A Father's Quest 

The case of Arianas Campos-Reese and his son Tyberius illustrates what's wrong with family court.

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Family mediators are assigned by the court to assist parents whenever custody, visitation, or guardianship issues arise. The mediator is usually a family court counselor whose stated goal is to help negotiate a mutually agreeable plan for the child. Arianas recalled being eager to explain his situation to the mediator.

The first mediation report, prepared on November 17, 2007 by counselor Alicia Howard, stretched over five pages and detailed Arianas' concerns about Self's ability to parent. The report noted that Self had allowed Arianas to care for Tyberius almost exclusively during September, and recommended that Self receive just one day and night per week of visitation time with her son. Howard questioned the mother's attachment to Tyberius, while noting that the parents' work schedules and the distance between their homes were the main reasons that an equal custody split wasn't recommended.

However, Commissioner Elizabeth Hendrickson reviewed the report and disregarded Howard's recommendation, assigning joint legal and physical custody rights to the parents. Basing her decision on the work schedule of both parents, she gave Self custody Tuesday night through Friday morning, with Arianas retaining custody the rest of the week.

Alameda County Family Law Court serves the residents of fourteen cities and a population of almost 1.5 million. Every year its judges hear thousands of custody cases in a system so overcrowded that many officials share the priority of clearing the docket as swiftly as possible. In the county's system, a judge looks to the reports of mediators and typically takes their word as gospel. But that didn't happen in the case of Tyberius Campos-Reese. In fact, to Arianas, the judge seemed to be working against his interests from the very moment he first walked into family court.

Critics of the court say that sort of thing happens all too often. "The court isn't getting it right," said Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele, an outspoken advocate for family court reform. "In fact, 80 percent of the time they get it wrong."

Steele isn't just pulling that number out of thin air. A nationwide council of judges examined the workings of family court and support the statistic that 70 to 80 percent of children at the center of contested cases in family court are placed with an abusing parent. And once the court has made one parent the primary custody holder, that parent carries a strong set of legal presumptions that are very difficult to overturn.

January 9, 2008

Joint custody of Tyberius worked out for less than six months. When a shooting occurred outside Arianas' Oakland home following a rocky January 9 custody exchange between the parents, the father went into defense mode. He reported the shooting to police, but with nothing other than his suspicions to go on, Arianas decided that moving to a safer neighborhood in Richmond was the best thing he could do to protect Tyberius.

Despite such drama, Arianas said he and Self tentatively got along between January and May 2008. They'd both abided by the rules of the joint custody agreement and had even made plans to go on a family trip to the zoo. But then, in early May, Self lost her job, and things started sliding downhill.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Arianas called Self's cell phone and her boyfriend picked up. According to his subsequent statement to police, Arianas could hear Tyberius screaming and Self laughing in the background, and he became sick with worry about his son. His fear took him straight to her doorstep, he recalls, but Self wouldn't open the door. So Arianas left and sent the police to her house to check up on his son's welfare. During the three hours it took for the police to confirm that Tyberius was okay, Arianas received a text message from Self that read "You're never going to see your bastard son again."

Two days later, when it was time for their exchange of custody, Arianas told police that Self didn't appear at the agreed-upon meeting place. The police report shows that officers contacted Self and asked her why she wasn't complying with the terms of the custody agreement, but after that Arianas was on his own.

Arianas said he spent a frustrating day getting the runaround from police, who by that point were tired of his calls. First they left on another call and promised to return. But when they did return, he was told that his court-issued custody order was invalid because it didn't have a state seal. After Arianas got a state seal and called the police back, he was then told that only the department's civil division handles custody issues. He said he kept calling and even drove to Hilltop Mall hoping to find an officer to talk to. Finally, at 6 p.m. on Friday, the police agreed to accompany Arianas to Self's home. At that point, she had been in violation of the court order for almost twelve hours. Self argued with the police officers who came to her door and was led away in handcuffs.

When the police brought Tyberius out of the house, Arianas saw that all of the hair on his seventeen-month-old son's head had been shaved off. "Coming at the end of that day, seeing him like that was hard to take," Arianas recalled. "We had an agreement not to cut his hair, and I knew she had done it just to spite me. A haircut is a scary thing for a baby, and he had nicks and cuts on his head. I was so afraid that something worse was going to happen."

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