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Photo by Shannon DeCelle

Courting Disaster
By Travis Durfee

George Ihlenburg went to jail for speaking out against Columbia County Family Court. Now, his plight has spawned a support group for others with family-court woes—to overwhelming response

Judging the judiciary: Volunteers for an Impartial Court System.

George Ihlenburg was fed up with spending thousands of dollars on legal fees, court-ordered parenting classes and counseling sessions that seemed to have no bearing on the outcome of his child-custody case. He said so, and it landed him in jail.

He wrote a letter to the editor critical of the court system, and spoke with a number of people in the community about his struggles in family court. In other words, Ihlenburg created somewhat of a buzz with the familiar topic. When Columbia County Family Court Judge Paul J. Czjaka caught wind of his activities, Ihlenburg was issued a gag order and instructed to keep quiet or face contempt of court charges.

But Ihlenburg didn’t shut up. He violated the gag order and was charged with contempt of court. He spoke to the press and local activists, inviting them to his contempt hearings for violating the judge’s order, which Ihlenburg viewed as a clear infringement on his First Amendment rights. He wanted people to witness the way Czjaka ran family court in Columbia County; a manner that many say better suits a kangaroo court [Newsfront, Nov. 14, 2001, and Feb. 7, 2002]. Ihlenburg wanted people to see how Czjaka’s courtroom seemed more bent on facilitating confrontation and indulging hostilities than on mollifying the anger and resentment often spurred by divorce. Most of all, he wanted people to see how the court was tearing families apart, an unflappable belief for Ihlenburg—a man who had not been allowed to see his three children once over the past four years.

To hear him discuss his plight is another matter entirely. Ihlenburg—middle-aged and soft-spoken, with gentle blue eyes and a modest smile—is actually quite a contrast from the image his actions may suggest; he isn’t a fanatical, family-law egghead overly versed in legalese. No, George Ihlenburg is a plumber, and depending on where you live, he would probably pass for your neighbor. He is a parent who wants to see his kids and
doesn’t believe he is being helped by family court.

“Based on my experiences and those shared with me, it seems that the attorneys and the judges in family court have their own idea of how they want things to go,” Ihlenburg says. “They have their opinions formed and they want to put you into this little cubbyhole, and if you try to buck that system, then they hit you with fines and they’ll withhold information from you. You have to form a strategy for how you’re going to fight that, and it takes time and money.

“And this is hard, because all the while you’re trying to keep a normal life going, keep your job or your business going and maintain a personal life, you’re trying to deal with the loss of your children and your family.”

After his divorce, Ihlenburg and his ex-wife turned to family court, looking for a judge to help them do what they couldn’t on their own—work out a parenting arrangement for their three children. But at the outset of his case four years ago, Ihlenburg lost all visitation rights to his children when he signed off on an order of protection presented by his ex-wife’s attorney. Ihlenburg denied the numerous accusations his ex-wife presented, but signed off on the order anyway to move the case forward.

“Initially I thought, ‘OK, the allegations will pile up and pile up, but this is court. Truth and justice will prevail,’” Ihlenburg says. “I assumed [the order of protection] was a plan to get the family back together in a therapeutic family setting, but that was not the case. It was a backdoor plan to remove me from the lives of my children as a parent.”

Ihlenburg says he has gone above and beyond the call of duty in his attempts to regain good standing in the eyes of the court, seeking out and continuing personal counseling on his own, on top of the more than $100,000 he’s spent in legal fees, court-ordered counseling, parenting classes and psychological evaluations. Ihlenburg says none of these have proved useful throughout his four years in family court, and he is no closer to spending time with his children.

So, a year ago, Ihlenburg decided he could be silent no more, and began a personal crusade against the family-court system in Columbia County, offering his story up to the press and talking to others in the community who were experiencing similar frustrations.

People entering family court for a custody case are usually walking into the chambers at one of the most traumatic points of their lives—their marriage has failed, they have lost daily contact with their children, and the financial costs are piling up.

Though family courts are mandated to keep the best interests of the children at the forefront of the proceedings, many people who’ve been through them say that rarely happens. Many say that family court, at times, operates in opposition to its directive by pitting former spouses against each other and furthering the divide of a divorced or separated family, rather than working to reconcile those differences. It would be easy to dismiss these allegations as sour grapes from those unhappy with a court’s decision, but these claims are supported by a number of critics in the field of family law.

Chris Gottlieb is currently on a one-year fellowship at New York University’s Family Defense Clinic, researching and writing on a number of issues related to family court. Through her full-time work representing children of low-income families at Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit in New York City, Gottlieb attests that going to family court can be very trying for family members.

“What you have in family court are judges who just have an enormous amount of power over peoples’ lives,” explains Gottlieb. “You don’t have the same standards as in a criminal case, where people have to show things beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. You’re never before a jury, you’re always only in front of a judge. And the standard isn’t beyond a reasonable doubt. As soon as the judge thinks there is more evidence in favor of one party over the other, they can [make a decision].

