I used to think that the AOC [Administrative Office of the Courts] was like a specialized police force, charged with ensuring that all California courts comply with the law. In April of 2010, I called the AOC to report a number of crimes I had witnessed in the family law department of our superior court. I locked myself in a closet-like victim witness waiting room and dialed the AOC’s number from my cell phone. I couldn’t risk having the call tracked. I made the following report to George Ferrick of the AOC in a hurried, hushed tone:
“George? Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but I met you at a training in Sacramento last month. I talked to you during the break about a colleague who felt she was being asked to do her job in unethical ways. You probably knew I was talking about myself. You told me I could consider calling the AOC for help. I’m calling because I don’t know what else to do. Are you able to keep this call confidential? You are? Thank you. I’ll try to summarize my situation quickly.
I’ve been working as a mediator in family court since 2006. Our county is a recommending county. Our former family court services director retired about six months ago. The new director and the family law judge have been making some significant changes to our department’s protocol since that time. I don’t think we’re operating in accordance with Family Code Sections 5.210 or 5.215. I’ve been ordered to review legal files, meet with parents, and prepare recommendations for the court within one hour. I’ve been blocked from reviewing parents’ criminal background information or making collateral contacts before I have to make potentially life-altering recommendations. Domestic violence victims are being pressured into conjoint mediation with their perpetrators. The judge and the director are coercing parents into making agreements by threatening them: parents are told that their kids may commit suicide or end up in CPS if they don’t reach an agreement.
Yes, of course I’ve talked to my director about my concerns. She told me that she doesn’t have to justify herself to me, and I need to drop it. I’ve asked other people for help, too: the family court judge, the human resources director, and the CEO. No one has acknowledged any of my concerns. I’ve been told that I’ll be fired if I don’t keep quiet and follow the chain of command. I wish I could just follow orders and have things smooth out, but I think I’m being ordered to break the law.
Is there anything you can do to help me, George?”
George has the sweet voice of a Christmas elf. He sounded genuinely concerned about my plight, and he promised to run my situation by his colleagues and get back to me. The next day, I got a voice message back from George. He told me he was sorry, but the AOC could only provide “education, not enforcement” of the court’s compliance with the law. If I was a family law litigant, George explained, they might be able to intervene, but the AOC doesn’t get involved in intra-departmental disputes.
I had no option but to file a grievance against the court. The human resources director and the CEO denied there being any basis for my complaint. The final step of the grievance proceedings was arbitration before an impartial hearing officer in September of 2010. The same AOC that told me they didn’t get involved in intra-departmental disputes provided the court with legal counsel to defend itself against me. The retaliation against me by my superiors continued to intensify: I was denied my annual raise and placed on a “Performance Improvement Plan.” I was fired in December of 2010, before the grievance procedures had even been completed. The arbitrator who heard my grievance case issued his decision in early February of 2011. The award indicated that I had raised significant concerns about the courts’ practices in good faith, and that my efforts had been met with retaliation. The arbitrator ordered an audit of the Nevada County Family Court System, to assess its level of compliance with the law.
The AOC interceded on the court’s behalf again, by hiring a private legal firm out of San Francisco to help the court dodge the audit that had been ordered. The AOC also selected which judge would hear the case. In April of 2011, a judge ruled that the arbitrator had overstepped his jurisdiction by ordering an audit of family court. The award for the audit was overturned. Apparently, no arbitrator has the ability to rein in the judicial system when it runs amok. I don’t know who does. The AOC refused to hold my department accountable for violating the law, even after an independent arbitrator validated my contentions. The AOC provided legal assistance to enable my department to continue violating the law. If the AOC is the police force for the judicial system, it is run by dirty cops.