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A Father's Quest

The case of Arianas Campos-Reese and his son Tyberius illustrates what's wrong with family court.

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For the next five months, he openly defied the joint custody order by keeping Tyberius under his care full-time. He returned to mediation and appeared in front of Commissioner Hendrickson several more times, repeatedly stating his concerns about the shooting and the welfare of his son. And several times, he received visits from patrol officers who informed him that he was violating a court order, but then took no action after Arianas explained that his case involved an ongoing investigation concerning the shooting and custody rights.

"From the day after the shooting, I was on Richmond Police Detective Timothy Gray, and his Sergeant Brian Dickerson, calling them, giving them every bit of information I could gather," Arianas recalled. "My focus was to keep my son away from a potentially dangerous situation."

In a third mediation report by Olga Paredes that harshly criticized both parents as immature, reactive, and lacking sound judgment, the mediator nonetheless opined that "the child may actually be better off in Mr. Campos-Reese's care" and recommended temporary physical custody remain with Arianas until the investigation of the shooting was completed. But, with no explanation required, Commissioner Hendrickson again made the rare move of overruling the mediator's recommendation and reinstated joint custody on July 3 and again on August 31.

Commissioner Hendrickson declined to comment for this story, noting that no judge or commissioner can publicly comment on cases over which they are presiding. However, litigants have the right to ask any court to render a "statement of decision," which is intended to serve as an explanation of sorts. When Arianas pleaded for a simple explanation of Commissioner Hendrickson's decision-making process, he was dismissed.

Russell likens the general lack of accountability to the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. "This problem is system-wide," she said. "There is a total lack of any culture in which authority can be questioned. There is no accountability for the players involved, and it's easy for a number of things to overrule sound decision making."

Stories such as this are prime examples of what County Supervisor Steele calls court-sanctioned child abuse. "This is the toughest court in the world because the secrets of a family are never black and white," she said. "But the courts need to start articulating their decisions; they can't just say, 'You're denied.' There needs to be accountability in our court system."

Steele is gathering a group of parents in situations similar to Arianas' to create a critical voice. She also is pushing to create a council of three high-powered figures in the court system to oversee difficult custody cases and be granted the power to make the court take a step back.

Without any system of judicial checks and balances in place, Arianas can only speculate that he faces racial discrimination, a built-in bias against fathers, or that the commissioner simply does not believe him.

However, Glenn Sacks, the executive director of the advocacy group Fathers & Families, one of the country's leading voices for family court reform, cautions that race is often less relevant than people suspect. "There's really no race in family court," he said. "Everyone gets raked over the coals. We see this all the time, the stereotypes in the media about black fathers running out on their children, and there are certainly irresponsible fathers out there. But a hell of a lot of black fathers make an effort to be fathers for their kids. The problem is that the whole system is against them."

October 2, 2008

Arianas appeared in court again to repeat his plea that he receive temporary full custody of Tyberius until completion of the shooting investigation. Instead, he was placed in handcuffs, strip searched, and sent to a holding cell at the Hayward Courthouse. Child Abduction Unit inspector Rick Monge met with Arianas after he was taken into custody, and waved a charge of felony child abduction in his face. But Monge also offered Arianas a deal, and told him that things wouldn't have to go that far if he gave up Tyberius immediately. He was then sent to Santa Rita Jail for the night for violating a court-ordered custody agreement.

The morning after his first-ever night in jail, Arianas asked if the deal was still available. He felt backed into a corner.

"As a father, I only get one chance to mess up," he said. "If I got charged with a felony, I'd never see my son again. They forced me to give him up, to hand him over to someone who wasn't taking care of him. It was the most horrible experience of my life."

In the meantime, Self was granted full custody.

Arianas did not see Tyberius for two months. As his son's second birthday passed by, Arianas threw himself into finding some way to regain custody. Family attorneys wouldn't take his case because of the ongoing criminal shooting investigation. Criminal attorneys wouldn't listen to him because his case came from family court. The attorneys who were willing to help asked for thousands of dollars in retainers.

"I work full-time, nights and weekends as a security guard," said Arianas. "But I still don't have money for a retainer. So I called everyone I could think of for help. I asked "7 On Your Side" to take on my story; I wrote a letter to the office of Jerry Brown that included every police and mediation report I had. I talked to one attorney who was referred by Bay Area Legal Aid; he said he wouldn't take my case because he did too much business with Elizabeth Hendrickson and he didn't want to make her mad."

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