which is widely used by evaluators and attorneys:
the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).
PAS was coined by Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist affiliated with Columbia University, to
describe what he believed was a form of brainwashing that took place in the context of divorce
proceedings. According to Gardner, the condition arises when a parent — usually, but not
always, the mother — "programs" a child to hold delusions of sexual abuse by the father. Armed
with this theory, Gardner hired himself out as an expert witness in family courts across the
country, appearing on behalf of men seeking to discredit sex-abuse allegations.
Yet many questioned the scientific basis of his work. Gardner's research consisted for the most
part on his personal observations as a clinician, rather than systematic, peer-reviewed studies.
PAS has never been accepted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
the psychiatrist's bible of known conditions. The syndrome has also been denounced by
professional groups including the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the
American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, which
view it as a ploy for obscuring a court's inquiries into allegations of child abuse."Alienation is being used in almost every case where a child is taken from a safe parent andplaced with a dangerous parent," says Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Mill Valley–
based Center for Judicial Excellence, a family-court reform group. "It's a legal tactic."
Gardner's ideas are also controversial in light of provocative statements he made criticizing
society's condemnation of pedophiles, and seeking to portray adult-child sexual contact as
"Pedophilia has been considered the norm by the vast majority of individuals in the
history of the world," he wrote in the 1992 book True and False Accusations of Child Sex
Abuse. In the same book, he suggested wives of pedophiles masturbate in order to increase their
own sex appeal, reasoning that "increased sexuality may lessen the need for her husband to
return to their daughter for sexual gratification."
Few defend Gardner's more outlandish stances, but his theory of parental alienation has
persisted, in part because he trained psychologists and family court officials in California and
other states prior to his suicide. (Gardner punctuated an unusual career in an unusual way,
stabbing himself to death with a steak knife in 2003.)
Amy Baker, a New York–based psychologist who does extensive work in the family courts and
is one of the most prominent adherents nationally of Gardner's theories, says isolated instances
of the misuse of PAS by abusive parents have given it a bad name. "I think there's a very
simplistic idea that just because people make false allegations of parental alienation, parental
alienation doesn't happen," she says.
Yet such assurances are scant comfort to those who have seen the term "parental alienation"
turned against them as a weapon by child molesters. San Diego resident Joyce Murphy is one
parent who has reason to regret the shadow Gardner and PAS still cast over the family court
In 2003, Murphy, a research biologist at UC San Diego, was fighting for custody of her 6-yearold daughter with her ex-husband,
Henry "Bud" Parson. Murphy, who had been disturbed in
the final years of her marriage by what she says was her husband's obsession with child
pornography, suspected, based on her daughter's odd behavior after returning from
unsupervised visits with her father, that abuse might be taking place.
The judges and court-appointed therapists who reviewed Murphy's case, however, sided with
her husband. Murphy says she was accused of committing parental alienation. After the San
Diego Family Court refused to heed her warnings about Parson, she fled the state with her
daughter. "I reached the point where I broke," she says. "I could not see a way to keep my
Arrested in Florida, she was extradited to California, where she pleaded no contest to felony
kidnapping and was placed on probation. Her daughter was taken from her and placed in
Parson's full custody.
Six years later, it was Parson's turn to go to jail. In 2008, he was arrested on charges including
child molestation, sex with a child, and creating child pornography. While Murphy and Parson's
daughter was not among the victims listed in the criminal complaint against him, some of her
friends were, including two girls under the age of 14 and one under the age of 18. As part of a
plea deal, he admitted the molestation charges and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Murphy says she suspected that her ex was victimizing other young girls. After her pastexperiences with the family courts, however, she chose to stay silent, fearing that furtheraccusations would lead to retribution from the court. (In the years prior to Parson's arrest, she had regained limited visitation rights.)
"It was obvious to me, but I couldn't say anything at this point," says Murphy, who today has
full custody of her daughter. "Nobody would believe me, and anytime I objected to anything
they would accuse me of 'alienating.'"
