by Drew Foster –
East Amwell Township, N. J.-
“Could it be that our courts are being weaponized?… I do believe it is a public health problem.” Dr. Karin Huffer, therapist and professor who has been studying the impact of the court system on the health of her clients, raised the question, explained her concerns, and described the solution, in a recent interview. See:
Early in her 30 years of experience as a counselor, Dr. Huffer observed that patients who were in court were not getting better the way people not in court were. They were wrung out of money, hope, patriotism, and the desire to participate much in public life anymore. As a serious observer of the judicial system since the early 90s, my conclusions have been consistent with Dr. Huffer’s, though mine were not from the perspective of a counselor or therapist, but rather from simply coming beside those who were in court and observing their experiences.
These ongoing observations are the inspiration for the theme of this series of articles – the evil within our judicial system. It would be bad enough if the system’s abuse was limited to the individual litigants but, as we know, the adverse impact extends through families, it affects performance in the workplace, reduces community participation, and has created pervasive cynicism with regard to our entire legal, social, and governmental structures.
Dr. Huffer, who is also an adjunct professor at John Jay College, City University of New York, and the author of two books, Legal Abuse Syndrome and Unlocking Justice, devoted to ensuring that all persons have equal access to legal processes. And she trains advocates to bring relief to those suffering from injustice in the courts.
“Legal Abuse Syndrome” is a term coined by Dr. Huffer to describe a subset of Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome (PTSD). We are all familiar with PTSD, and we typically associate it with those who have experienced the horrors of war. Like those horrors, legal abuse frequently brings out the same symptoms, the same psychological responses, both in and out of the courtroom. Outside of the physical courtroom, these symptoms can compromise a litigant’s ability to manage legal process – the reams of paperwork that lawyers are so adept at creating. And they can impact their ability to sleep soundly, concentrate on routine tasks, devote full attention to their family, and in myriad other ways adversely impact their functionality and quality of life. Within the courtroom, the litigant often cannot handle the challenges from the opposition, whether litigant, attorney, or even the judge, positioning them at a distinct and unjust disadvantage.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers significant protection within the courtroom for LAS sufferers, with full protections of privacy and confidentiality with regard to their condition and symptoms. This disability cannot be used against a litigant. It cannot even be discussed. The fact is that PTSD and LAS are disabilities under the ADA, and the court MUST accommodate them, the same as it must accommodate someone in a wheelchair or with a hearing impairment. Once put on notice, through the administer of the courts, the court must allow for appropriate accommodations, such as a certified advocate, without question or further discussion. Neither the judge nor the opposing parties may so much as opine as to the disability, as they would violate the ADA.
How real and how significant is LAS? As Dr. Huffer stated:
“Now that I’ve studied it for 30 years, I’m very confident to say, legal abuse syndrome is a name given to the post-traumatic stress disorder that [people subjected to courts’ oppression] develop. They have all of the symptoms of a soldier at war that never got R&R.”
Dr. Huffer has related stories of patients with recurring nightmares and other debilitating symptoms of stress, and said it’s because they have a weapon trained on them all the time. Nobody can see it. It’s not tangible and obvious as are weapons of war like guns and bombs. However, psychologically and emotionally they are every bit as threatening, as their unrelenting presence is constantly on the victim’s mind, with no relief in sight. Considering the very common outcome in family court of protracted litigation followed by an order of separation from one’s children and/or permanent alimony, it is no surprise that lives are permanently damaged by the process.
Consider the case of Avi Kostner that occurred in New Jersey in 1994. Kostner and his wife had been in a seven-and-a-half-year fight in family court that ended when he murdered his children, ages 10 and 12. The court had been warned by Kostner’s friends that they needed to back off, that he might snap. But the court did nothing. Courts appear to have no conscience and no ability to reason. They are disconnected from the fact that they are dealing with the lives of real human beings.
According to various news reports, Kostner did have some psychiatric problems. Considering Dr. Huffer’s work, one must necessarily ask, how much of his condition was pre-existing and how much was created, or at least exacerbated, by the protracted litigation? Perhaps tragedy could have been avoided with a more human side to the judicial system and with recognition of and court accommodation for what Kostner likely experienced – LAS.
