Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Parenting Debate, times eight (or fourteen)

OK, although I've got an opinion about the woman with the IVF octuplets, plus six other kids (as does everyone else, apparently) I'm keeping it to myself. I'm not only not going to call any government agencies to "report Mom to the authorities", I won't debate about what "Octo-Mom" * should or shouldn't have done. I will talk, or at least raise annoying questions, about why this set of events is prompting public debate, how that debate's being conducted, and what else should be being debated.

How is the public busy-bodying and involvement of celebrity lawyers and therapists, and the work of Mom's (now former) public relations firm/agent in brokering offers for exclusive interview rights, morally different from the offer to pay Mom money to star in a porn movie? Would Mom's being in the porn movie in some ways be less morally objectionable than, say, putting the kids in a "reality show", or a series of commercials, once they're out of the NICU? Is it, after all, one thing to sell yourself, and something different to essentially sell (or lease) your kids?

If I culled through all the cases on calendar at our support enforcement court departments, in any given week, I could probably turn up at least one guy who has fathered fourteen children, all still minors, although probably it would turn out to have been with four (or five or six) different women. I've watched support enforcement attorneys, and the judge, wrestle with the complex math of recursively recalculating support for some guys like that. Why isn't my not-so-hypothetical Mr. Fertile Deadbeat Defendant on TV?

For that matter, where's and who's Octo-daddy? The information I've seen to date is that Octo-daddy was not an anonymous donor, and Octo-Mom was not married to anyone else at the time. Octo-daddy may be on the hook for one heck of a large medical bill, and a really interesting amount of child support going forward maybe he should be looking for that TV deal?

We're at a point in our country's economic downturn where the availability of basic child health care is a serious concern for a growing number of parents. Should there be some restriction on access to "assisted reproductive techology" and fertility treatments, to those who meet some sort of means test, so that we're not spending health-care dollars to assure the need to spend more health-care dollars? If we do that, and the "means" go away after the fact (let's say someone was a banker, broker or a motor company exec) what happens to the kids? Should there be across-the-board limitation of the expenditure of financial medical resources to enable someone to have her or his seventh or eighth child, or as long as someone piles up the dollars on the counter, should we facilitate someone's, anyone's having as many children as they want?


* Wasn't that a Spiderman bad guy?

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Cup of Coffee On The Way, Pt. II: Why Is Getting Married Easier Than Joining a Health Club?

When I was younger, and even more cynical, I once joked that the best way to reduce the divorce rate was to make it a lot more difficult to get married.

It's not as funny as I used to think it was.

When you buy a house, or even a car, you get a stack of many pages full of tiny type, which you are expected to read. Some really important paragraphs are in BOLD TYPE, with lines for you to sign or initial, confirming that the BOLD TYPE got your attention, and that you at least read those parts, and that you say that you understand them. Then, if you change your mind within a day or so, within some limits, you can back out. Heck, in California, if you just want to join a gym, you have to go through a similar ritual*.

If you want to get married, on the other hand, you pays your money, and you gets your license. There's a contract there, all right,** it's just that nobody really demands that you read it, let alone that you have any idea what it says before you sign on for it.

I've spent 29 years wrestling with what the terms of that contract really are, and I've got sort of a handle on it, says the State Bar***
. I used to keep the terms of that contract in a shelf-full of books, which had to be updated annually; now I keep it on my computer, where it occupies a swath of virtual space. Most of those young folks lining up at ring stores in the Jewelry District haven't a clue what's in there.

Next topic up: If you want the "off-the-rack" marriage contract, we've made it fast, cheap, and easy; if you want to think about, and change, what you're signing on for, even if you and your spouse-to-be agree, it's expensive, complicated and takes at least a week.

Why would we discourage people from looking before leaping?

* California law regarding this implies that it came to the attention of our Legislature that miscreants were going out and signing up, say, 90-year-old ladies to expensive "lifetime" installment contracts for gym or "dance studio" memberships, and swindling the heck out of them; thus there are now fairly comprehensive rules for what you have to read, before you can get those mambo lessons.
**Says so, right there in California Family Code 300: " Marriage is a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman. . .". Don't send me a comment about the validity of those last five words; I'll be coming around to THAT debate presently.
*** "Family Law Certified Specialist, State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization"

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sorry, Folks, You'll Just Have To Stay Married... Pt. I.

As the State Legislature finishes up a three-day weekend of not-entirely-successful budget negotiation, I'll be interested to see if just possibly, those who are taking a "no new taxes, ever!" stand really want to bring some of the operations of civil government to a grinding halt, or at least are willing to try and play an increasingly ugly game of "chicken".

The civil justice system in California is teetering, and they may give it a push (Anyone notice that last year, one California county stopped civil trials completely for months, because of the criminal case backlog, until they got a task-force of judges from elsewhere to come in and clean up?) If we essentially close down the system of civil justice for most folks, (and family law is the part that the most folks use) we've pretty much abandoned one of the two roles of state government which have previously distinguished this country and state from others far less fortunate. (The other big hole in the fabric of civil government has been, and will probably continues to be, the final evisceration of what was, once long ago the best system of public education in the country.)

