Protected: In the Name of Justice

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Erasing Families Near You

This woman is an actress but on this video, in this horror story, she is not acting.

She speaks the truth for many thousands of parents and children across America and around the globe.

The act of erasing a loving, safe parent from the lives of his or her children is a profitable business, and a cruel one. This is the driving force behind much of our research and reporting into the conduct of lawyers and doctors acting as Guardian ad Litem or child custody evaluator, and it is the reality that led to the creation of this mild cartoon focused merely on the financial aspects of such cases.

But what can be done? Is there a way to help families avoid such loss?

First, watch this video, then contact me to learn more about solutions in motion.

Cameras Needed in Courtrooms

Do Cameras in Courtrooms Make a Difference?

There is no question that our citizens are safer when there is transparency in legal matters, but some judges are going out of their way, even issuing gag orders to media in addition to parties and sealing records in select cases, to prevent a review of what goes wrong in child custody matters when laws, facts and evidence are ignored or concealed from the court.

For several years I’ve been observing, analyzing and reporting on issues in family conflict matters that are causing avoidable stress and loss to children and to loving, safe and available parents. At the center of all of my research and reporting is the needs of children, which too often are forgotten or just set aside. The reports are not what matters, but the possibility of improving outcomes for children; the correct term for this form of journalism is Solutions-Based Journalism.

This form of news media and investigative reporting may not be popular in some circles as it challenges the dangerous status quo, but if it didn’t matter, we wouldn’t be talking about Rule 22 laws and cameras in courtrooms in this state. This is a critical topic the public needs to know is being debated and decided, so I’ll share more of my work and that of other journalists to support understanding and participation in this debate. In the meantime, please ask video journalist Nydia Tisdale about her experience filming public events and proceedings, and ask how you can support her efforts to inform citizens and increase transparency. Her unique work has been featured by news media not only in Georgia but by the Associated Press for her bold moves to support open government and greater public participation.

The more you know, the greater likelihood you’ll contact your legislators and your local news media because we do need cameras in courtrooms and we do need ongoing reporting about how family conflict and legal matters are managed.

A major issue for all, including for ethical, talented legal and healthcare professionals, is that foul play by certain other professionals is rampant and worsening with each year. In part this is due to a vulnerable and unsuspecting public but is also due to a cloudy courtroom landscape where it is easy to disguise bad faith and unethical tactics used to increase billable hours.

Another factor in the worsening of predatory & harmful case management is that certain judges are willing to play along, such as in this highly unusual Augusta situation which was investigated and reported on by local news media.

In the case featured in the news report below, the judge gave custody of the mother’s daughter to her ex-boyfriend when he gave custody of her two sons to this man, their father. However, the man has no biological or legal relationship to the girl, meaning this child and her mother were tormented and torn apart unnecessarily. Note: I have no connection to these parties, no bias or preference other than for facts and laws to count for the children involved. After studying dozens of cases closely in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, collaborating with local news media & seeing news stories through to completion, I know these courtrooms and local practices well and stand by my work and these news reports. Also worth noting, this is not water under the bridge for these children and their families; the damages are ongoing, and more families are being harmed in similar ways as you read this.

The Featured Report:

If the facts and evidence of this case justified an award of custody to the father of the boys, that would be reasonable, but the court also ignored the physical, visible evidence of family violence.

In a separate conversation we’ll feature more of the instruction for judges pursuant to the Georgia Domestic Violence Bench Book, which should be required reading for court officers and court staff such as clerks, social workers and others working with judges on these cases. This Bench Book is available online and published as a 10th edition, with participation from dozens of professionals from around the state of Georgia, so it’s not a secret to our courts that family violence, including in making determinations of custody and visitation, is a matter to be taken seriously.

Please review this news report and ask yourself how this could happen, why a judge would do this, and if the judge is making this kind of ruling, what else is going wrong in his courtroom.

Another key question is whether or not this court and this family could have benefitted from the application of instructions found in the Judicial Guide to Child Custody.

