Family law is a squishy area to discuss. Criminal defense is neat and tidy by comparison. In criminal law, it’s the client and counsel against the might of the government. Family law, by comparison, is an area where everyone’s expected to get along in an incredibly hostile environment.
Attorneys and clients who go through a Family Law case of any sort unknowingly walk into a metaphorical meat grinder. Marital dissolutions and child custody cases will suck the life out of the most battle-hardened lawyer, and leave all parties scarred and jaded for their efforts.
That’s what makes Greg Ellis’ book “The Respondent: Exposing The Cartel of Family Law” an intriguing, yet ultimately disappointing read. If you’re not a lawyer or haven’t been exposed to Family Court, it’s a harrowing tale of one man’s journey through a system run amok with flaws and corruption. If you’re a lawyer or you’ve participated in a divorce proceeding, it’s just a head-shaking reminder of the flawed system in which one must work.
Ellis, a former Pirates of the Caribbean star, begins his story with the night a “ten word lie” that ultimately changed his life. After his now ex-wife, Dana, informed authorities Ellis had expressed to her, “I’m sick of this shit, I’m going to harm the children,” he was arrested, thrown into a squad car, and held on an involuntary committal in a mental facility.
This would be the first of five times Ellis would find himself in this predicament.
As the story continues, Ellis secures legal representation after getting out of the mental facility and finds a place to stay. His wife’s attorney is a ruthless harridan who paints him as a violent, mentally-ill drug addict. Attorney after attorney fail to provide Ellis with even minimally competent representation. Mediation fails. He’s forced into supervised visits with his two sons, Charlie and Smith. Mom regularly speaks ill of Dad when the children are with her, and Mom regularly attempts to ferry information about visitation schedules through the boys.
Sadly, all of this is very common in family law. While Ellis’ tale may be an extreme situation, Family Court judges are often very sympathetic to potential cries of abuse, whether mental or physical. No one in the justice system wants to be the person who ignored a victim’s cry for help, only to see that person dead at the hands of their abuser later. And cops will often make one party in a Domestic Violence (DV) case the bad guy—a black mark on a party’s reputation that’s hard to shirk.
Ellis is a Hollywood actor, though, not an attorney, so his attempts at crying foul over a system he claims disproportionally favors women come across more as a case of what my pal Joe Emmerth calls “Fuck This Bitch Syndrome,” or FTBS to put it succinctly. A case of FTBS may color the author’s interpretation of his narrative, but it doesn’t take away the fact many men and women who go through a divorce share the same fate.
For example, Ellis is very sour on mediation, a process almost universally required in no-fault divorce cases. I’m no fan of mediation as it’s commonly practiced, and the “shuttle diplomacy” approach often peddled as real mediation ends up producing less favorable outcomes than if a judge simply made a ruling on a divorce case. Yet we keep pushing mediation as a “favorable alternative,” a means of “expanding the pie” and using other squishy terms of that sort to justify the inclusion of yet another party to the legal process that is a divorce.
The standard most people deal with in divorces of couples with children, barring very few alternatives, is mediation. It’s a nice way for everyone in Family Law to justify the practice, claiming it leads to more satisfying outcomes and allows for mutual agreement on issues that would otherwise take up a jurist’s time.
In other words, to quote one very frequent divorce litigant over his lifetime, “You may love it, or you may hate it, but you better learn to live with it because it’s the best thing going today.”
Another area that will shock laypeople and make lawyers shake their heads sadly is the treatment of Ellis by DCFS case workers assigned to look after his children’s “best interests.” In theory, DCS/CPS/DCFS workers, whatever acronym your local jurisdiction uses, are supposed to represent the best interests of the children at the heart of a child custody dispute.
In reality, DCS workers are a sort of parasitic influence over a family’s life that never go away once they enter. Many of them form preconceived notions of parties before viewing any formal evidence, and they aren’t shy of telling their co-workers loudly in coffee shops what they think of that “dumb sack of shit” that’ll inevitably appear before them later in the day, as happened in Ellis’ tale.
Often, the DCS workers are a product of the system they perpetuate. Many are children who grew up in the system aged out of it, and then got back in with the intent of sparing other children the harm they suffered. Their attempts, unfortunately, usually result in more harm than good.
My second major critique of “The Respondent” is it reads like the defense Ellis wanted to present at trial, but felt he never got to prove. This sort of feeling is common among divorce litigants without a book deal, and leads to much resentment of the process.
There’s a reason divorce lawyers don’t let their clients speak in these sorts of hearings if at all possible: they’re emotionally charged, feelings run rampant, and 99% of what the client wants to tell a judge will harm their case. So naturally, as in criminal law, family lawyers admonish the client to shut the fuck up.
Ellis was determined, having given up on his fight to see his sons ever again while writing this book in quarantine, to make his case, even attaching as appendices to “The Respondent” the court-ordered psychiatric evaluations for which he was forced to pay proving his sanity. One can’t fault a man who’s abandoned hope if he does extreme things, but damned if conduct like this doesn’t hurt one’s chances of actually seeing one’s children ever again.
Should you read “The Respondent?” My answer to that question is a legal chestnut: “It depends.” If you want a page turner that will make you shake your head in disbelief, then read it. On the other hand, if you’re a divorce lawyer who sees this stuff every day, it’s just going to confirm your own personal views of jaded clients who want to rail against the system.
Why am I mentioning this book on a criminal defense blawg? Because it shines light on two areas often unreported in the press: the mental health impact divorce and domestic violence proceedings have on men, and the unlisted child abuse “suspicion” registries available in almost every state.
It’s true we’re more likely than not to hear how a divorce harmed a mother and the children. Fathers, as Ellis notes, are given the mantle often of “Stoic” and forced to shoulder it while their names are driven into the mud. Repeatedly painting “toxic masculinity” as the root cause of divorce without addressing the contributing factors in a relationship does nothing to stem the tide of suicidal divorced fathers with no access to their children face.
Second, I posit the unlisted, unspoken of “potential child abuse” registries across the country are a truly dirty secret no one’s willing to discuss. Right now, if you’re even suspected of child abuse, there’s a chance your name will go on a registry that says you MIGHT be an abuser. That registry can theoretically deny you the right to housing, a car, a job, or other factors, and you’ll often only know you’ve gotten a place on it when DCS sends you a letter saying you’ve got a week to appeal it in their offices. Fail to appeal, or even fight it at all, and you’re left with a scarlet “A” for “Abuser” without a court ever finding your guilt.
If “The Respondent” is worth reading, it’s worth it for the exposure Ellis brings to issues like suicide rates among divorced fathers and the existence of “potential abuse” registries. Should Ellis and his non-profit, “Children and Parents United,” make a dent in either of these areas, the book will be a success.
Otherwise, for most folks—especially the lawyers who deal with this stuff on a daily basis—it’s just a grim reminder of the broken system in which we live, whether we’re Hollywood stars or average joes on the street.