Separated From Their Kids, Parents Unite Against One Court Guardian

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It's a bleak Wednesday morning as E.J. sits at her kitchen table, poring over boxes of court documents. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment just north of the metro, where the walls are covered with her children's crayon drawings. The table is spread with toys and picture books; overhead, a Thomas the Tank Engine poster spells "Happy Birthday" in bright blue.

She hoists a slender cat onto her lap as she points out the pictures on the fridge. There's her son, a brown-eyed boy smiling in a pressed shirt. There's her daughter with a missing tooth.

The children live about 25 miles away with their father now. They visit only once a month.

The exact location of E.J.'s apartment is a secret. Her driver's license lists her address as a P.O. box because she's enrolled in the secretary of state's Safe at Home program for victims of domestic violence. The names of all the families in this story have been changed to protect the children's privacy.

Shrunken behind her files and slow to make eye contact, E.J. struggles to recount a mind-boggling 180-degree shift in custody arrangements that played out over eight years in family court. She recounts brutal physical abuse at the hands of her ex-partner, of getting picked up and slammed down repeatedly in front of their son. Her ex admits to a history of crack cocaine and alcohol abuse, and his criminal record includes burglary, check-forging, and defrauding a St. Paul food bank of $24,000. His abuse eventually forced her out onto the streets, their two children in tow, E.J. says. They were homeless for 18 months.

E.J. says she fought to keep her kids out of their dad's reach, but over time his improved behavior began to win him unsupervised visitation rights. He got joint custody of their son, and eventually sole custody of both children. E.J.'s access dwindled. She went from full custody of her children to monthly visits.

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That the tables turned so radically is a testament to the up-and-down nature of custody battles. But E.J. says there's more to it. She accuses the courts of ignoring her children's reports of abuse while in their father's care. (E.J.'s ex-boyfriend declined to comment through his lawyer.)

Asked where her case went wrong, E.J. points to a single woman, Jamie Manning, the court-appointed guardian ad litem. She is not alone.

The Guardian ad Litem

In high-conflict custody cases, parents accuse each other of every sin under the sun, from domestic violence and child abuse to drug and sex addiction. They call each other crazy, depraved. Cutthroat lawyers tell stories so wildly incongruous that they seem to be describing different families.

The kids can get lost in the madness.

That's where a guardian ad litem comes in. The state may appoint a guardian to advocate for the children in family court. Families shoulder the cost: $1,500 from each parent every six months the guardian works their case. It's the guardian's job to weigh what the children want against their interactions with both parents. Guardians interview teachers and therapists, collect medical and criminal records, and sift through acrimonious family accounts. They place competing parents' mental and physical health, criminal background, family history, their every action and comment under microscopic scrutiny. Ultimately, the judge decides whether to adopt a guardian's recommendations. But in practice, guardians have major influence over whether parents get to see — and have a relationship with — their kids.

There are 21 state-employed guardians in Hennepin County and seven in Ramsey. A full-time guardian might juggle up to 40 cases at a time. There are also part-time and volunteer guardians.

Jamie Manning started as a guardian ad litem for Carver County in 1996. She completed her guardian ad litem training two years later, and began working full-time in Hennepin County in 2001. She has a bachelor's in education from University of Minnesota, though there are no degree requirements to become a guardian.

Suzanne Alliegro, the director of the state guardian ad litem program, says when it comes to family court, rarely are both parties happy with the judge's ruling, and the parent who loses out invariably starts raging against the system. That's why guardians, who are tasked to make independent recommendations, receive judicial immunity.

"In family court we do try as much as possible to point out the strengths of the parents instead of just the weaknesses because I know it's very difficult for parents to see that in print," Alliegro says. Guardians attract undue criticism when people assume they're the ones making the decisions, she adds.

At the same time, says Alliegro, she's never seen so much collective hatred toward a single guardian.

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By Proxy

In June 2008, when E.J. still had primary custody of her daughter, the girl came home from a weekend at her dad's house with a black eye. Her older brother had whacked her over the head with a pillow that had a metal zipper on it, she said. E.J. reported the incident to Child Protective Services.

Child Protective Services interviewed the father, who said he'd been present the entire time. He brushed the incident aside; E.J. often convinces herself of imaginary problems, he said.

Investigators then consulted the guardian in the case, Jamie Manning. She too downplayed E.J.'s complaint. The CPS worker's notes from the interview reflect that Manning said E.J. had mental health issues resembling Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, in which parents hurt their own kids to seek attention. The assessment came out of nowhere — not a single psychologist has ever diagnosed E.J. with it. CPS nevertheless dropped its investigation into the abuse.