“The system is much more open to abuse because of that,” Gottlieb continues, “and one of the main problems with
family-court is that nobody tends to care about it enough to pay attention. With family court judges, it is very rare that voters have even heard of them, it is pretty rare for the papers to cover what they are doing, and it is pretty rare for anyone with any power to be affected by it. There is much less accountability.”

Judicial abuse of power due to lack of oversight was one of the many issues Ihlenburg has tried to raise about his experiences in Columbia County’s family court. One of the reasons Ihlenburg gives for his case going nowhere is a soured previous relationship with the judge overseeing his case. Not only had he been represented by Czjaka in a previous divorce, Ihlenburg had done some plumbing work for the judge and says there was a dispute over price.

Ihlenburg discussed these concerns and a number of others with Linda Mussman last year. Mussman—co-founder of the Hudson-based art warehouse Time & Space Limited, which is active in local politics and community issues—says she listened to Ihlenburg’s story, but couldn’t help but be skeptical.

“At first I found [Ihlenburg’s story] hard to believe,” Mussman says. “Not knowing anything about family court, [I thought] if you actually did what the court asked you to do, and went along with the system, you should come out a little better off.”

Following her discussion with Ihlenburg, Mussman took a crash course in family-court studies: reading up on the courts, talking to individuals working within the system, even attending court herself. Mussman decided to reach out to the community and see if others were experiencing anything remotely similar to what Ihlenburg was claiming. She and a few others began advertising in the community for a public meeting to gauge peoples’ experiences in Columbia County’s family court. According to Mussman, the response was overwhelming.

“I’ve been involved in a number of activities in the community for a number of years, and I’ve never seen anything jump out of the box like this before,” Mussman says.

Approximately 40 people attended the meeting, and the outpouring of emotion was intense: People shared their courtroom experiences with each other, and some were brought to tears, hearing that they weren’t being singled out. Mussman says the logical next was to form Volunteers for an Impartial Court System, a group where people feeling burned by the court system could turn for support and advice.

“People are typically at home and alone dealing with these issues,” Mussman says. “When we opened the doors to this discussion, people were eager to come out, and they were anxious to talk and voice their concerns about what they had been through in terms of the family-court nightmare.”

To date, VICS has held a number of public meetings that regularly draw 40 to 50 people. The group has held two community forums in cooperation with the American Assembly of Columbia University as well. Mussman says roughly 300 people attended the forums, each of which drew speakers, judges and professors from a number of fields related to family court, and both were aired on a local television station.

“It is just important for people to know that there is a resource that has a sympathetic ear and is willing to talk or help if we can,” Mussman says. “People who’ve been through [family court] understand how the system does or doesn’t work, and know how to arm themselves for the inevitable. Because when it hits, you’re totally disarmed. You can lose your children instantly. You end up financially broken and emotionally wrecked, and that is a huge mountain for people to face alone.”

“D.C.,” who asked that her real name not be used, says she has experienced the turmoil of family court in Columbia County for the past four and a half years. After her divorce, D.C., who says her husband wouldn’t allow her to work during their marriage, could not support her four children, and they were taken from her by the county and placed in foster care. Her child-support payments to the county began to pile up and, per New York’s “deadbeat dad” law, she lost her driver’s license. Having no work history or job skills to speak of, D.C. resigned herself to exotic dancing at a bar in Newburgh.

“It was physically exhausting and it was psychologically exhausting and I hated it,” D.C. says. “There are a lot of crazy things that happen at those bars that you don’t even want to imagine, but I honestly
didn’t see another way to do it.”

D.C. said she danced for close to three years, but the county held a 63-percent lien on her income, and she was still struggling to make ends meet. Frustrated and degraded, she quit. With her child-
support payments so far behind, the county offered D.C. a way out.

“I was told that if I surrendered my parental rights away, so that the children could be put up for adoption,” D.C. says, “I could have my driver’s license back and they’d waive the money I owed the county. I’d never be able to see my kids again. I told them my children weren’t for sale.”

Not knowing her options, and struggling to convey the history and nuances of her trial to her numerous court-appointed attorneys, D.C. says she felt uplifted when she saw an advertisement in the Hudson Register-Star for a VICS meeting.

“Going to a VICS meeting was an incredible relief, and it made it so much easier to progress and function,” D.C. says. “You tell people what happens to you in court, but the details are just so outrageous that people instinctively don’t want to believe them. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that can’t happen.’ But to have a whole room full of people nodding their heads and saying, ‘Yeah, he did that to me too,’ it just makes it that much easier to fight and carry on.”

D.C. says VICS has been not only a cathartic experience, but has opened her eyes to a number of different legal options and informational resources as well. While D.C. wishes she’d been better informed at the outset of her run in family court, she is hopeful that a group like VICS can provide for someone else what was not available to her.

According to mediator
Jeffrey Cohen, court-mandated decisions shaping the future of a family after divorce usually end up favoring one party over another—and he believes he has a better way.

