Moms seek reforms in family court system

By Gloria Carr

July 12, 2004

ELGIN Everyday she waits.

Norma Perez waits for her 12-year-old daughter's homecoming.

The Illinois Supreme Court is considering an appeal which could grant her custody of the girl whom Perez lost in a bitter divorce case against her former husband, R. Edward Bates, two years ago.

"I will wait as long as it takes," the Elgin woman said. "I am just so hopeful."

Her appeal to the Supreme Court centers on evidence her daughter's court appointed lawyer introduced including allegations of a controversial pop-psychology theory, parental alienation syndrome or PAS. Perez's attorneys were not allowed to cross-examine the witnesses who alleged she alienated her daughter against Bates.

Supreme Court justices heard Perez's appeal in late May. A decision is expected this fall.

"I think what we are experiencing is a flawed system all around and our children are the ones suffering," Perez said.

The Perez-Bates case is generating national attention to the term PAS as well as focusing on the need to make reforms within family court.

PAS is a term coined by Dr. Richard A. Gardner in the late 1980s which theorizes a custodial parent usually a mother alienates children against the non-custodial parent the father by alleging sexual, emotional or physical abuse, according to Gardner's work.

Gardner's theory has been used in contentious custody cases, yet it is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association nor any other medical associations, according to published reports.

Gardner, a California psychologist, committed suicide last year.


Hundreds of cases
Annette Zender of Woodstock is a licensed foster parent who lost custody of her 12-year-old daughter two years ago due to PAS allegations made by the child's biological father, she said. Zender has spent eight years litigating the custody case, beginning in Minnesota. She was initially given sole custody but the father appealed to Illinois courts and sole custody was reversed to him, she said. Her daughter was moved out of state and has not had contact with Zender since then. Mothers accused of PAS are portrayed as "crazy" and stigmatizes as unfit to care for their children, Zender said. After her case, Zender began documenting 150 cases in Kane, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties involving PAS. The main characters are different but the stories and experts are the same, she said. "The incredible thing is there are so many similarities between our stories, it is frightening," Perez said. "It's criminal" said Zender, who claims her daughter was legally kidnapped.


Complaints to state
Both Perez and Zender began focusing on the psychologists conducting evaluations on parents and children as well as the guardian ad litems or attorneys appointed by the court to represent the children. Zender said it is the same group of psychologists using PAS against mothers unable to defend themselves.

Each woman filed complaints within the past year against those psychologists with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation.

Zender's accusations resulted in a seven-count complaint against Barrington psychologist Daniel DeWitt by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. The second count dealt specifically with Zender's case, accusing DeWitt of gross negligence in rendering of clinical psychological services and unethical and unprofessional conduct, according to records in the case.

Chris Ganschow, a spokesman for the Department of Professional Regulation, said a hearing is scheduled next month. DeWitt faces various penalties if the charges are proven, including a reprimand, a fee or probation, Ganschow said.

DeWitt's attorney, Barbara Weiner, countered that Zender "has made a career of complaining about the judge involved in this case, the other attorneys and two psychologists."


System needs reform
"These individuals giving recommendations to courts are basically immune," Perez said. "They can basically say anything they want and we can not defend ourselves."

The entire Illinois family court system needs reforms, Zender said. In Minnesota, a neutral psychologist conducts evaluations which are forwarded to a supervisor and then the court, Zender said. She said she wants a similar statute enacted in Illinois.

Additionally, court evaluators, guardian ad litems and judges need to be educated about domestic violence which is at the core of the contentious custody battles and PAS, she said.

David Finn, of the Associates in Human Development Counseling in Rolling Meadows, agrees. He is a license professional counselor whose duties include conducting evaluations.

Finn said there are really no minimal standards for custody evaluators. One standard he feels is important is training in domestic violence and accurately investigating allegations of abuse. Domestic abuse in varying forms of emotional, psychological or physical can be used even after a divorce to control another person, he said.