These women entered mediation in family court thinking they would retain primary custody of their children. Mediator Janelle Burrill thought otherwise.
High-conflict divorces are often characterized by contentious disputes between adults who can feel so betrayed that anything and everything they can get their hands on becomes a weapon. Money for litigation becomes a weapon, custody of the minors becomes a weapon, the minors themselves may become weapons.
Some parents enter litigation to increase custody and find themselves embroiled in lengthy legal battles that drain their financial resources, create new conflicts, and subject the children to erratic visitation schedules. It can be a nightmare for the families, but billable hours for some legal and psychological professionals.
In some high-conflict cases, each parent retains an attorney, and a third attorney may be appointed to represent the children. Often, therapy is recommended for all family members. A judge is appointed to the case, and whenever parents cannot agree on custody, the judge orders that they attend mediation. If the mediator finds one parent unfit, the mediator’s report to the judge may recommend only limited visitation for that parent. The judge might even agree that visitation should be supervised. The parent will then pay a supervisor to watch over every detail of every parent-child interaction—such a ruling often leads the family back to court to argue yet again.
If there are issues of psychological illness or abuse, psychologists may conduct evaluations, psychiatrists may prescribe medication, and Child Protective Services social workers may investigate allegations from concerned family members.
These cases can become so complex and layered that the professionals themselves become entangled. They may even become targets of anger, suspicion and allegations.
Such a situation is brewing in the Sacramento area’s family court system. Currently, six women in and around Sacramento have come together to help each other and to submit formal written complaints to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences against Janelle Burrill, a licensed clinical social worker who acts as a mediator for high-conflict custody cases.
The board has received some of the complaints from the women and started a review. The Sacramento News & Review brought the complaints to Burrill’s attention, but she has not responded to our request for comment.
Accusations against Burrill have not been proved, and it’s difficult to determine precisely what went on during a specific custody case due to the volume of conflicting statements in the court record from friends, family members, attorneys, psychologists and other interested parties. Much of that information is confidential.
While the women wait for the results of the review, some of them continue to fight their ex-spouses in court to regain custody of their children. Perhaps the most tenacious of these mothers battling to get custody of her kids back is Jacquelyn Vorce.
On November 19, 2001, Vorce, a tall, blond mother of three, sat looking tense and slightly preoccupied in department 124 of the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse in Sacramento. It looked as if it took great effort to keep her face so perfectly still, and her emotions in check. Across the aisle, her ex-husband and her estranged sister sat shoulder to shoulder. Vorce imagined them aligned against her.
“This case is going to go to trial,” said Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard, apparently irritated, “as I thought it would the first day these folks walked into this department. The issue for the court this morning, really, is what we’re going to do in the interim.”
Vorce had been the primary custodian of her two youngest children, aged 8 and 9, until a report by mediator Janelle Burrill in July 2001 recommended that primary custody shift to Vorce’s ex-husband, Gerald Arthur, who previously only had custody approximately 20 percent of the time.
Vorce’s oldest son, Brian, was already 18 and not a party in the custody battle, which focused on the two younger children, Katie and Dean. Though Brian was not a party in the case, his relationship with his mother had been contentious and volatile, which concerned mediators who had tried to assess Vorce’s parenting skills.
According to Vorce, Burrill was in fact the fifth mediator to try and forge a lasting parenting agreement between Arthur and Vorce.
Burrill was charged with the job of submitting reports to the family courts that detail her recommendations for custody. Judges may give significant weight to mediators’ recommendations, as they are the end result of a lengthy review of the situation.
Two previous mediator reports had recommended Vorce retain primary custody, but she chose to go back to mediation in order to argue for an additional weekend with her children each month in exchange for less parenting time in the summer. To help resolve the issue, she and Arthur entered into mediation with Burrill.
Instead of gaining more parenting time, Vorce had now been limited to only one hour of supervised visitation every week. Arthur was under the same constraints. In an unusual twist, the court had ordered that the children live temporarily with Vorce’s estranged sister.