Solutions to Consider:

First, learn about your local courts before you enter into a legal action. Learn about practices of professionals before you sign agreements and pay retainers. Understand why so many families are losing their homes, health and jobs during or following litigation and especially why so many children are kept in or moved to unsafe environments.

Next, learn about accountability systems that exist to provide oversight of professional conduct, including judges and other court officers and experts who help determine outcomes. Do you see any consequences being given to professionals in your area or are you familiar with any investigations into questionable conduct of those managing these types of cases?

Learn from the testimony of lawyers, doctors, teachers, parents, grandparents and others who are brave enough and articulate enough to state clearly what they experience or witness, and who are willing to call it what it is – especially if something improper has transpired, as in this Augusta news report.

Remember that all of these court professionals, including judges and child custody experts, are human, meaning they make mistakes, become fatigued and even worn out by the extreme emotions displayed in these cases; none of them, and none of us, are perfect. But the reality is that they have sworn to uphold our laws and they have a duty to do what is right by the children caught in litigation and who are often torn apart in the process.

Where you have the opportunity to encourage the use of cameras in courtrooms, with proper approval of Rule 22 Requests to Record, Videotape and/or Audiotape, to Televise or otherwise make publicly available these proceedings, please do so as it is highly likely you will help save lives.

Please contact My Advocate Center and let me know if you have questions or would like to contribute toward making these solutions available.

Thank you,

Deb Beacham, Founder

 

The Cost to Citizens of Privatizing Probation Services and Custody Matters

Is Privatized Probation another form of Profit Over Protection?

Attorney Jack Long of Augusta feels as strongly about the need to protect the public on this issue as Deb Beacham feels about the need to protect families and children from the highly-paid contractors – guardians ad litem, child custody evaluators, for example – who are setting parents up to fail.

This problem in family court relates to the probation servicing problem in that people are unaware they cannot manage this process, and once targeted, there is no way out. The same ugly challenge exists for parents trying to manage child support demands, even when the facts of the case support their arguments and should clear their debt and exonerate them.

Please read further, noting excerpts such as this one:

“(Governor) Deal has made criminal justice reform a priority, and the task force he formed is expected to release a new report this month on changes recommended to the probation system. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among the proposals will be a requirement that private companies disclose the revenue they take in with their supervision fees, as well as more safeguards in the local court system to prevent the very poor from being jailed because they are unable to pay the fines.

What reforms Georgia is able to take on could be a model for other states that, for better or for worse, are considering expanding their use of private misdemeanor probation systems.

“If we don’t stop it, it’s going to grow throughout the whole country,” Long says. “There’s too much money to be made.”

Mr. Long and Governor Deal, we can say the same thing for the fees being taken in by child custody professionals engaged through our court system, including those charging for “supervision” and “evaluations” meant to protect the “best interest of the children.”

The reality is that good parents – mothers and fathers – are being set up to fail in every way by these professionals because there is zero transparency, and no chance for accountability for their wrongdoing. That may be because there is no “Jack Long” fighting this fight.

Many parents are being coerced, extorted into paying for services they don’t need, while evidence that would exonerate and protect them is being suppressed and ignored by these highly-paid professionals. There is no oversight, and attorneys who are involved are not reporting on the professional misconduct happening before their eyes. Profit over protection?

Just like with misdemeanor fines and supervision, many family court issues are being used as a profit center for these private contractors. Fines upon fines are stacking up, with litigants being denied billing records, custody reports (yes, the ones they are billed for and even jailed over), transcripts and even their case files.

And many of these parents are NOT the ones who have broken the law and “brought this upon themselves” by their actions. This goes for honest parents who are set up to fail in child support matters, because a professional may see an opportunity to profit from falsely accusing someone of not paying what is owed. The use of these false claims and the denial of due process is causing more people to be jailed and subjected to such probation service providers.

 

News Reports on Sentinel and Privatized Probation:

http://www.wfxg.com/story/27468028/ga-supreme-court-rules-private-probation-law-is-legal
WFXG FOX54 Augusta – Your News One Hour Earlier

ATLANTA, GA (WFXG) – with credit to investigative reporter Nick Lulli.

