Innocent Blood

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Posted June 3, 2010 in News

Here in San Bernardino County, residents are accustomed to paying for the incompetence of our officials with our tax dollars. But we are not used to paying with our children’s blood. So when 9-month-old Wyatt Garcia was murdered by his father shortly after his mother provided Superior Court Judge Robert Lemkau with evidence of death threats against her and the child, asking for protective measures, news of the injustice spread far and wide and stoked an uncommon response.

 

In a series of demonstrations outside San Bernardino County courthouses, mournful protesters demanded justice for Baby Wyatt, urging Lemkau to step down and advocating for reform within the family law system.

 

In Rancho Cucamonga, one of these solemn protests drew just over 30 family members, feminists, family court advocates and community activists early the morning of Wednesday, May 26.

 

Alan Boinus, an involved community member from Laguna Beach who put up the website lemkaumustgo.com and has been organizing the protests, expounded on the problem.

 

“The judges, for lack of better terminology, are lazy,” he tells the Weekly. "Their interests are in moving their dockets. And so it’s easy, especially for someone lazy, to simply believe that all cases in family law court that come before them are ‘he-said/she-said’ situations, which is certainly not the case.”

 

Why don’t the judges believe the women? Tasha Amador, another family law advocate present at the Rancho Cucamonga protest, explains that cultural and gender bias play a large role. “Because the women appear very emotional. They’re crying. They seem paranoid. The guy shows up totally suave, super-likeable.”

 

But in the case of Katie Tagle, young Wyatt’s mother, not only did the judge not believe her; he went as far as to suggest she was lying in open court. Lemkau used the term no less than five times during the hearing, which lasted no longer than five minutes.

 

The insult was devastating.

 

“I felt like he punched me in the stomach,” says Tagle.

 

She also wants reform. “I would like to see family law judges focus more on family law and take a few more classes. I think any credible threat toward a child’s life—they should take it serious[ly] instead of it being blown off. And the reform should be with all the branches of family law, CPS, the lawyers, everything.”

 

Her call for comprehensive reform was echoed by others present. Keith Allen, an attorney who has argued before Lemkau, pointed to problems in the district attorney’s office.

 

“Domestic violence prevention cannot be done in a vacuum. It can’t be done just by the judiciary,” he says. “There has to be a congruent effort by both the courts and the district attorney’s office to both prevent and prosecute. The elected DA in San Bernardino County, Mr. [Mike] Ramos, started this pilot project up in Victorville called the family violence unit, touting that it was supposed to target domestic violence perpetrators and violators of restraining orders. And this flagship unit refuses to prosecute. And I challenge Mr. Ramos to explain this to the public.”

 

“Women are treated differently, and they always have been,” says Kim Plater, a retired police officer and a community activist who currently resides in Pomona. “We’ve been talking about domestic violence for years, and now we’re talking about family court because it plays such a role. It’s such an adversary type of position.”

 

She explained that the Lemkau issue is symptomatic of a larger problem. “He doesn’t know his job. There is no mandatory training for judges, whereas for police, there is mandatory training. There’s mandatory training for teachers. And we have laws that hold us accountable. But the judges don’t.”

 

One reform she is lobbying for is for penalties with how cases involving child abuse and domestic violence are handled. According to Plater, while police can be held legally accountable for violating these laws, prosecutors and judges cannot.

 

Others present also viewed the issue of family court reform as a women’s issue.

 

“NOW is very interested in court reform,” says Darby Mangen, president of the San Gabriel Valley chapter of the National Organization for Women. She pointed to bureaucratic impediments to reform. “There’s an industry in the court system. They’re called mediators, evaluators . . . The bottom line is they don’t want these cases resolved! What kind of court system is that?”

 

Another victims’ rights advocate elaborates, “Some of these mediators and evaluators make more than the attorneys. And that’s a lot.”

 

Bureaucracy, ineptitude, and lack of accountability may be cited as persistent and pernicious problems perpetuating injustice in the family court system—but critics say the need for higher standards is clear. At this point, any change that would prevent another tragedy such as the one that befell Katie Tagle and her family would be most welcome. The only question remaining is whether elected officials will heed the pleas of those in the community who say they are suffering.

 


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