In an interview, the father explained why. Arthur said that his children had become colder toward him in recent years, and that the situation was peaking during last summer. Arthur felt that Vorce was actively sabotaging his relationship with his children by criticizing him in front of them and filling their heads with misinformation about him. According to Arthur, this behavior culminated in a false allegation stating that he had physically abused his daughter.
Vorce’s side of the story is detailed in a police report filed on July 22, after she and her current husband, Gary, retrieved the two younger children from their weekend visit with Arthur. The police report reads as follows: “[Gary] stated that when he and his wife (The victim’s natural mother), picked up the children from their father, ‘they quickly began telling [the Vorces] about Katelyn being hit with a belt by their father.’ ”
In an interview, Arthur adamantly denied the allegation, claiming that he would never use a belt on his children.
Burrill was about to recommend to the court that Arthur receive primary custody, but the police report so complicated things that the judge decided to place the children with Vorce’s sister in Folsom temporarily.
When the district attorney decided not to prosecute, the parties came back to court to discuss Burrill’s recommendation that the children live primarily with Arthur.
Accusing Vorce of “parental alienation,” Burrill determined that it was safer for the children to reside with Arthur than with a mother who might have encouraged her children to make false allegations.
Paired with other complaints against Vorce detailed in the court record, mostly pertaining to poor impulse control, excessive displays of emotion, and a troubled history with her family, this allegation of alienation threatened to severely limit her parenting time.
With a variety of conflicting reports and statements to rely on, Judge Gilliard had to decide what to do.
Vorce’s attorney, Richard Sokol, reminded the judge that Burrill’s report had not yet been adopted by the court, and it was questionable whether Vorce was really guilty of alienation. He referred to statements made by Vorce’s therapist, forensic psychologist Dr. Theron Kinsey.
In a letter to Judge Gilliard dated November 16, Kinsey stated, “even by the most liberal definition of alienation, the behaviors cited in this case do not meet the criteria for severe or extreme alienation.”
Sokol said that Kinsey had examined the statements and interviewed witnesses and thought the children belonged with their mother.
“I think it’s irresponsible,” Judge Gilliard replied, “for a doctor, or for any professional, to recommend that without having spoken with the father … [Kinsey’s] report, or whatever you want to call it, is not very valuable or helpful to this court.”
Though Gilliard leaned toward giving primary custody to Arthur, who lived in Pleasanton, she didn’t want the children to have to get used to a new school in the Bay Area. Their school in Placer County, she claimed, had been the one constant for them.
Gilliard decided that only if Arthur found a residence in the Sacramento area and took responsibility for getting the children to their usual school, would she transfer custody to him.
Arthur and his attorney, Matthew Gary, agreed to these stipulations.
Vorce’s visits were increased to four hours a week, but she remained on supervised visitation. Visitation Supervisor Bijili Abbey would continue to watch over all interaction, ensuring that Vorce spoke and acted appropriately and did not criticize or otherwise disparage Arthur in front of the children. This cost Vorce $50 an hour.
The judge addressed the parents directly.
“This case is just horrendous,” she told them. “By the time your children have graduated from high school … you will have seen every potential psychologist and psychiatrist and evaluator in the family law sphere.”
When Vorce rose to leave the courtroom, friends who’d come to show their support filed out behind her and then squeezed into a small conference room adjacent to the courtroom. They listened sympathetically to her discussion with Sokol.
The judge had ordered an evidentiary hearing, said Sokol, which meant that Vorce would have a chance to present evidence in her defense. He said the judge could have adopted the mediator’s report, but she’d chosen not to.
Vorce was unable to see this as progress. She shook as she listened. She clenched her fists and tried to control her grief, but quickly she spun into explosive rage.
She couldn’t afford more supervised visits, she cried. She couldn’t even afford Sokol. The Vorces estimate they they’ve spent $37,000 on this case so far.
Vorce was overwhelmed. She began to imagine nightmarish violent scenarios involving her children. The idea that she couldn’t protect them from anything threw her into hysteria. She blamed everyone. She blamed the children’s attorney, Arthur and even her own attorney.
“Who’s going to be the judge for the evidentiary hearing,” she yelled, “Miss Dit-Wit in there?”
