This group has plenty of horror stories just in time for Halloween: There's the abusive father with a long criminal record who lied and said his ex-wife was a drug addict in order to win primary custody of their three-year-old son; the domestic violence survivor whose ex-husband forced her to endure 13 years of court hearings about the details of their child support agreement; the judge who stated that a woman was “emotionally ill” and a liar when she tried to show him letters from two of her ex-husband’s ex-wives, alleging that he’d sexually abused their daughters.
Families Against Court Travesties, or FACTS, was born 13 years ago when a group of women in Palm Beach County decided it was time family court got some much-needed scrutiny. Some of them had personal experience there and had seen how high-conflict custody cases dragged on for years until one parent (typically, but not always, the mother) was left bankrupt or deeply in debt.
Others were teachers, counselors, and just regular concerned citizens who were worried judges weren’t ruling with kids’ best interest in mind, often ignoring red flags that pointed to domestic violence or child abuse.
“Too many mothers, and some dads, were complaining about their children being taken from them and being traumatized because they didn’t have a mother,” Adele Guadelupe, one of the founders, explains. “It’s mainly to make sure that judges are being constitutional in family court.”
The group spun off from the National Organization of Women. It now covers both Broward and Palm Beach Counties. The work is straightforward: Volunteers regularly attend family court hearings wearing white shirts and a pink badge. While listening to the proceedings, they fill out evaluation forms that rate the judge on qualities like courtesy, preparedness, impartiality, and punctuality. If they see something inappropriate, they’ll make a formal complaint. But mostly, their presence serves to remind the judge that a neutral third party is watching.
One contributing factor that they’ve identified — besides the obvious institutionalized sexism — is that voters often don’t know much about judicial candidates, which means that we end up getting stuck with incompetent judges. In hopes of fixing that problem, NOW's Palm Beach chapter has been sending out questionnaires to all candidates and choosing a select few to endorse through their political action committee.
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“Once a bad judge is in, they’re hard to get out,” Natalie Andre, the current president of FACTS, explains. “Lawyers don’t want to run against someone they’re going to come up against, for fear of retaliation.”
As FACTS becomes better known, it’s morphed into a vital resource for women (and occasionally men) who are learning to navigate the court system. Often, parents who feel that a judge is improperly favoring one side over the other will request that court watchers attend their hearings as an independent third party.
And while court watchers can’t give legal advice, they do give practical tips about preparing for a court hearing: what to wear, where to park, and how to address the judge, for starters. That often goes a long way toward calming the nerves of women who never expected to end up fighting for custody of their kids in court and are beginning to realize that the odds are not necessarily in their favor.
“The system was made by men, and run by men, up to this day,” Esther Pereira, a volunteer with FACTS, says. “That’s why we’re here.”