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Two months later, E.J.'s son ran away from his dad's house, setting off on a three-mile hike alone down a busy highway. When police finally caught up to him, the eight-year-old complained his father's live-in cousin touched him in a "not-safe" spot that night — his upper thigh — and that sometimes his father would also hold him down and touch him in places he was not supposed to. According to police reports, he said his mother instructed him to flee if that ever happened.

Both events were catastrophic for E.J.'s case in family court. Manning, who reports directly to the judge, lambasted her for encouraging her child to run away from abuse rather than call the cops. She recommended giving dad custody of both children. The court agreed. Records don't indicate that any further investigation into the abuse claims took place.

Soon E.J.'s contact with her children was whittled down even further. When her son threw uncontrollable tantrums at school, Manning reasoned that spending time with his mom — rather than any childhood trauma — was influencing his bad behavior. Manning waved off E.J.'s repeated cries of child abuse. In one report, she criticized E.J. for asking the children to keep her address secret from their father, and recommended a sparse schedule of monthly visits.

E.J. has kept her children's rooms exactly as they left them, with all their Barbies and building blocks, her daughter's Dora the Explorer castle, her son's bunk bed. As far as E.J. is concerned, there's a simple explanation for why her kids' old rooms sit empty day after day: "Ms. Manning assisted my abusive ex-partner in gaining sole custody of my children."

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Together We Are Stronger

The guardian ad litem program holds quarterly meetings at various public buildings around the Twin Cities metro. Anyone can attend. Rachel, a tall woman made taller by steely stilettos, arrives in full business attire to represent a coalition of pissed-off parents. She sits at the table across from board members and begins with an orderly reading of their demands. Others, including E.J., are invited to briefly share their personal stories, but Rachel always re-focuses the discussion on policy changes. Parents want an independent complaint process to deal with unethical guardians, she says. They want checks on guardians' authority and access to their files to measure how long their cases stay on the docket.

Rachel's own case is a mire of endless litigation, an exhausting back-and-forth that eventually delivered her two children into the arms of her abusive ex-husband, she says. He once backed his car into her three times during a child exchange at a police station, she says, and then violated the ensuing protection order. But in the 48 days between requesting that protection order and getting it granted, Rachel admits she drank too much. She passed out twice at her desk while caring for the children, and was convicted of a DUI. She got help and has stayed sober for the past three years.

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Manning, who also serves as a guardian ad litem in Rachel's case, has always supported her ex's custody claims, accepting and perpetuating the narrative that Rachel is a mentally ill addict with a long history of chemical abuse. Rachel has seven psychological evaluations, five chemical evaluations, and countless breathalyzer, urine, and hair follicle test results to prove otherwise, but she says the judge in her case relies solely on Manning's damning portrait of her.

Both E.J. and Rachel belong to A Call to Action - Together We Are Stronger, a group of parents who collectively call themselves victims of Jamie Manning. When E.J. began a blog called Parenting Abused Kids in 2006 to document her children's abuse as well as their guardian's seeming apathy to those allegations, one by one other parents wrote in to share similar experiences.

Together We Are Stronger holds weekly library meetings, which alternately serve as a support group, Manning hate club, and planning committee to reform systemic issues plaguing Minnesota's family courts.

Standing in their way is a seemingly insurmountable burden of proof. It's the worst-kept secret in family court that everybody lies in the ruthless crusade for their children. Family court receives more official complaints than any other court system — a handful more from a group of disgruntled parents hardly makes a splash.

But the number and nature of their complaints is alarming. All the parents in this group, men and women, allege an eerie, meticulously documented pattern of lies within Manning's reports. They claim in each of their cases that Manning sided with their abusive ex-partners, that she misquoted therapists, falsely claimed to have spoken with school officials, and ignored their children's requests for help. They complain that she serves parents with scathing reports too late — right as they walk into court as opposed to the mandated 10 days prior — leaving them no time to review and defend themselves.

While many of the members are in the throes of custody proceedings, there are those, like Elise, who still have their children. She managed to keep her kids and wants to help others do the same.

On the night of June 19, 2012, while the Central Avenue Parade marched through northeast Minneapolis, Elise ran to the police station for help. Both her daughters, a teenager and a three-year-old, were visiting their different fathers, but the younger girl was late coming home, Elise breathlessly told the cops. That's when they served her an emergency protection order on behalf of the elder girl. The teenager was staying with her father, they said.