Gary Vorce, who was often a calming influence, begged his wife to quiet down.
“What will happen to Dean and Katie,” said Vorce, straining her head forward, pleading with Sokol, “is that they’ll shut down, close up and they’ll never speak again!”
Sokol spoke to her gently, reminding Vorce that she had to reconnect with her faith in God. “Is there a God in the world?” he asked her, as if he were consoling a wounded child.
Gary Vorce held his wife’s head to his chest while she cried. Slowly, with the support of friends, she recovered enough to leave the courthouse.
Though Vorce was badly shaken by the court’s decision, she appeared calm and untroubled during a recent visit with her children. She took them to a local apartment clubhouse where she could warm up their dinner in the tiny kitchen and eat with them after reviewing their homework.
Katie hung playfully on her mother’s arms. Vorce lifted her up and cuddled her. “I love you princess,” she said warmly, “I could just squeeze you to pieces.”
According to the children’s attorney, the supervisor reported that Vorce behaved appropriately for the most part during visitations.
At home, Vorce kept the children’s rooms neat. The homemade curtains and the hand-painted furniture resembled those highlighted in decorators’ magazines. Stuffed animals of all sizes spilled across the children’s beds. The awards she’d saved from school claimed that Dean excelled in physical fitness training and Katie was a whiz at math.
Though it often took time for Vorce to fully recover from hearings like the one in department 124, this time was slightly different. Through an acquaintance, she heard a rumor that another mother was complaining about losing primary custody after mediation with Burrill. Like Vorce, Susan Cremins questioned whether she’d been treated fairly.
Cremins had also been part of a high-conflict custody battle. She and her husband had disagreed bitterly over the best interests of their three sons. Cremins now had full custody of her oldest, but Burrill had recommended only occasional visitation with her two youngest sons. Cremins, like Vorce, felt she’d been unfairly accused of parental alienation.
The women realized that if they had such similar negative experiences, maybe they weren’t the only ones.
Internet searches by the women yielded a Web site called “Child Custody Consultant.” On it, a message from Julie Telgenhoff, dated May 21, 2001, gave a critical account of her mediation process with Burrill, claiming that Burrill had unfairly recommended primary custody for her ex-husband. She asked if there were other women out there who had had Burrill as a mediator.
Another Web site, called “Child Custody Help,” included a message dated September 27, 2001, from yet another mom who was not only accusing Burrill of unethical conduct, but wondering if others wanted to join her in filing a complaint. It gathered a string of responses. Victoria Garay wrote, “YOU ARE GOD SENT.” She too had lost primary custody of one of her children after mediation with Burrill.
All together, four women with similar complaints against Burrill made contact through these two sites before Burrill responded. On December 14, she filed a civil suit against Garay and Telgenhoff for “damages re: defamation [libel]; intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.” The suit claimed that Burrill asked both women to remove their messages, but they had refused.
When asked whether she or her lawyer for the suit, John O’Donnell, would like to comment on it, Burrill responded with an e-mail stating, “There are no lawsuits against Telgenhoff or Garay.” As of the date this newspaper went to press, the case, number 01AS07659, exists and is still open, according to the records at the Sacramento County Courthouse. O’Donnell chose not to return phone calls, but sent an e-mail on March 18 stating, “there was a Request For Dismissal filed with the court. It apparently has not made its way to the file yet.”
The complaint stated that both defendants “caused numerous defamatory statements concerning the Plaintiff to be posted, claiming that the Plaintiff was guilty of acts which, if true, would constitute criminal conduct … the Plaintiff has suffered a loss of her reputation, shame, mortification, significant emotional distress …” The complaint signified that others could be charged in the same suit.
Telgenhoff was served in February, but Garay has not been.
As the women continued to research custody battles in the Sacramento courts, they began to hear a lot about a woman named Karen Anderson. She had brought a good deal of attention to the Sacramento family court system in the past by lobbying for legislation which limited the court’s ability to order supervised visits for parents who accuse their exes during custody disputes of sexually abusing their children. Anderson too had lost primary custody of her children. Burrill had not been the mediator on her case, but Anderson had been a patient of Burrill’s and had multiple complaints that she was willing to document and submit to the licensing board.