The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that a Georgia statute that allows state courts to contract with private probation companies for the supervision of misdemeanor probationers is constitutional.

The 41-page opinion released Monday partially affirms and partially reverses the judgments by Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig of the Augusta Judicial Circuit in the lawsuit brought by 13 misdemeanor probationers against Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, a private probation company.

The state’s high court ruled that state courts and private probation companies are prohibited from lengthening a misdemeanor probationer’s sentence beyond what was originally ordered. However, the ruling says judges are allowed to impose electronic monitoring on probationers.

The plaintiffs challenged the statute as unconstitutional because it allows employees of the private probation companies to act as officers of the court while owing a duty of loyalty to their for-profit employers. They also sued to recover monthly fees collected by Sentinel. They said Sentinel continued to collect fees past the original end dates of their probation periods.

The state Supreme Court ruled that Sentinel had no right to collect monthly fees from the Columbia County plaintiffs because the contract between the company and the courts was never approved by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. The statute says that the “governing authority of the county” must approve a private probation services contract.

In Richmond County, where there was a valid contract between the courts and the private probation company, the high court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiffs have no right to recover fees paid to Sentinel during the original terms of their probation sentences.

The high court said the Richmond Count plaintiffs may have a right to recover fees paid to Sentinel after the expiration of their original sentences, but said those plaintiffs’ cases must be considered separately by the trial court.

The high court didn’t agree with the trial court on fees paid for electronic monitoring. The high court said “only where electronic monitoring was unlawfully imposed by the court on a misdemeanor probationer after the expiration of his or her original sentence would such fees be potentially recoverable.” That will also have to be determined on a case-by-case basis by the trial court.

Copyright 2014 WFXG. All rights reserved.

Photo credit below: USNews.com

Georgia Citizens Losing to Probation Company

My Advocate Center is following this story and will continue sharing relevant news as it appears. We are holding commentary for now, while reviewing material. http://m.wsbtv.com/news/news/local/2-investigates-georgians-thrown-jail-owing-money/nmFBT/

ATLANTA —

A $2 can of Icehouse beer cost Georgia taxpayers $3,000.

Homeless veteran Tom Barrett stole the beer from a convenience store in April 2012.

“I just wanted a beer, and I’m not saying I’m proud of it, I’m ashamed of it really,” said Barrett.

Barrett was fined $200, but he didn’t have the money to pay the fine all at once. He was ordered onto probation, supervised by Sentinal Offender Services.

But there was a catch: A monitoring “startup fee.” Barrett didn’t have money so he spent two months behind bars.

Taxpayers were stuck with $3,000 to house Barrett in jail.

“You’re looking at an average of $50 per day in the state,” said attorney Jack Long, who is representing Barrett in a civil lawsuit against Sentinel.

Barrett finally got out of jail, when his AA sponsor paid the startup fee. But Barrett still had trouble keeping up with the ongoing probation fees.

“The only income I had was selling my plasma,” said Barrett. He said Sentinel told him he could be thrown in jail again.

“They said, once you get in arrears of $500, you’re going to be locked up,” Barrett told Channel 2 Action News.

Kathleen Hucks, who has epilepsy, was supposed to finish probation in 2008. That’s when she paid off her fees and had a zero balance. She was stunned to find out four years later that there was a warrant for her arrest.

The reason: More probation fees piled on after her probation was supposed to have ended. She spent 20 days in jail, and then she saw a judge.

“Judge Craig looked at me and said, ma’am, you spent 20 days too long. Go home,” Hucks said.

About 80% of misdemeanor probationers are supervised by private, for profit companies.

Emory Professor Michael Owens, who specializes in politics and the penal system, says those companies hold too much influence over the decisions of judges.

“What these private probations do is they lobby. They lobby state legislatures and they also lobby judges,” said Owens.

Gov. Nathan Deal just signed into law a bill that will cap fees private probation companies can charge, but attorney Jack Long says the reforms fall short.

“This problem won’t be fixed until Georgia abolishes private probation,” Long said.