California law still requires any pair of parents with a child custody dispute to go and talk to a court-employed mediator to try and resolve the issue, before presenting the issue to a judge to decide.

In the heyday of this system, pairs of parents could expect to set their hearing, walk into the mediation office, and be seen that morning.
My best recollection of the statistics is that Los Angeles County's mediation staff had about a 70/80% success rate in getting these folks to resolve at least some of their issues. If a pair of parents had a case pending, they could even get a mediation appointment without setting a hearing, and sometimes avoid the expense of setting it.

Unfortunately, the budget for this hasn't come close to keeping up with the population increase. Couples can no longer get a mediation appointment unless they've actually set a hearing, and are required to set a mediation appointment whenever setting a hearing on custody issues, so that mediation can happen before the hearing. The backlog of mediations is now so deep that, depending where in the County someone is looking, the earliest available appointment may be six to ten weeks out.

That means that if a family's falling apart, and they need to get issues resolved, they're looking at two months' wait. Unless they've got enough resources and knowledge so that they can set another hearing on financial issues separately from the hearing on custody issues, they'll be deferring the hearing on financial issues as well. That'd be the hearing originally intended to "preserve the status quo".

Times are tight, people are stressed, and their patience may be a little frayed. What, exactly are parents in inolerable family situations supposed to do? "Suck it up"? Take matters into their own hands? If someone needs to be told to provide financial support for their children, are those children supposed to survive for two months on IOU's? (Some people really don't get it, until they're told. By someone in a black robe with a bailiff nearby. Some don't get it even then...)

We're still running on the tail-end of last year's budget. The coming one will, I expect, only be grimmer. Stay tuned....

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Have a cup of coffee on the way: marriage and conversation

When I was a young research clerk at L A Superior Court (1979 or so) the court where I worked, (the Supervising Judge's Department for all of Los Angeles County's family court departments) was on the second floor in the Hill Street courthouse. In those days the County Clerk's marriage license bureau was still on the first floor; there was even a duty "wedding commissioner" to perform weddings on the spot.

From time to time, someone would come in to our department to find out what had happened to the paperwork finalizing his divorce, and would grumble, pound on the clerk’s desk, and generally make himself a nuisance. Usually, after some searching around, the clerks were able to locate the errant judgment papers; sometimes they were able to find the problem that had held them up, and sometimes they even fixed that problem and sent complaining guy on his way with a newly signed judgment, the ink still drying on all the seals, stamps and stuff.

At which point, from time to time, the guy’d walk out into the hall, where there would be a woman anxiously waiting; they’d get on the escalator, ride down one flight, show the clerk that our guy was in fact now divorced and free to marry, and get themselves, as we say in the biz, hitched.

For two years, I diplomatically resisted shouting: "Hey, you know there's a snack bar at the other end of the floor? Why don't you two stop, have a nice cup of coffee, talk about what you're planning to do, and then get on the escalator?"

All of which is a long way of getting around to my project for this year: to get folks who are thinking getting married to think about what they're doing and why, and then to sit down with their fiances and talk about what they're doing and why.

You're going to hear a recurring theme in this project: that being clear about what you expect and intend when you get married, before you say "I do", increases the chances (if it doesn't guarantee) that the "death do you part" stuff really works out that way. Even if you don't believe in prenuptial agreements, or talking to lawyers, finding out what marriage really means legally, and what you and your fiance expect it to mean, is still more romantic than hiring a lawyer to divorce you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Off and Running (at the mouth)

Herewith will begin all the news, thoughts, rumination and ranting about:
  1. California family law,
  2. family law, and why we have it;
  3. law in general in this man's United States, and
  4. pretty much anything else which crosses my radar

that you choose to read.

Some of the axes which will be ground, and idees about which I may be fixe * will likely include:
  • Why do people get married? Why do they think they're getting married? Why should the state (both in the poli sci sense, and specifically the Golden State) be involved?
  • Should it be harder to get married, and easier to get divorced?
  • More people in California "go to court" about their family issues than for anything else besides traffic tickets. The California family court system, once the model for the rest of the country, is slowly being reduced to complete gridlock/system crash/meltdown. How do we make the family court system work better than it does? Why has no politician in recent memory won elective office on the campaign promise: "I'll make the family law courts work better, even if we have to spend money to do it!"?
  • Why do we let folks who can't keep themselves out of jail, support themselves, or get and maintain a driver's license, raise kids, even their own? If we, as a society, think this is OK, how do we keep these folks from messing up their kids? Should we?
  • Is raising a child to be a good citizen more important than raising him/her to be a good Christian/Muslim/Jew/Buddhist? Is it more important that children be happy, or successful? Is any of that the government's business?
So you know what you're getting. I haven't decided on a comments policy yet, but it'll be along soon, along with guest posters, links both useful and entertaining (to me, at least) and whatever else I cook up.


*The version of the posting tool I'm using doesn't seem to feature multinational fonting, so I can make that look appropriately Francophone.