One of the judges who presided over Murphy's case was DeAnn Salcido. In 2010, Salcido
resigned from the San Diego bench and was censured by the California Commission on Judicial
Performance for, among other things, hamming it up in the courtroom in an effort to secure a
deal for a court-based reality television show. She claims the misconduct complaints against her
were retaliation for her criticisms of other court officials.
The dispute over Salcido's screen aspirations is less interesting than what she has to say, in
retrospect, about the approach she took to the Murphy case. From the moment she arrived in
family court as a new judge, she says, she was advised by veterans of the system to disbelieve
accusations of child or spousal abuse arising in divorces. "I was basically told to be suspect of
anyone claiming abuse," she says. "I had senior judges telling me, 'Be suspect. The dad probably
has a new girlfriend, and the mom's upset.'" The concept of parental alienation, she says, arose
in private discussions "all the time" among court officials who espoused it.
Salcido says, "In the end, it did turn out that Joyce was right. She was right to be crying, and
hysterical, because no one would believe her. I signed a court order handing a kid over to
someone who turned out to be a pedophile."
Salcido's observations on the culture of family court point to the common thread running
through the stories of Anderson, Rivers, and Murphy: a reluctance on the part of court officials
to upset what they deem an appropriate balance of child custody among parents. Particularly in
the cases of Anderson and Murphy, the mothers' accusations, if true, would almost certainly
have led to a denial of visitation rights for the father.
While the family courts' desire to equitably divide a child's time led to unfortunate and absurd
results in these cases, it has clear historical roots. Decades ago, divorce courts often operated
with a bias toward placing children with their mothers. As divorce became more common,
however, swelling advocacy from fathers' rights groups started to alter this dynamic. A state law
directing the courts to make a presumption of joint custody was passed in 1979, leading to the
present inclination toward splitting a child's time more or less evenly between parents.
Joyanna Silberg, a psychologist with the Baltimore-based Leadership Council on Child Abuse
and Interpersonal Violence, says this drive to assure each party due parental rights has evolved
into a form of judicial prejudice. In cases where abuse accusations are true, she says, this
prejudice has the practical affect of abetting the abuser. "What it is, is a family court culture that
seems to be about dividing property," she says. "It's not about seeing whether a crime is
Glenn Sacks, the Los Angeles–based executive director of the national fathers' rights group
Fathers and Families, disagrees. He asserts that the courts still routinely demonstrate a bias
against fathers, and are overly protective of moms and punitive of dads when handling abuse
allegations. "They'll err on the side of caution," he says, "without ever stopping to think, 'Why am I erring?'"
Even today, he adds, "The courts are very much biased against fathers. Usually it's 'She's the mom, she's the real parent; he's the dad, he's not the real parent.'"
Sacks adamantly defends the legitimacy of parental alienation. He also says that "a lot of the
progress for fathers has been undermined by [stricter] domestic violence laws" that punish men
for alleged acts of which there is insufficient evidence. To be clear, he says, "Not now or ever do
we believe that wife beaters should be getting control of their children."
Sacks' remarks underline another truth about the family courts: Their problems are entwined
with gender politics, and as such are difficult to approach. While the system's mistakes affect
both mothers and fathers, men are statistically more likely to be the perpetrators of the types of
serious crimes that highlight the family courts' shortcomings — as they are in all the cases,
substantiated by criminal convictions, examined in this article. The topic of gender's correlation
with violent crime is hotly debated, but studies have found that only 6 percent of sex offenses
and 5 percent of serious incidents of domestic violence are committed by women.
Attempts to curb the system's capacity for enabling abusive parents have thus been perceived
in the past as antimale activism. When state Assemblyman Jim Beall, a San Jose Democrat and
chair of the Assembly's Human Services Committee, introduced legislation in 2009 that would
have banned the use of Parental Alienation Syndrome in California family courts, strong
opposition from fathers' rights groups helped doom the bill.