Channel 2 tried to reach Sentinel Offender Services for a comment, but no one from the company called us back.

US NEWS

http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/02/06/private-misdemeanor-probation-industry-faces-new-scrutiny

Kevin Thompson spent five days in a Georgia jail because he couldn’t pay a traffic ticket.

He’s not the only one. More than three decades after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to jail people who were too poor to pay court fines, civil rights activists are accusing local governments in Georgia and elsewhere of doing just that, blaming a rise in cost-saving partnerships between municipal courts and for-profit private probation companies.

Thompson’s case is emblematic of the criticisms against the industry. The 19-year-old was pulled over in July for driving with a suspended license, according to court papers. He was fined $810. But he lives in DeKalb County, where authorities contracted a private probation company to see to it that offenders make good on payments for tickets and misdemeanors punishable by fines, rather than processing the debts in-house.

Typically in systems like DeKalb County’s, if an offender is found guilty and can’t pay his or her fine on the spot, he or she is referred to the private probation company, which will usually establish a payment plan and oversee the person until the fine is paid in full. If the person falls behind on their payments, they become subject to having their probation revoked and in some cases could face jail time.

[READ: Man Convicted of Operating Underground Website Silk Road ]

For Thompson, the suspended license meant he couldn’t continue his job as a tow-truck operator. Without income, he struggled to pay his fine. He was given 30 days under the supervision of a company called Judicial Correction Services to come up with the money, but Thomspon was​ ​only able to submit $85 – $30 of which the company retained for its own fees. So his probation was withdrawn, he was sentenced to nine days in jail and spent five of them locked up.

“I don’t want anyone to to have to go through a situation where they can’t pay a fine and they have to be afraid to go before a judge because they think they’re going to jail,” Thompson says. “If you can’t pay a fine, they must have something else, other than jail.”

Thompson’s experience ​attracted the attention of the ACLU, which last week filed a lawsuit arguing in part that the Supreme Court’s 1983 Bearden v. Georgia decision was meant to protect poor people from falling into just those types of traps. The group says the private probation system preys upon the poor, who are less likely to have extra money on hand to pay fines in a timely manner and more likely to end up in jail as a result.

According to Thompson’s lawyer, Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, the system failed him in that it did not properly inform him of his rights to an attorney – the company’s probation officer allegedly told him a public defender would cost him $150, when the fee was actually $50 and could be waived entirely if Thompson could prove he could not afford it. Likewise, neither the probation company nor the court put forth any alternatives – such as community service or an extension of the deadline – as required by Bearden v. Georgia.

These failures, Choudhury says, are the result not just of individual shortcomings but of an entire system in which for-profit companies, with a lack of oversight from municipalities that contract them, aim to collect the most money possible from the poor, through a probation program overseen and enforced by officers disincentivized from seeing that indigent people – those determined to be too poor to pay fines – are protected from incarceration.

“DeKalb County and JCS engaged in a top-down debt collection scheme that focused on collecting money from people who were too poor to pay on sentencing at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights” Choudhury, also a staff attorney at American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, says. “Being poor is not a crime, and in this case DeKalb County and JCS created a two-tiered system of justice – one that punishes the poorest of the county more harshly than those of means.”

Public Service or Profit?

Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, says Thompson’s case illustrates the larger problems with the partnerships between local governments and for-profit probation companies. His organization last year issued a scathing report on the practice, which it says has ballooned to more than 1,000 courts across the country.

“The theory behind the business model of private probation companies is they will provide supervision for misdemeanor offenders for courts that can’t or don’t want to pay for their own probation services,” Albin-Lackey says. “The implementations is where things really break down.”

A Georgia audit on its misdemeanor probation system published last year found that very few contracts specify how a probation unit is to determine whether a probationer is potentially indigent. A number of basic oversight measures – how many cases are opened and closed, for instance – are also often left unspecified.

Nevertheless, growing popularity of the system reflects an increasing dependence on court systems to help municipalities balance their books through fines for low-level offenses like traffic tickets and disorderly conduct.