As their numbers grew, the women decided to do more than talk by phone. They set a meeting for January 24 at Vorce’s house, where they planned to discuss how to get their kids back.
One of the first things the mothers had to do was investigate the accusations against them. What exactly was “parental alienation”?
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a new phenomenon in the family courts. The brainchild of Dr. Richard Gardner, it seeks to explain why some children cling to one parent after divorce and refuse a healthy relationship with the other. Gardner believes that sometimes one parent, usually a mom with primary custody, intentionally or unintentionally influences the child by criticizing the former spouse, making false allegations of abuse, or coaching the child to make false allegations. In the most severe cases, Gardner claims, the children panic at the thought of visitations with the non-custodial parent. They may thrash, scream, and absolutely refuse to go. Rather than feeling some ambiguity, they claim to hate the other parent. Asked why, they may site small or insignificant mistakes the parent has made.
Arthur has stated in an interview that he and his children have consistently enjoyed a fairly good relationship, with some tension and coldness, which would suggest that the children were not the victims of severe alienation.
Gardner believes that in the most severe cases of alienation, the most effective treatment is to remove the child from the influence of the parent doing the alienating. Then, perhaps, the child will bond again with the other, alienated parent.
Though Gardner was not the first psychologist to notice signs of alienating behavior in divorcing parents, he was the first to label it a syndrome.
His critics say that there has been little if any empirical research to support the existence of PAS, but the theory has somehow worked its way into the system as a viable piece of science. When used against mothers during conflicted custody battles, it has proved difficult to fight.
When contacted, Shirley Pickens, another Sacramento mediator, didn’t recall ever hearing of Dr. Gardner’s theories regarding PAS, though she was very familiar with alienating behavior, citing various examples. She said that some parents even attempt to sway her to their side with flattery. She seemed to agree with other legal and psychological professionals contacted by the SN&R who stated that often in high-conflict cases, one or both parents might try to align their children with themselves.
Authors Janet Johnston and Vivienne Roseby wrote a book called In the Name of the Child: A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflicted and Violent Divorce, in which the authors also accept the idea of alienation, but suggest that it’s not just one parent’s fault, nor is it often serious enough to reverse custody.
“It’s our observation that alienated parents are often rather inept and unempathetic with their youngsters,” wrote Johnston and Roseby.
They go on to say that after divorce, fathers sometimes become offended when their children seem to prefer their mothers. They may relentlessly pursue the child in an attempt to re-establish a strong bond. Sometimes they try to bully the child into a loving relationship, which may result in even greater resistance.
Though the merits of PAS are still up for discussion between psychological and legal professionals, if a mediator on a specific case believes it exists, that may be all that matters. A judge reading a mediator’s report may not know of the background or the controversy surrounding PAS.
The first meeting between Vorce and the other mothers was supremely disorganized. Women who’d been commiserating over the phone were all of a sudden vying for attention around Vorce’s dining table. Pacing occasionally, snacking on chips and sweets, and cooing over pictures of each other’s children, they listened only intermittently to one another’s stories.
As the evening wore on, the women grew increasingly sentimental.
Many of the women held staunchly traditional values. Their husbands had been the breadwinners; the women had been the professional moms, they said. The fathers may have been loving parents, but they weren’t trained to be attentive parents.
“I know he loves his son,” said Garay of her ex-husband.
“Is that love?” Anderson replied wryly, pointing out that the father did request full custody.
“That’s ownership,” scoffed Vorce. Then she raised her voice to get everyone’s attention. “Once you turn a child into a tool,” she said, “you can’t truly love that child.”
The women did not consider whether they themselves might have used their children as tools against their exes when they had custody.
“It used to be just the parents and a judge,” said Anderson. “Now, there’s mediators, court-appointed attorneys … how do they get paid,” she asked, “if we don’t keep going in there?”
This idea struck a chord. When the women tallied up the costs of litigation, their estimates ranged from $1,000 to almost $250, 000.