“A mom comes home from work one day and she’s got two little girls at home,” Cohen says. “She walks into the kitchen and sees that her two little girls are screeching at each other, pushing each other, shoving each other. She notices that what they are fighting over is an orange, and she walks up to the children and says, ‘Listen, I can’t have World War III over this orange. What I really need to do is have some peace and quiet here. Can you both give me the orange?’ Mom takes it, she puts it on a cutting board, slices it in half, gives one to each child and says ‘There you go, now be quiet, let me do some work and we’re going to play.’

“As she is cleaning, she notices that one child peeled the rind of the piece of fruit, threw it in the garbage and began to eat the fruit. The other child peeled off the rind, threw the fruit away and used the rind in a recipe. Mom at that moment realizes that she has made a mistake. If she had taken a moment to explore with each child what their interests were in that orange, she would have been able to create a win-win scenario. Essentially, this is what mediation is all about.”

Though Cohen has worked as a matrimonial attorney for the last 18 years, he has spent the past decade advocating the benefits of third-party mediation as an alternative method of conflict resolution for divorcing couples, and a way to completely bypass the court system in doing so.

“[Mediation] assists the parties in coming up with their own agreements rather than having them risk going to court and having a resolution imposed upon them by a judge,” Cohen says. “Essentially, they are in complete control of the process. They don’t have to worry that strangers are going to put them through a court system that may be counterintuitive to their thinking. Basic psychology teaches that parties who have input into their own decisions are more apt to abide by those decisions, then to follow decisions imposed upon them by third parties.”

In mediation, which is currently available only as a private practice in New York, Cohen recommends that his clients consult their attorneys for legal advice, but it is ultimately the parties themselves who should draw up the custody or support agreement. After a contract is agreed upon, the documents are taken to a lawyer and made legally binding, which Cohen says is less expensive and time consuming than going through the court system. Cohen would like to see mediation made mandatory in New York, as it is in a few other states, saying it would help out both divorcing families and the court system.

“If we can reduce the number of cases in court,” Cohen says, “judges will be able to spend more time per case. Generally speaking, [mandatory mediation] might help the courts become more efficient in some ways and create less backlog.”

But mandatory mediation has it critics as well. Cohen acknowledges that mediation is quite unpopular among trial lawyers and other groups that say the practice isn’t a viable alternative to the court system.

Gottlieb says a number of variables must be in place for mandatory mediation to work properly, namely willing participants and adequate resources. Further, Gottlieb says any form of mediation must have the courts to fall back on in the event that either party involved doesn’t think the process is working.

“In theory, [mediation] is a good thing to pursue,” says Gottlieb. “But it is almost a luxury to start talking about things like that when we don’t have a family court system that sees people in a reasonable amount of time as it is.”

But Cohen is convinced that keeping people out of court and allowing them to control the results of their divorce through mediation is the best way to serve those most affected by the separation.

Photo by Shannon DeCelle

“You have to help families help themselves,” Cohen says. “It is not about what is in the best interests of the courts, it is about what is in the best interests of the children and parent. Trials don’t help families, families help families.”

When he is released at 5 AM on Monday (March 24), Ihlenburg will be a free man of sorts. He will have served his sentence at Columbia County Correctional Facility for speaking out about his struggles in family court, but he is still waiting out the longer term as a father being kept from his children.

“My parental rights haven’t been terminated, but they may as well have been at this point,” Ihlenburg says, “There is no communication between myself and my children, and that makes it pretty tough to be a parent.”

But Ihlenburg has learned to be patient throughout his ordeal. In fact, he is now starting to chalk up some victories in court. After he filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, shared his story with people in the community and created a stir in the local press, Judge Czjaka recused himself from all of Ihlenburg’s future trials. A surrogate court judge has been called in to oversee the case, and his first action was to reword the gag order, allowing Ihlenburg to publicly discuss his experiences in family court. Ihlenburg is slightly optimistic.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself, gotten to know and understand myself through all of this,” Ihlenburg says. “From my experience with VICS, most people don’t want to get involved in an emotional subject like this. They’d rather put it on the back burner. But you have to fight it and you have to believe in yourself and know you’re right. If you believe that nothing is going to stop you, nothing will.”

Mussman hopes to focus the collective energies of the VICS groups on some of the members’ individual cases. She says there are no plans for another family court forum or a VICS meeting in the immediate future, but the group remains a quiet force in Hudson; stacks of VICS business cards carrying the group’s phone number rest by the doorways of a number of restaurants and convenience stores throughout the city.

“The destruction of the family is being aided and abetted by the unfairness of the family court system, and people need help,” Mussman says. “We’d like to continue with the individual outreach, teaching people how to write a complaint, teaching people how to frame an argument so it makes sense, teaching people the importance of keeping their emotions out of the courtroom. It was clear from the beginning that VICS wasn’t going to be just a support group.”

But the support system aspect of VICS won’t be abandoned: The group is planning a celebration for Ihlenburg when he completes his sentence.

“I never would have thought that I’d be able to have gone through all that I have,” Ihlenburg says. “It’s hard at times, and all sorts of options run through you’re head for getting out of it, but to have a stranger come up to you on the street and shake your hand and say that they’re behind you one-hundred percent, it just makes it easier to fight.”


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