Someone with a basic knowledge of the judicial system may walk into family court expecting to have the right to an attorney, access to trial transcripts, an investigative arm of the system tracking evidence to prove a claim, even a jury of their peers. But, family court is a civil court, so despite how serious the allegations that may be involved in a divorce, petitioners and respondents don’t always have those resources.
The kinds of protections that exist in criminal court make sense due to the high-stakes nature of criminal law, they are part of our constitutional rights. But in family court custody cases, although the stakes could be higher than losing their freedom, the same rights are not guaranteed. Many of the parents interviewed in this investigation say they would rather spend years in prison than lose contact with their children. Some of them have lost anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars in the process of fighting custody.