The original group of four local mothers who came together to highlight issues in the La Crosse County Family Court system has now grown to 22.
All the mothers say they have experienced their children being forcibly reunited with abusive fathers, sometimes with harrowing consequences, including allegations of sexual abuse and violence.
The women have contacted state representatives, the entire La Crosse County Board, the mayor and others in an attempt to highlight what they see as a systemic problem in the family court system. Two weeks on from when they initially came forward, they are not pleased with the response they have received.
“It seems like every person in the entire chain has weighed in just to shrug their shoulders and say I can’t do anything,” said Beth Mattson Weyl, one of the mothers.
Another member of the group, Elizabeth Cline, said some professionals connected to the family court system support their cause but are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.
“Many of the responses we’ve gotten are just deferring responsibility,” Cline said. “Take this to your attorney or take this to circuit court…You don’t think we’ve been trying that? No one wants to take ownership and it’s been brushed under the rug again. It’s extremely painful to go through.”
At issue is what the mothers describe as an overriding insistence in the family court system on 50/50 custody, even when there’s strong evidence of troubling behavior by the father. The women allege that the county’s Custody Assessment Team, which is part of the family court system, does not always listen to outside experts.
“We are not saying that all men are bad; there are a lot of great fathers out there, and there are also some crappy moms,” Cline said. “What we are saying is the courts need to listen to what the professionals are saying, the doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, and really do what is best for the child, not the parents, and they’re simply not doing that.”
Policy Oversight Committee
The mothers, some of whom have published detailed testimonies of their individual cases, have focused much of their effort on the La Crosse County Board, especially the board’s Judiciary and Law Committee. That committee’s role, according to the county website, is to act “as the policy oversight committee” for the Family Court Commissioner, Mediation and Family Court Services, in addition to branches of the courts.
Initially, it appeared the committee would include discussion of the concerns raised by the mothers on its agenda for an upcoming meeting. But committee chair and county board member Margaret Larson now says that will not happen.
“Although your concerns will not be on the agenda, you may speak during Public Comment at the beginning of the meeting,” Larson wrote in a letter to the group, which is called Moms and Kids Surviving Abuse (MAKSA). “If you choose to speak at that time, please be advised of our committee rules: comments are limited to 3 minutes, and committee members will not respond to or engage in discussion with you about your comments.”
Larson states in the letter that although the committee she chairs is called Judiciary and Law, “we have no authority, input or control over the court system.” The same holds true for the entire county board, Larson adds, and she further notes that the Family Court Commissioner is appointed by La Crosse County Circuit Court Judges who are “elected officials employed by the state, not the county.”
Much of MAKSA’s concerns center around the county’s Custody Assessment Team, which Larson says is part of a county department but “was and is created by the judges and the court system according to local court rules.” Furthermore, Larson says the testimonies sent to the county board by the mothers “are on-going cases which we are not allowed to weigh in on.”
“Concerns in individual cases must be litigated in the context of each case and can be resolved only in the context of that case,” Larson states. “There is no place or process for ‘investigation’ or ‘inquiries’ into specific cases other than the court’s appellate review process.”
Larson recommends that the mothers redirect their concerns “to those who are in a position to help you, that is, your attorneys, and/or, if you have concerns about a county employee, La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley.”
Others Afraid to Come Forward
The mothers went to the county as they didn’t know where else to turn, Cline said, and are upset that they are now receiving what feels like a cold shoulder from the county board.
MAKSA has also contacted state bodies and representatives and received similar responses to Larson’s that note that officials cannot weigh in on individual cases.
But Cline said the mothers are not asking county or state officials to comment on court proceedings or take sides in specific cases. They want to highlight what they see as a trend of children being forcibly reunited with fathers who may have a record of abuse. Mattson Weyl said they are also asking to see statistics that could prove that trend exists. That information could then provide a basis for a push for reform in the system.
Although county board members say there’s nothing they can do about the Family Court System, Mattson Weyl said there’s nothing to stop them discussing how that system works. After that discussion, the board could then vote on a resolution of support for changes in the system that could be forwarded to state officials for action.
“It carries a lot more weight when the county says something than when individual moms do,” Mattson Weyl said. “They have way more access and ideas about who could change things and who does have the data.”
MAKSA now has testimony from 22 mothers, a large majority of whom are in La Crosse County, with a small number from Vernon and other counties. All share similar stories but some are scared to come forward publicly. But Mattson Weyl said she suspects the 22 stories are the tip of the iceberg.
Cline noted that custody cases can drag on for years, with many court dates, and the issues not be resolved until a child turns 18.
“Not that I wish my children’s childhood away but sometimes their ability to speak for themselves can’t come soon enough, and tragically too late for others,” she said.
La Crosse County Family Court Commissioner Elizabeth Wright has not responded to a request for comment from the La Crosse Independent.
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