“What has destroyed the court system is the intrusion of the mental health system,” said one.
“ ‘Alienation’ is the court’s tool against moms,” said another.
“I understand what it’s like to want to hurt somebody,” whispered a third, and the rest grew quiet. “I’m like a wild animal protecting my child in the corner.”
Vorce seemed changed by this meeting. She seemed to accept that there would be a life past litigation, and that she and Gary and her children would still have lots of good times together. But in order for this to happen, she would somehow have to win the right to co-parent again. She started considering ways to get the word out about cases like hers.
On January 30, concerned parents, grandparents and godparents packed a County Board of Supervisors meeting regarding Child Protective Services policy. In roughly five hours of testimony, they turned a simple policy review from director Jim Hunt into an opportunity for full-scale condemnation of CPS. Families, especially those who had lost custody of their children due to a history with drugs or allegations of abuse, saw the agency as just a swollen bureaucracy with the power to separate them from their children, similar to the way Vorce and the others viewed the family court system.
Anderson waited through hours of testimony and then approached the podium. Standing before the board, she introduced herself as the director of the California Protective Parents Association and said she could prove that one of the therapists in Sacramento (not Burrill) had falsified letters to the court. She claimed that the therapist, who offered reunification services for families, was in fact keeping families from reunifying so that she could continue to profit off their cases. “If you have social workers that are lying, falsifying reports and threatening people,” she said, “those are criminal issues.”
Supervisor Roger Dickinson addressed Anderson as she was completing her testimony.
“These are pretty serious allegations you’re tossing around,” he said. “You should march over to the District Attorney’s Office and make that evidence available. Otherwise, notwithstanding the fact that this is a protected forum, I think you would exercise better judgment and not make those kinds of allegations.”
Anderson’s voice rose aggressively. “We do have evidence,” she said.
“Then take it to the district attorney. … Don’t go around making allegations about social workers and county employees on a wholesale basis. Don’t do it,” Dickinson warned her.
Anderson stated that she would go to the DA and return with a report on what the DA’s Office planned to do about it. As she exited, the audience gave her a round of applause.
Victoria Garay was one of the last to address the Board.
“CPS, the court system, the mediators, attorneys,” she said, “they’ve taken away our rights as parents.”
She looked directly at Dickinson. She told him that she wished he was as passionate about preventing false allegations against parents as he was about preventing false allegations against social workers.
Dickinson appeared unmoved.
Anderson and Garay may have actively voiced their concerns, but it did little to help them get custody of their children. Collectively, the women decided it was time to turn their verbal complaints into formal written complaints and submit them to the appropriate review boards.
On a night in February, the women gathered again at the Vorces’ house and greeted one other quickly. Done with the initial commiserating, the women were now more interested in sharing news. Anderson brought in an article about women in other states who were facing the same challenges they were. Visitor Mary Kravitz had prepared a talk based on a book called Legal Abuse Syndrome. She wanted to share coping strategies.
Some of the women came with prepared formal complaints against Burrill. All that was left was to identify the appropriate licensing agencies.
Telgenhoff arrived a little late. As concerned as she was about filing the formal complaints, she had a new issue: someone had apparently called CPS on her. A CPS social worker had just interviewed her son at school. Sitting primly on the edge of a chair, Telgenhoff looked scared. She also had to worry about Burrill’s civil suit against her.
The women discussed this and other new information until Gary Vorce called the meeting to order and briefed the group on how to file their complaints. Burrill was licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences, he said, so that was the first place to go.
The women gave copies of their formal complaints to Gary Vorce and the discussion moved on to a new topic. Since Burrill had apparently filed a suit against Garay and Telgenhoff, he wanted the women to consider filing cross-complaints in response. Gary Vorce had already contacted a lawyer and was trying to raise enough money for the retainer. Doing much of the legal research, he had become as involved as any of the women.
The first four formal complaints to the Board of Behavioral Sciences equaled 22 pages’ worth of allegations against Burrill. The complaints were various, but they showed striking similarities. Since the women prepared them individually, the formats differed along with the writing style and the detailed accusation, but it was clear that the women had reviewed the rules that should govern a mediator’s conduct and then collected examples from their own cases of how they thought those rules had been breached.
