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State auditor critical of Marin, Sacramento family courts

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Family courts in Sacramento and Marin counties could not show whether mediators and other appointees handling child custody disputes met minimum qualifications and training requirements, according to a long-awaited report released yesterday by the state auditor.

The audit, which covered four years from April 2006 through March 2010, found the courts lacked many of the documents required by state law and court rules that show appointees can properly mediate, assess family conditions and ensure outcomes in children's best interests.

There were no records to show that four out of Marin County's seven mediators completed initial training.

In Sacramento, seven out of 20 mediators did not appear to meet minimum requirements, such as at least two years of experience in counseling or psychotherapy. For evaluators, who must be licensed as psychologists, therapists or social workers, the court failed to submit proof of their qualifications in seven of nine cases the auditor reviewed. 

In five cases in which attorneys were hired to represent children in Sacramento, three lacked documentation showing the attorneys were qualified to do so.

Both courts also failed to log complaints about private mediators and evaluators. Neither court could ensure it thoroughly investigated all complaints or could even be certain of the number of complaints received, the audit said.

Mandated in 2009 by the state Legislature, the audit comes in response to concerns that family court appointees were more interested in racking up fees than in the welfare of the children they represented.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who pushed for the audit after hearing from concerned families, said the findings were "very disturbing" and pointed to a lack of accountability.

"If I hung out a shingle on my door stating that I was a psychologist and started receiving clients, and then someone looked into whether I had gone to school, completed my studies, gotten my degree, was accredited, and it was determined that none of that was actually so, I would be deemed a fraud and likely taken to court," he said. "How tragic is it that when the same kind of behavior occurs in the family court system, there apparently is no consequence whatsoever."

Over the next year, the auditor will check the Sacramento and Marin family courts for compliance with its recommendations, which include improving conflict-of-interest policies, accounting procedures and document retention.

In a written response to the audit, Sacramento Superior Court said it largely agreed with the findings and has begun to implement many of the recommendations. But the court said it lacked the resources to maintain training and qualification records for private mediators and evaluators – a policy not required by state law or court rules but recommended by the auditor.

Among the auditor's findings, however, was that Sacramento family court had failed to collect about two-thirds of the evaluations it billed in four years – totaling nearly $68,300 in uncollected bills. Furthermore, the audit found that the court may have unnecessarily paid up to $8,500 for attorneys because it did not verify litigants' ability to pay. Lax invoicing policies also led the court to pay more than $175 for attorneys' fees that were not eligible for reimbursement.

Marin Superior Court dismissed many of the auditor's findings and recommendations as being "focused primarily on ministerial tasks." It said eight of the auditor's 13 recommendations were not governed by law or court rules and questioned "whether some of the recommendations actually enhance internal controls and accountability."

Leno said the auditor's findings were just the "tip of the iceberg," with anecdotal evidence suggesting similar problems at many family courts throughout the state. He pledged to take legislative action if the courts failed to clean themselves up after subsequent review by the auditor.

Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, a watchdog group based in Mill Valley that has pressed for reform of the family court system, said the audit has national implications.

"The problems in Marin and Sacramento are far from unique," she said. "We've been receiving horrific complaints for many years from parents and children whose lives are being destroyed by a family court system run amok. We finally have credible, government data to back up these stories for the first time."

 

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