One outcome of the Kostner murders is even more condemning of the judicial system. As far as I know, there was never any inward look by judges or attorneys to assess what part they played in Kostner’s going over the edge. From my observations, the courts, especially family court, have only become more abusive in the last two decades. The one response I am familiar with as a result of the Kostner incident is with a woman who argued that her ex-husband could potentially do the same thing, harm their children. With that spurious argument, she was successful in preventing her children from seeing their father.
Any discussion on the evil or corruption within the judicial system invariably leads to family court which is likely the most highly charged, emotionally, and is also extremely lucrative for the lawyers and the states. Responding to a comment on family court, Dr. Huffer’s response was very much expected. “Oh, family court should be replaced. It only stirs up more problems.” She followed with the comment that, “All the money that should go to their enrichment goes to the lawyers,” which raises more questions about the judicial system and the litigants who take advantage of its corruption.
The illogic and injustice in too many outcomes in family court is so profound that one wonders why the initiators and perpetuators of such actions are invariably the ones who are awarded custody and alimony. In one case that I’m very familiar with, the wife ran up a $100,000 attorney bill, and her primary complaint was that her husband didn’t earn enough money during the marriage. Aside from the fact that this case was filed in a no-fault divorce state and such arguments should be considered irrelevant to the dissolution of the marriage, she was awarded custody plus $400 per week permanent alimony. In this case, any reasonable person would see that, on its face, this case was neither brought nor adjudicated with the well-being of the children in mind. But the money and the weapons, those unrelentingly trained on the husband, were used to “win” this case for the sole benefit of one party over the other. So much for the concept of a just and equitable outcome.
Responsible parents should have a higher regard for their children’s benefit, for their enrichment. When one parent sets out to damage the other, and spends the equivalent of their children’s college tuition on lawyers, she is the one who should be ruled against…if it is, indeed, the children that the court concerns itself with. But of course, such a ruling would be counter to the profitability of the judicial system.
The problem is that money and power prevail, courts are used to wear down litigants, and justice is emphatically not served. Dr. Huffer commented:
“These are not lawful interactions in a court of law using law in order to resolve a problem. These are power games and legal games, that are used to take the money.”
Dr. Huffer also commented that some in the judicial system are coercive controllers and tend toward being a bit psychopathic. That is professional corroboration of what serious observers of the judiciary have already recognized. It is accurate to say that truth is not served. Often, truth seems to be totally irrelevant. So how does the honest litigant, the litigant with morals and good conscience, deal with that? Often, very poorly. Recognizing the problems and injustice, Dr. Huffer has developed a system of aid for litigants who suffer from LAS.
Again, Legal Abuse Syndrome may or may not be caused by the litigation itself. One may have been previously diagnosed with PTSD or any number of other conditions that limit their ability to fully function in court. If those condition(s) create a stress that the opposing party or judge might capitalize on in order to move the outcome in their desired direction, then LAS is a potential problem that would limit the affected litigant’s ability for executive functionality. The court must afford every litigant the opportunity for full executive functionality, which is defined at http://www.ldonline.org/article/29122/ as, “The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”
Dr. Huffer has worked as an advocate in the courtroom for litigants who suffer from LAS. She does this under the ADA, assuring that her clients are afforded the full protection of that federal law. Litigants or judges who compromise the rights of a litigant who suffers from LAS is in violation of federal law and subject to suit.
Interested in becoming an ADA advocate? Dr. Huffer has developed a certification course for others who are interested in becoming advocates. It is not always possible for advocates to be physically present in the courtroom, in which case electronic (phone) access is very effective.
For more details about Dr. Huffer, whether in need of an advocate or interested in becoming an advocate, go to: equalaccessadvocates.com
As Dr. Huffer described, she would like to see court houses looking like anthills with ADA advocates swarming all over them.
NWS – 14 October 2017
by Drew Foster
Former Mayor of East Amwell Township
Drew Foster has served on both appointed and elected positions in municipal government in New Jersey, ultimately serving as Mayor of East Amwell Township.
Email comments and questions to Drew at: Acts41920@hotmail.com