VICTORIES IN HAWAII
by Chris Lethem, Chair, Executive Committee, National Parents Organization of Hawaii, May 28, 2014
This year National Parents Organization of Hawaii introduced several bills related to addressing abuses of the Child Support Enforcement Agency. We also introduced legislation HB2163 titled “Parental Parity” that would ensure equal time for both parents unless the court determined that it was not in the best interest of the child.
Two of the bills didn’t move, however, three of the bills moved through the house and senate with opposition from the Family Court Judges and the Child Support Enforcement Agency. The Joint Custody Bill language was weakened from Equal Time to “Shall consider frequent continuing and meaningful contact.” The change still moves the court toward more equitable time. We won’t know, however, how the court will implement the moderate change in the statute.
The language for the two remaining bills related to child support were attached to an appropriation bill forwarded by the Child Support Enforcement Agency requesting funds for additional staff. These two bills HB1504 related to disallowing “In Gross” child support orders and HB1505 support for children attending college.
An “In Gross” child support order is an order that doesn’t adjust the child support amount downward. Instead it remains fixed until the last child is no longer eligible. In Hawaii non-custodial parents are required to pay child support while a child is attending college until the age of 23. The second bill provided language relating to children over 18 attending college. It would require the CSEA pay the child support funds directly to the child attending college. The language from these two bills was later consolidated into a single bill along with a bill from CSEA requesting additional appropriations for more staff. The tactic of attaching the reform language to the appropriation bill would mean that the only way to get what they wanted was to give us the reforms we wanted. Unfortunately, this bill died during conference committee, but they will be re-introduced it in the next legislative session.
Getting to this year has been a journey with the family courts and with the Hawaii legislature. My exploits with family court began after spending two years tracking down my children in the jungles of Indonesia. My two daughters Amber and Cameo were only 1 and 3 years of age were taken by my first wife to Indonesia when she claimed she wanted to go back home for a couple of weeks for a family visit.
This was something she had done in previous years and it didn’t seem out of the normal except for the incident that had occurred a few weeks earlier when I caught her buying travelers checks and then reporting them stolen just after she had cashed them. I then spent the next two years locating and my children as my wife kept moving around with them. Finally, after my younger daughter nearly died from a mosquito born virus I convinced her to take the children out of Indonesia.
After about one more year in the U.S. mainland my wife took my children back to Hawaii. I then encountered a family court system that was decidedly anti-father as they come. Other abuses had to do with the way lawyers and custody evaluators were blatantly overbilling clients and women custody evaluators were unashamedly favoring women and male custody evaluators were doing the same for their fathers. The Hawaii Family Court System was nothing more than a “License to Print Money” for attorneys and the rest of the hangers on.
The attorney who was assigned as a custody evaluator in my case was clearly in the women’s camp. She wrote up an incredibly scathing attack on my character and took statements and facts completely out of context to paint me in the most negative light possible. Later this type of report would get a name. We now call it a “Sharp Shooting.” Its’ intent is to force a capitulation by the party being attacked in the report. This is where I started to understand the nature of the gamesmanship that was going on in the Family Court System.
Parenting Plan Legislation
In 2003, Senator Chun-Oakland and Senator Carole Fukunaga held a meeting at the Hawaii Legislature in Honolulu for people to come and address the problems within the Family Court System. I made a speech during this event that received a standing ovation from the 300 or so people attending. The following day I received a phone call asking me to participate in a newly developed task force to address the problems and to develop new language for bills that would help to redress so many of the problems with the Family Court System.
The first bill we focused on was language that would ensure equal time for both parents. It was attached to a bill that provided for the requirement for a parenting plan in all custody cases. This bill moved through the senate without too much difficulty, but when it got to the House Judiciary Committee the language for Joint Custody was gutted from the bill. Only the language requiring the development of a parenting plan passed into law.
Shared Parenting language has been introduced several years thereafter, however, there continues to be strong opposition from the Domestic Violence Advocacy Organizations as well as the attorneys and others who have a vested financial interest in the status quo.
Addressing Allegations of Abuse
The following year we introduced language to ensure a fair investigation where there were allegations of abuse against children that an independent investigation would be performed by Child Protective Services. This is to ensure that it isn’t being used as just another sleazy method to gain an advantage in custody litigation. That bill passed and became law.
Language that set criteria for the best interest of the child
The next year the Task Force met again and this time several bills were drafted to move the process away from the adversarial model. We continued to press for joint custody language but again there was considerable pushback from those profiting from the adversarial model. Instead the discussion turned to creating a set of criteria that would provide for the “Best Interest of the Child Language”. “Best Interest of the Child” is simply a vaguely defined ideal. Since “Best Interest of the Child” isn’t a quantifiable criteria, by creating a list of measures at least the court would have a set of common criteria to use for determining the “Best Interest of the Child.” This bill was developed with a well-rounded group of stakeholders involved with the Family Court System. Because of this, the bill received very little opposing testimony and passed successfully into law.
Ensuring Military Personnel Parental Rights Are Protected (2011)
The next outrageous Family Court issue that demanded our attention was the opportunistic behavior of Family Law Attorneys Filing for change of custody while our troops were being deployed overseas to fight on our nations behalf. It was time to pass legislation that protected the custodial rights of military personnel fighting for the defense of our nation. As a result we were able to pass legislation that ensured no permanent change of custody could be awarded while in the service of our nation in a combat or combat support role.
Property Division (2011)
The next successful piece of legislation we were able to pass was related to property division. A number of problems relating to wasting of assets and manipulation of property values during the divorce were addressed and we were able to get most of the problems but not all resolved. Although not related to custody this bill fixed problems whereby attorneys were able to profit from the wasting of assets that became a lucrative way for attorneys to bilk clients of tens’ of thousands of dollars. For cases that involved fairly large estates, these cases became labeled as “Money Cases”. As one attorney explained, there is a gentlemen’s agreement that attorneys would run up expenses with unnecessary paperwork until 20 percent of the assets of the entire estate were billed out in fees. Then the attorneys would move to settle the case.
Limiting Custody Evaluators
The following year we then took on the problem of bias and conflicts of interest associated with Attorneys operating as Custody Evaluators. Attorneys were negotiating close door deals with other Family Law Attorneys. This totally corrupted any kind of objective evaluation of the capacity and desire of parents to parent their based upon their desire or ability. Our solution was to write into the Statutes educational requirement language that no attorney could or would be able to comply with. Only someone with a background in psychology or sociology would be able to meet the required curriculum. This had the intended effect of substantially reducing the use of custody evaluators.
Although we have introduced multiple bills each legislative session, Hawaii by constitution is limited to 60 working days each year. This creates an environment of managed chaos and for legislators trying to absorb information related to each bill; it’s like trying to drink from a fire-hose. As a former leader of the Senate advised me, with each legislative session ask for a dollar and then take the 10 cents you get. Comeback again the next year and ask for another dollar.
The underlying issue that we continue to address is the flawed concept of “picking a winner” between to parents. Whereas, a more effective approach that wouldn’t require intense adversarial conflict would be to focus on optimizing the parenting time of both parents.
National Parents Organization of Hawaii will be back next session seeking shared parenting. Let us know if you wish to volunteer.