The three-year-old was returned to Elise, but at 11 p.m., an angry knock came at the door. There was a police officer on the porch, yelling for Elise to bring the toddler back up to the precinct.

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Both fathers had separately yet simultaneously filed motions for custody, falsely accusing her of dealing drugs and threatening to kill her kids.

Manning was appointed as the guardian ad litem for the younger girl first. That custody case resolved quickly, and the girl was returned by the end of the summer. Elise then focused on the fight for her elder daughter.

At first, Elise specifically requested Manning because she believed Manning would support her case. That relationship quickly soured.

When her elder daughter complained about bullying at school, Elise transferred her to a new school. Manning objected, insisting that bullying was not an issue, based on conversations she'd had with school officials. Manning used the incident to recommend giving dad sole legal and physical custody. But when Judge Kevin Burke challenged Manning to produce key evidence that bullying had not been a problem for Elise's daughter, Manning was mum.

But she soon went even further, hypothesizing that Elise suffered from emotional dysregulation in the form of angry outbursts, aggression, destructive behavior, and suicidal threats. Psychological evaluations showed Elise had a mild adjustment disorder, a short-term condition that affects people trying to cope with a particular source of stress.

Burke began to have doubts about Manning's portrayal of Elise. He went back and read the case file from Elise's earlier custody battle over her younger daughter, a case in which Judge Mary Vasaly had granted Elise custody, per Manning's recommendation. On October 22, 2012, Manning testified that Elise had been the girls' sole caregiver since birth. She's a sound parent with a stable job and stable housing, Manning wrote.

Judge Burke was baffled.

"After this endorsement of [Elise's] parenting ability, the Guardian ad Litem would later claim in her testimony that [Elise] suffers from emotional dysregulation which interfered with her ability to properly parent [the elder daughter]. Why you would recommend placing a younger (and presumably more vulnerable) child with [Elise], yet persist in the claim that an older child is in immediate danger needs some pretty compelling explanation," Burke wrote.

In October 2013 Elise was granted full custody of both her daughters. Later, Judge Burke would apologize for letting court drag on while Elise's kids suffered, though he blamed himself, not Manning.

"I don't want to come across as a shill for guardians, but I think in the end they get more criticism that is undeserved and [judges] don't get as much criticism that would be deserved," he said in an interview. "The worst scenario is judges who rubber-stamp whatever the guardian recommends, because you as a judge are abdicating your responsibility to make that decision."

Judge Burke added that although he was harsh with Manning in his order, he has no problem working with her in the future. He believes she's a nice person and committed to children.

Months after she won her case, Elise seems less inclined to give Manning a pass. She remains a member of Together We Are Stronger.

"This was a nightmare for me just to deal with it and I'm still working through the trauma, but these parents, they're still in the middle of it," Elise says. "And they can prove it."

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The Kids Are Not All Right

Holly and Brandon, 17 and 15 years old, hardly remember a time before the maelstrom of their parents' custody dispute.

The custody battle between their father, Hal, and their mother, Michelle, has spanned 12 years and three separate trials. Manning has been their guardian since 2005, when Michelle filed a harassment order against Hal and Hal responded with a protection order against Michelle. Since then, Eden Prairie police have become intimately familiar with their family chaos.

Michelle has a lengthy child protection record of physically abusing Holly and Brandon. She has admitted to biting and hitting the children in frustration, once throwing a shoe in Brandon's face at church — resulting in a bloody nose — and putting the children in freezing showers with their clothes on as punishment. Both children remember this episode vividly.

In her initial home visit report from March 2006, Manning seemed to side with Hal. She described his house as warm and comfortable, noting that Hal diverted Holly's attention from a Gameboy so they could play cards instead. Brandon brought Manning a model car he'd built as well as an electricity kit he was working on with his dad. Holly was growing a crystal. At Michelle's home, both children played computer games.

Still, in what seemed like a move to keep both parents equally involved, Manning recommended the parents have joint custody.

But that began to change. In 2010, Michelle remarried and won more parenting time with the children. Manning was impressed with Michelle's participation in church-based parenting services. She sympathized with Michelle's stories about Hal's violent obsession with her and with her accounts of his ploy to brainwash the kids.

Meanwhile, tensions in Michelle's household rose to an all-time high. Holly's class essays and unanswered emails begging Manning for guidance tell a narrative of screaming matches, heavy-handed discipline, and violent clashes between her mom's new husband, Doug, and her brother Brandon.

Holly, 13 at the time, wrote an email to Manning dated January 18, 2011 asking her for Judge Jeannice Reding's contact information so she could speak to her directly and set the record straight about how rough it had been living with her mom. Doug grabbed 11-year-old Brandon by the throat because Brandon called him an ass, she wrote.