“A lot of courts are really hiring private probation companies because they are looking for a debt collector,” Albin-Lackey says.

Florida was the first state to experiment with private probation companies, but the industry flourished in Georgia – where about 80 percent of misdemeanor probation is run by for-profit companies – after the state cut its services to handle misdemeanor probation in 1991, shifting the responsibility to county and local governments.

[MORE: Break the Prison to Poverty Pipeline]

Now, at least 13 states allow localities to outsource the collection of misdemeanor fines to for-profit probation agencies, Choudhury says. The practice is particularly robust in the South – in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi – but has spread as far as Montana, Washington and Utah. Typically, the private companies – which include big conglomerates like JCS and Sentinel Offender Services, but also many small companies – give local governments a deal they can’t refuse: an offer to collect over time the fines offenders can’t pay on the day of sentencing without any charge to the municipality.

“From [the government’s] perspective, they think they’re getting something for nothing,” Albin-Lackey says.

What the probation companies get is the ability to collect additional fees for their supervision services directly from the offenders. The for-profit institutions are allowed to impose additional administrative fees for as long as it takes offenders to pay fines, meaning that people may ultimately pay thousands of dollars for tickets that were initially just a fraction of that amount.

While local contracts often spell out exactly how much a probation company can charge for certain services – like administrative fees, but also for ankle monitors or drug testing – those numbers are often arbitrary and vary across districts. Companies are known to hike those fees without notice or approval.

The industry is extremely opaque, and Georgia is an exception in that it has a regulatory scheme at all. The state requires probation companies to report the money sent back to the courts – nearly $100 million in 2012, according to the Human Rights Watch report. The companies do not, however, have to report how much money they are recouping off additional fines and fees. By reverse-engineering a specific fee that the companies were required to disclose, Human Rights Watch roughly estimated that the for-profit probation industry in Georgia netted at least $40 million off the extra fees. In other states, that number remains entirely a mystery.

“A lot of courts have no idea how much money their probation companies are extracting for themselves from these misdemeanor offenders,” Albin-Lackey says.

Under Scrutiny

Thompson’s is not the first lawsuit that alleges wrongdoing on the part of a private probation company and the local governments that employ them.

”It seems like a lot of attorneys are starting to see this as an area to bring suits,” Albin-Lackey says.

Jack Long, a Georgia attorney, has represented a number of clients claiming abuse by the private probation system. One case of his, on behalf of 13 plaintiffs, made it to the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of private probation collecting services but limited their ability to extend the sentences of the offender.

“[Municipalities] are giving a private company the ability to tax their citizens in these fees that are completely unregulated,” Long says. “Nobody complains because the people who are getting sucked into this are on the low socioeconomic end of society.”

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When complaints are made, the response is mixed. A county judge in Alabama shut the entire private probation system in Harpersville, calling it a “debtors prison” and a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” When contacted about the lawsuit, DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said the county does not comment on pending litigation. Judicial Correction Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Another lawsuit in Alabama – also against Judicial Correction Services – is ongoing.

Georgia’s DeKalb County, where Thompson’s suit is filed, is considered to be one of the most notorious private probation systems in the country. Human Rights Watch estimated that JCS collects $1 million in annual revenues there, making the the system, it is believed, one of the country’s most lucrative. In one 2013 episode recorded in the Human Rights Watch report, 600 probationers were summoned with little explanation to the recorder’s court, where a JCS employee confirmed verbally for a judge, without presenting proof, that each of the probationers had unpaid fines for which a warrant had been issued. Those who could not pay their fees entirely were told they faced arrest – prompting chaos in the courtroom – and some 60 people ultimately ended up in jail.

When contacted about the lawsuit, DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said the county does not comment on pending litigation. Judicial Correction Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Future of Private Probation

Regardless of the conclusion of Thompson’s lawsuit, the debate over the role of private probation companies in Georgia is likely to continue.

“One advantage is they can service rural areas more financially efficiently than a governmental probation unit could,” explains Dale Allen, chief probation officer at the publicly run Athens-Clarke County Office of Probation Services, pointing to the start-up, personnel, contracting and other costs that a smaller municipality would struggle to bear. Allen worked for private probation companies before his current role in the government unit, which reports quarterly numbers – including the fees it charges, the cases it opens and closes, and its use of alternative methods.