The most common complaint claimed that Burrill “failed to remain neutral during the entire mediation process.” For example, Telgenhoff claimed that Burrill, “solicited only positive information regarding the father; solicited only negative information regarding me.” Cremins claimed that, “she let my ex-husband go on at length, and when my turn to talk came up she constantly interrupted me, by defending my ex-husband and stopping the conversation.”
The women also accused Burrill of losing or not consulting the evidence they provided. Vorce claimed that Burrill, “lost the collateral witness sign off sheets provided by me during our first meeting.” Anderson claimed, “I inquired of Ms. Burrill if she had read the documents I had provided to her on my first visit. Ms. Burrill denied having ever received the documents, and stated to me that if I wanted her to read them, I would have to again provide her with copies.”
Perhaps the most disturbing complaints centered on diagnosis. According to the mothers, they felt as if their mental health and the mental health of their children were in question. Their complaints against the mediator used almost identical language on this point. Vorce claimed that Burrill, “diagnosed medical symptoms and recommended treatment for me i.e.; Bi-polar, PAS without any medical or professional documentation to substantiate her statements.” Telgenhoff claimed Burrill, “made psychiatric diagnosis of me (i.e. bipolar) and suggested her own treatment (i.e. mood stabilizers) without any professional medical documentation to support her diagnosis. This was completely reckless and harmful and was not in her professional jurisdiction.” Cremins also claimed that Burrill, “diagnosed medical symptoms in regards to our oldest son. i.e. BI-polar without any medical or professional documentation.”
In the last five years, the Board has received about 3,000 complaints against its licensees. Disciplinary action has been taken in roughly five percent of them.
Burrill has chosen not to respond to the Sacramento News & Review’s request for comment regarding these complaints.
Within a few days, the women began receiving letters from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences saying their claims had been received and were in the process of being reviewed. That accomplished, they turned their attention to keeping up their battles in court.
On March 11, Vorce walked into court with modest goals. She hoped to significantly increase visitation and she didn’t want to be supervised.
Her attorney Sokol had in recent weeks laid down some of Vorce’s concerns in statements to the court and letters to the children’s attorney. He came to court demanding that custody revert back to the mother, based on the claim that Burrill’s report was biased.
Even Vorce’s more modest goals proved unattainable.
Though the children’s attorney, Jill Barr, was on record saying that unsupervised visitation was appropriate, Arthur’s new attorney, Paul Brinberry, suggested the issues were so serious that Vorce must remain supervised until she followed the recommendations of her therapist, Kinsey. Specifically, they wanted her on psychotropic drugs. Vorce visibly bristled. This had been an issue of continuous debate. She felt that the request, if met, would be used against her. She thought Arthur’s side would say she was dependent on meds and was therefore unfit to parent.
Sokol reminded the court that Kinsey had left it up to Vorce whether to try psychotropic medications to stabilize her emotions and moods. Judge Peter McBrien, newly appointed to the case, took the middle road. If Kinsey sent a letter to the children’s attorney saying that Vorce had met all of his recommendations regarding medication, Barr had the authority to switch the visits to an average of five hours a week unsupervised.
Again, Vorce kept herself under control until she got out of the courtroom. Again, her anger was explosive. Even if Kinsey got the letter to Barr today, she yelled, Barr could sit on it as long as she wanted. Instead of seeing any hope, Vorce chastised Sokol for keeping them on the defensive without once questioning the father’s parenting skills.
Garay, who had come to be supportive, shook her head calmly. “She was attacked in there,” she said.
Gary Vorce pulled his wife aside and out of earshot. They could be heard arguing.
Though this hearing was just one more in a long series of hearings, and though Vorce was again panicking over the expense and the emotional strain of fighting for her children, she was obviously unbeaten. She may need help from therapists and lawyers, she may have suffered through strife and conflict within her family, and she may in fact exhibit poor impulse control, but so do a lot of people who continue to actively and effectively parent their children.
At least she had the help of other women who knew just how she felt.