"This really hit me to rock bottom," Holly wrote. "I just feel frustrated that the court isnt really listening to what Brandon and i want."

Six days later, Holly sent Manning another email. She said after Michelle had a heated argument with Brandon over cleaning his room, Doug picked the boy up sideways, flipping him upside down and back again before shoving him to the floor. Holly wrote she tried to call the police, but her mom hid the phone.

"Please i want the adress and phone # for the judge quickly," she begs Manning in the email. "Please, get us out before someone gets seriously hurt."

Later that day, Manning responded. She advised Holly to talk to her therapist, adding that Brandon needed to learn how to respectfully engage with Michelle and her new husband.

Soon, Holly began directing her emails to her paternal aunt instead. Manning was copied on some of the correspondence, in which Holly repeats her request to have an audience with Judge Reding. "Cuz jamie lies and if i dont talk to the judge personly no one will kno the truth!"

She continued to write, always focusing on Brandon — the way he sat in his room all day, how he once yelled at their mother to stop bad-mouthing their father and Doug sent him crashing into a table. She described the hole she and Brandon carved into the wall between their separate rooms so they could talk to each other while locked up.

The children would frequently shut themselves up in their rooms and call Hal to pick them up, Michelle says. The steady deterioration of the children's relationship with their mother along with Hal's intervention, which was seen as meddling with Michelle's parenting time, prompted Manning to shift her support entirely to Michelle. She recommended sole custody.

Even though Michelle now has the legal right to keep both kids with her, they still live with Hal full-time. As they sit at the dinner table in Hal's home, both decked out completely in dark colors, they speak softly, their expressions flat.

"I really cannot remember my childhood. I blocked a lot of stuff," Holly says. "I told [Manning] what I wanted and she tells me she puts it in with the court or something, but she always makes it sound like she prefers that we live with our mom. I actually have to remind her that I do want to live here."

The children recall countless times when the authorities seemed to take their mother's false allegations at face value. At 12, Holly had to take a "disgusting" rape test because Michelle accused Hal of molesting her. The two say that Manning seems to eat up whatever Michelle says. "She never looks for any details or facts," Brandon says. "It just seems like everything from my mom goes. They're very personal, like they're friends or something, and she doesn't really have anything to do with the other side of our family. She doesn't talk to anyone."

Much of the custody trials are a blur, and it's difficult for them to say which parent violated which order when. If mom says they can't see dad, there's always a 50/50 chance there's a court order backing her, they say. They just want litigation to end, and they stopped looking to Manning to speak for them years ago.

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Jamie Manning

Nancy Moehle, Manning's lawyer, leads the way through the guardian ad litem headquarters of the Hennepin County Family Justice Center. She points out that the county's guardians have only three tiny offices to share. Most of the time they're on the run, visiting homes and schools, attending hearings.

Manning is waiting in an empty conference room. She is a petite 59-year-old woman, neatly dressed in a dark sweater with shoulder-length brown hair parted to one side. Her smile is strained, her eyes slightly bloodshot. With Moehle seated to her left, taking notes, Manning responds to the allegations raised by Together We Are Stronger in an even, guarded tone.

Being a guardian is harrowing work, they explain, because you never see one strong, dependable parent facing down pond scum. That never warrants the appointment of a guardian in the first place.

By nature, the job throws them into toxic situations often involving domestic abuse. Inevitably, one or both parents will get upset.

Manning denies neglecting reports of abuse from children. She says she never takes more than 24 hours to respond to a child, though depending on her case load she might not get back to parents, lawyers, or therapists as quickly.

If a parent suspects child abuse, it's their responsibility and not the guardian's job to call Child Protective Services. CPS might then reach out to her for background, Manning says, but she wouldn't weigh in about the credibility of the reporting parent and she definitely wouldn't offer up any diagnoses. She'd leave that to the psychologists.

Manning admits that sometimes her reports are delivered too late, but she's working on that. She surmises when parents complain that she misrepresents the findings of various therapists and psychologists, it could be that the information communicated to her over the phone is different from what they've heard or that they're simply talking to different people — she's asking for more written information so there isn't this ongoing issue of misquoting professionals.

There are no minimum standards for contacting the children, but she'll try to have at least one in-home visit with each parent, Manning says. It's not in their best interest for another person to keep inserting themselves in their lives. Asking them to continuously retell their story would only re-traumatize them.

"These are children and they're important issues. We're not arguing over 25 cents," Moehle says, pointing out that Manning can't truly defend herself without being able to address specific cases.