“Transparency overall is the biggest issue in the state of Georgia. I think the perception – right or wrong – is that private probation is not transparent,” Allen says.

The concern over transparency contributed to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoing a bill last year that would have allowed private probation companies to be even more secretive.

“I favor more transparency over private probation services,” the Augusta Chronicle quoted him as saying, and he noted that the language appeared to be a preemptive response to the lawsuits against the industry. His veto came not long after the state audit of the system illuminated its lack of oversight.

Deal has made criminal justice reform a priority, and the task force he formed is expected to release a new report this month on changes recommended to the probation system. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among the proposals will be a requirement that private companies disclose the revenue they take in with their supervision fees, as well as more safeguards in the local court system to prevent the very poor from being jailed because they are unable to pay the fines.

What reforms Georgia is able to take on could be a model for other states that, for better or for worse, are considering expanding their use of private misdemeanor probation systems.

“If we don’t stop it, it’s going to grow throughout the whole country,” Long says. “There’s too much money to be made.”

First Amendment Rights Protected

Pro Advocate Radio is needed as a Voice for Families, Children and for Professionals Committed to Resolving Conflict in ways that Serve the Needs of Children.

For bloggers, citizen journalists advocacy groups, etc.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/01/20/defamation-bloggers-supreme-court/4658295/

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that bloggers and the public have the same First Amendment protections as journalists when sued for defamation: If the issue is of public concern, plaintiffs have to prove negligence to win damages.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in a defamation lawsuit brought by an Oregon bankruptcy trustee against a Montana blogger who wrote online that the court-appointed trustee criminally mishandled a bankruptcy case.

The appeals court ruled that the trustee was not a public figure, which could have invoked an even higher standard of showing the writer acted with malice, but the issue was of public concern, so the negligence standard applied.

Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said the ruling affirms what many have long argued: Standards set by a 1974 U.S. Supreme Courtruling, Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., apply to everyone, not just journalists.

“It’s not a special right to the news media,” he said. “So it’s a good thing for bloggers and citizen journalists and others.”

Crystal L. Cox, a blogger from Eureka, Mont., now living in Port Townshend, Wash., was sued for defamation by Bend attorney Kevin Padrick and his company, Obsidian Finance Group LLC, after she made posts on several websites she created accusing them of fraud, corruption, money-laundering and other illegal activities. The appeals court noted Padrick and Obsidian were hired by Summit Accommodators to advise them before filing for bankruptcy, and that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court later appointed Padrick trustee in the Chapter 11 case. The court added that Summit had defrauded investors in its real estate operations through a Ponzi scheme.

A jury in 2011 had awarded Padrick and Obsidian $2.5 million.

“Because Cox’s blog post addressed a matter of public concern, even assuming that Gertz is limited to such speech, the district court should have instructed the jury that it could not find Cox liable for defamation unless it found that she acted negligently,” judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote. “We hold that liability for a defamatory blog post involving a matter of public concern cannot be imposed without proof of fault and actual damages.”

The appeals court upheld rulings by the District Court that other posts by Cox were constitutionally protected opinion.

Though Cox acted as her own attorney, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who had written an article on the issue, learned of her case and offered to represent her in an appeal. Volokh said such cases usually end up settled without trial, and it was rare for one to reach the federal appeals court level.

“It makes clear that bloggers have the same First Amendment rights as professional journalists,” he said. “There had been similar precedents before concerning advocacy groups, other writers and book authors. This follows a fairly well established chain of precedents. I believe it is the first federal appeals court level ruling that applies to bloggers.”

An attorney for Padrick said in an email that while they were disappointed in the ruling, they noted the court found “there was no dispute that the statements were false and defamatory.”

“Ms. Cox’s false and defamatory statements have caused substantial damage to our clients, and we are evaluating our options with respect to the court’s decision,” wrote Steven M. Wilker.

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