State orders audit of Marin family court
By Gary Klien
NOVATO — Prodded by Sen. Mark Leno and other lawmakers, the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted Wednesday to investigate the family courts in Marin and Sacramento counties.
The audit will focus on the use, and potential misuse, of court-appointed specialists in family-law disputes, such as mediators, investigators and therapists.
Critics say such appointees can form incestuous and incompetent networks more concerned with generating fees than helping children through painful custody fights.
“It becomes a service mill, a cottage industry of sorts,” Leno said Wednesday. “Maybe state law needs to be changed.”
Marin and Sacramento counties were chosen for the audit because of the number of litigants reporting problems and filing complaints, said Ali Bay, a spokeswoman for Leno. But any changes recommended by the auditors could inspire new statewide legislation.
The audit is expected to take four months and cost about $160,000. The start date has not been determined.
Leno said that because of the state budget crisis, the audit committee — which consists of seven assembly members and seven senators — could only approve two audits Wednesday. Six were under consideration, he said.
Leno, a Democrat representing Marin and parts of San Francisco and Sonoma County, said the committee voted unanimously for the family court audit, demonstrating the widespread doubts about the system.
“People are concerned the health and well-being of children might be at risk”, Leno said. “I’ve had mothers and fathers in tears in my office, telling me their sad stories.
“Minimally, we have to look into this and see what the truth is.”
The audit was approved two months after Marin Superior Court issued a report extolling its efforts to increase public confidence in its family-law division. The changes followed a turbulent decade for the family court, whose critics launched a fierce but unsuccessful recall campaign against several judges and a former district attorney.
To improve the system, the court announced, officials cleared a backlog of 1,500 stalled family law cases; translated legal forms and instructions in Spanish; conducted a public survey on court performance; and established a special twice-monthly calendar to help litigants who are representing themselves, according to the report.
But the report still didn’t address the core issue of the mediators and other specialists appointed to advise the courts, said Kathleen Russell of the Center for Judicial Excellence, a Marin watchdog organization.
“Needless to say, we’re thrilled that we had such unanimous support from the committee for the audit request,” Russell said. “We spent 17 months working with legislators to educate them about the problems. It’s really the end of a long journey, but we’ll be working with the auditors as well.”
The state auditors are expected to investigate how court appointees are selected, how they are trained and evaluated, how their fees are established, and how complaints against them are resolved, among other issues.
Judge Verna Adams, a former divorce lawyer who is Marin’s presiding judge, said she welcomes the audit because it could clear the record and instill more confidence in the court.
“We’re happy to have this happen,” Adams said. “We really would welcome a well-designed, professional review of our family law procedures.
“We’re confident that we’re following the law. If they want to do an audit of best practices, Marin is the best place for them to be.”