Minnesota law forbids guardians from sharing information about children except to advocate for their best interests.

Manning has not been charged with a crime, and she doesn't seem to be under investigation for any wrongdoing. Although parents have submitted formal complaints against her in the past, it's unclear whether they resulted in any discipline.

The work may be demanding, but Manning says she's been doing it for 19 years because she's always had a heart for kids and believes they need a voice in difficult situations. Having the support of other guardians and her own stable family to go home to at the end of the day helps too.

Going Forward

E.J. says although she was hesitant at first to file a complaint against Manning because she feared further cuts to her contact with the children, she did eventually ask Judge Bernhardson to fire her from the case in June 2010. Her complaint was dismissed. E.J. says the judge thought she was too emotionally involved to appreciate Manning's hard work.

A custody trial date was set for September 2010. E.J. fundraised all summer for legal help. She set up a table outside Walmart where she tacked pictures of her children on a bulletin board and begged for donations. She volunteered at a local nonprofit where the owner threw a fundraiser. A band offered to play and a teacher gave dance lessons while E.J. held a silent auction of her things.

Still, she never made enough to help pay for her old pro bono lawyer, let alone hire a new one. At trial, she represented herself. She didn't know her rights and didn't know how to submit exhibits. There was no evidence against her beyond testimony from her ex-partner, his lawyer, and Manning, E.J. says.

"It took all my strength to face [my ex] plus Jamie in court, question them all on the witness stand, and to not cry. I was just proud that I did not cry," she says. "What kept me going was knowing that one day my kids would hear this story, and know how hard Mom fought for them."

For E.J. and Together We Are Stronger, and all those looking to disarm the adversarial, winner-take-all mentality of family court, one bill has steadily carved its way through both the House and Senate only to die on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk.

In recent years, fathers' rights groups and battered women's groups have been going back and forth on the idea of having courts operate under a "rebuttable presumption of joint physical custody." That is to say, why not involve both parents equally as long as they're fit and loving?

That presumption would always be immediately revoked in the case of abuse, harm, neglect, or abandonment, says Molly Olson of the Center for Parental Responsibility. Yet Dayton's veto letter dated May 24, 2012 implies he wasn't ready to sign the bipartisan bill into law because he's just too torn over how a one-size-fits-all approach could affect complex, high-conflict custody cases.

At the state guardian ad litem board's quarterly meetings, members of Together We Are Stronger sit at the table with the board and stand along the walls. Mother and daughter Elizabeth and Anne are regular attendees. Their custody trial ended in 2007, but they still hold a grudge against Manning.

Elizabeth's divorce in 2003 kicked off with her husband getting shipped off to jail. He was charged with domestic assault but pleaded down to disorderly conduct. Manning got involved because abuse allegedly happened in front of their children.

Anne, now 18, remembers sitting in the bathtub as a child and watching her dad slap her mom into the shower like it's been burned into her memory. Even so, Manning recommended that her father receive unsupervised visitation time with her and a younger brother, now 15. Her father eventually kidnapped that brother, Anne says, when they went on a boat ride one summer and never returned. The father claims his son fled his mother's house to live with him, but declined to explain why.

"Jamie Manning stole my brother," Anne says. "She let my dad have visiting rights to see us when he was still the abuser, which didn't make sense at all. No one saw it through our eyes."

Based on Manning's recommendations, the entire family was ordered to bridging therapy at Phoenix Process Consultants. While her mom and brother sat in a session together, Anne says, her dad stalked her across the waiting room, yelling at her to the point where she collapsed, screaming in tears. No one at Phoenix stepped in to help.

"My dad treats me like a thing to just pull around," Anne says. "If I was old enough to say something in court, Jamie Manning would have no say in what happened. I was really confused, I didn't understand what was going on. I didn't know why I had to go see my dad."

Anne said as much at a recent state guardian ad litem board meeting. When she was young, the courts assumed she just wasn't smart enough to know that joint parenting and court-ordered family therapy was in her best interest. "Do you think Jamie Manning gives you reliable information?" she challenged senior Judge Paul Nelson, the board chair.

"File your complaint," Nelson responded. "That's one of the things we asked you to do. You have declined to do so. You have no formal complaint in front of us that deals with specifics. You are asking us to make a decision without any facts."

Pending the creation of an objective complaint process, the members of Together We Are Stronger say that's like asking them to fire blindly into a bureaucracy already proven to be biased against them. Yet they feel they now have the board's attention, so they will file. They just need to figure out who's going first.

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