Some observers say the family courts can be meaningfully reformed only by improving their
methods of fact-finding, perhaps through introducing procedures or personnel borrowed from
the criminal courts. Seth Goldstein, a former police officer and investigator for the district
attorney's offices in Napa and Santa Clara counties who now practices family law, suggests
creating interdisciplinary panels — composed of a range of professionals with expertise in child
abuse and domestic violence, such as doctors and social workers, or former prosecutors and
police officers — to thoroughly evaluate abuse allegations when they arise. "The way that the
courts have to work is evidence-based, not theory-based," he says.
Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University at San Bernardino,
likewise says that the family courts need to be revamped so as to devote more attention to
evidence — as do other courts of law — rather than the opinions of individuals such as
psychologists, mediators, or even judges. "I would like to see judges relying a lot less on
psychological evaluations and a lot more on the facts of a case," she says.
What is the likelihood of such changes? With limited audits of two counties' family courts
complete, and a third one on the way, it appears that government officials are starting to pay
attention to this little-scrutinized branch of the judiciary. Meanwhile, some of the dramatic
mistakes of California's family courts have begun to resonate with the public. One such case is
that of Katie Tagle, a Yucca Valley woman who paid the ultimate price for the system's lapses.
On Jan. 21, 2010, Tagle appeared before San Bernardino County Family Court Judge Robert
Lemkau to ask for a protective order against her ex-boyfriend, Stephen Garcia, who shared
custody of their 9-month-old son, Wyatt. Over the previous few days, Tagle had received
disturbing messages from Garcia threatening to kill their son if she didn't reunite with him. She
described "e-mails saying that [Garcia is] going to take his life and our son's life at the lake the
next time he gets him, and if he doesn't do it that day, he will finish the job later."
Lemkau refused to modify the joint custody order that was in place. "My supposition, ma'am, isthat you're lying," he said. "But if I'm incorrect, you can always bring another ex parte motion,
but don't misrepresent the situation. If you're lying about this, there's going to be adverse
Adverse consequences were imminent, though not the ones Lemkau imagined. Within two
weeks, Garcia sent Tagle a suicide note while Wyatt was in his custody. When police tracked him
down, a car chase ensued through mountains above San Bernardino. Just after 1 a.m. on
Sunday, Jan. 31, Garcia shot his son, and then himself.
The community's reaction was swift. Picket lines formed outside Lemkau's courthouse. In the
fall, when he was up for re-election, he lost his seat to James Hosking, a deputy district attorney
whose upstart campaign was fueled by public outrage over the case.
Lemkau could not be reached for comment. His phone number and address were redacted from
campaign forms filed in San Bernardino County during last year's election, and messages sent to
the e-mail address listed for his campaign were not returned. On March 3, 2010, at another
hearing in family court, he apologized to Tagle and said he could not have predicted what would
happen at the time he refused to issue the restraining order, the Daily Press of Victorville
reported. "I deeply apologize for my comments to you," he said, according to the newspaper.
Hosking, who just ascended to the bench in January, said that while Tagle's case presents a clear
picture of a family court failing to assess dangers to children, the question of systemic reform is
more complex. At bottom, he says, the courts are "concerned with trying to predict future
behavior," a task at which people in any profession have never excelled. "Family law judges like
myself face difficult decisions every day," Hosking says.
Speaking through tears today as she recalls her son's death, Tagle, who has moved to Las Vegas,
talks about the reform she would most like to see: a stripping of the legal immunity enjoyed by
judges, evaluators, and all the other personnel who make up the complex apparatus of the
state's troubled family courts.
At present, litigants are barred from suing such court employees for official misconduct under
the doctrine of judicial immunity that applies to judges in the civil and criminal courts.
Evaluators and mediators enjoy similar protections with respect to their court functions. When
decisions about child welfare turn out to be disastrous, parents like Tagle have no recourse.
"If they had no immunity, they would think twice," she says. "It was [Lemkau's] job to protect
our son, and not give him to the person who admitted to me, multiple times, in e-mails, that hewas going to kill our son.