Empty home for the holidays: Parents who lost children to family court say system in need of reform
The holidays are usually a time for family, but it's particularly painful for some parents who lost their children to the family court system.
News 12 is highlighting the painful stories of three parents with empty homes this season while they deal with cases in Hudson Valley courts.
Their identities will remain private to focus on their individual experiences with losing children, in a system created 50 years ago to provide protective parents immediate safety and relief.
It's a system some say is now riddled with legal loopholes and being misused.
"I can't speak to my kids. I can't contact them. I can't tell them I love them. I've missed Thanksgiving. I've missed birthdays. I'm going to miss Christmas, and I'm going to miss New Year's, and there's no guarantee that I'll be able to see them come the next court date," says one parent.
Unlike criminal court, family court law does not require evidence or proof for a temporary restraining order or legal action to be taken.
"They give you an order of protection. They don't allow you access to the court to be heard on the order. You are presumed guilty until you're found innocent," says another woman.
For years, parents have stayed silent. But recently, custodial court room horror stories are making headlines nationwide and in the Hudson Valley.
In Ulster County, a judge is being sued by three different women who all claim he violated their civil rights while handling their family cases and allegedly put children in danger by favoring abusive parents.
News 12 asked attorney Catherine Kassenoff about the big issues that people are not aware of.
"We are not seeing enough transparency. We are not really understanding how these cases are moving along," she says.
Kassenoff is a former federal prosecutor who handles criminal and civil cases in private practice.
She says family courts are not held to the same standards as criminal courts and that accused parents have no rights to a speedy trial or the right to an attorney.
"People's rights are being held in the balance while they're awaiting hearings, and it could take months and even longer before they're actually heard," she says.
By then, critics say the emotional and financial damage is already done.
Advocates for reform want family court judges and attorneys to have better training.
"If they don't have the skills nor have they taken the time to educate themselves, then the decisions they are making not only are putting victims at risk, but they are forever altering the lives of children with long-term impacts," says Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier, of Fearless! Hudson Valley.
A representative for the New York State Court System said judges make decisions based on the "best interests of children" and called parents with concerns "disgruntled litigants."
State lawmakers disagree, including Sen. James Skoufis and Assemblyman Collin Schmitt, who say the system is "outdated."
Skoufis co-sponsored two laws that would require family courts to investigate claims of abuse, provide due process for litigants and order specialized training for courts handling these cases.
A representative for the New York State Court System says parents can appeal court decisions at the appellate level.
Critics, however, say many parents cannot afford the legal representation required for that and unlike with criminal trials aren't eligible for free legal aid.