Karen Anderson suspected that something strange was going on between her ex-husband, Rex Anderson, and their 15-year-old daughter. Prior to the couple's separation in 1998, the girl would sometimes put on high heels and makeup, "visiting" her dad while he worked late at night in the family's basement. It was the same retreat in which he stored the dildos and artificial vaginas he used to stimulate himself sexually.
After the divorce, Rex was given primary custody of his daughter, as well as the couple's 8-year-old son. Karen says this was because he had a full-time job as a facilities engineer at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, while she was unemployed. While staying with her on weekends, her daughter would sometimes say she hated herself and wanted to die.
In 1999, Anderson, a resident of San Jose, decided to take her concerns to Santa Clara County Family Court. Like similar courts across the state, it is charged with adjudicating high-conflict divorces — managing the division of property, child support payments, and the often bitter process of establishing a plan for shared child-rearing. She urged the court to investigate whether her daughter was at risk of sexual molestation, and whether Rex's custody rights should be restricted as a result.
Family Court Judge James Stewart temporarily barred the children from seeing their father while the court looked into the abuse claims. But instead of seeking evidence as to whether molestation was taking place, he hired a Menlo Park–based psychologist, Leslie Packer, to evaluate both parents. Among Packer's tasks was to assess, in light of their psychological profiles, whether the accusations were likely to be true. After a series of interviews and personality tests, such as the Rorschach inkblot test, she delivered her opinion: Karen's fears for her daughter were unfounded.
"Karen's suspiciousness goes to the extent of paranoid thinking, particularly in regard to her husband's actions," Packer wrote in an evaluation delivered to the court. "There is a basis in her concerns with her husband's unusual sexual practices, but it appears that most of her speculations about her husband's possible sexualized attitudes toward their daughter are not based upon documented or reality-based evidence." Rex regained primary custody of his children.
Today, Rex Anderson is serving a 23-year sentence at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga. In 2003, he pleaded no contest to 25 counts of sex crimes against his daughter, including child molestation, sexual penetration of a child with a foreign object, and use of a minor to create pornography. When she turned 18, his daughter left his care and reported years of abuse to police in El Dorado County, where they were living. (SF Weekly is withholding her name as a victim of child sexual abuse.)
Seldom are a parent's allegations against an estranged former spouse rejected out of hand, only to be vindicated so completely. Yet observers say the Anderson case represents just one unfortunate outcome of systemic problems in the family courts' methods for investigating accusations of abuse.
Looking out for the children who find themselves in the middle of bitter divorces is the most important function of the state's family courts, and arguably one of the most significant duties of the judiciary as a whole. Yet evidence has mounted in recent years that it is a responsibility in which family court officials are sometimes failing dramatically.
Interviews with dozens of parents, activists, lawyers, judges, children, and former family court employees, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of family and criminal court documents, indicate that the system's methods for assessing whether child sexual abuse or spousal battery has taken place — findings that are critical to deciding whether a parent should retain custody of or visitation rights with a child — fall short of the standards accepted by domestic-violence experts and the criminal-justice community.
The results can be tragic. In some cases, such as Anderson's, abuse allegations have been confirmed decisively, in the form of criminal convictions, after a poor custody decision was made. In others, court officials have ignored existing domestic-violence convictions, sending children to live with admitted batterers. In at least one case, an infant boy lost his life because of a judge's refusal to take seriously warnings about an unstable parent.
Family court officials face difficult decisions in cases where the truth is often clouded by high emotions. Every day, in courtrooms throughout the state, those decisions doubtless lead to many beneficial outcomes for the children whose futures are at stake. In the morass of ill will and "he-said, she-said" exchanges that characterize bitter divorces, the facts can be hard to tease out.
For this reason, SF Weekly has focused exclusively on cases, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and the rest of California, where allegations of domestic violence or child molestation were backed up by criminal convictions — and, in one case, a murder-suicide. In all of them, the courts seem to have failed to follow basic procedures, including some dictated by state law, for weighing evidence of a parent's abusiveness before making crucial custody decisions.
Absent an exhaustive review of the state's family courts, it is impossible to say how common such cases are. The reasoning that guides custody decisions can also be difficult to decipher. Court officials — including a number of those approached for this article — frequently decline to explain their decisions or recommendations, citing client confidentiality or judicial ethics.
Still, advocates of reform say a few widespread problems lead to poor court decisions, such as inadequate procedures for investigating abuse; the use of controversial and potentially dangerous psychological theories about child welfare; and a prejudice toward joint parental custody, even when one parent is clearly violent. Compounding these issues, critics say, is a lack of accountability for judges, attorneys, custody evaluators, and other court personnel, who enjoy immunity from lawsuits even in cases where they make decisions that do obvious harm to children and parents.
"The family court system is supposed to work in the best interests of the child, but very infrequently does that happen," says Susan Wilde, a Berkeley psychologist and expert on child abuse intervention. "Families find themselves in the grip of a system that has no responsibility to them or to the children, that just kind of runs amok."