Friday, July 25, 2014

WTF, Seminole County?

In November 2001 my son's father and I both voluntarily agreed to give Temporary custody of my son to his grandmother(my mother). We were being evicted from our apartment, and were about to spend the next year and a half living in our car.  I faced a great many obstacles during the process of undoing much of my poor upbringing and learning instead to be a stable and responsible adult, but I think for the most part I have done so.  Other parts of my blog talk about this in more depth, if you care to go read it.
After many struggles with being left off of school registrations and not being able to see my son (she said it was his choice, and that he didn't want to....he was 9 years old at the time), and arguments with my mother about her teaching my son to call her "Mom",  I filed for visitation through the Seminole County family court on 2/10/10. In January of 2011  only four court ordered visits had been complied with, and was unwilling to facilitate anything past that (the order stated "reasonable visitation upon which the parties can agree" and she simply refused to agree to anything). In one year I had seen my son four times, all in a supervised visitation center.  I decided my only chance to get to know my son was to remove her ability to block me from him and to remove him from living with her negative influence.  I was always agreeable to him still seeing her, but I felt like if he and I were going to get anywhere he needed to live with me, his mom, full time.

I filed to revoke Temporary custody of a family member in January 2011. After two continuances, we finally saw the magistrate  on 3/17/11. At the time, both parties stipulated that I was a fit parent.  Yet it wasn't until fourteen months later, after 8 continuances and 8 hearings with the magistrate, and two hearings with the judge to clarify the legal standard,  the magistrate issued his ruling on 5/30/12 that temporary custody to eventually be restored after a graduated visitation schedule that spanned over the next 36 months.

It was still another nine months and six continuances before the judge signed the magistrate's ruling into a final order minus the visitation schedule, and temporary custody was revoked on 2/13/13

I made my own graduated visitation schedule, allowing my son ample time at both homes to make the transition as easy as possible on him. My son moved in with me on 3/15/13  with a total of 6 outfits, his bookbag, and a broken laptop, all of which reeked of cigarette smoke even after multiple washings.  During this time his grandmother cancelled all of the visits I had scheduled for her, negatively impacting my son's ability to transition to my house smoothly.  During this time I was finally able to have myself added to the school records, and found out that he was in very serious danger of failing for repeated refusal to turn in homework.  He found himself restricted from his internet access and video games until his homework was completed. Needless to say, after living in a house where he was not expected to see to his responsibilities before having fun, he thought my house was super strict.  I knew this was normal and was prepared to patiently wait him out while he learned to adapt.

 While my son was living with me, I was still making payments to child support enforcement, because they said the court order "was not clear enough unless it specifically said child support was to stop".  On 4/5/13 my lawyer managed to get hearing time to ask the judge for a more clear order.  At this hearing, opposing counsel had absolutely no opposition to my lawyer's proposed order, yet Judge Schoonover expressed surprise that I had moved my child in with me upon gaining custody and refused to sign the order that was agreed upon by both parties.

Whatever happened behind the scenes during this time, I will probably never know.
But on 4/9/13 (two business days later) Judge Schoonover issued her decision to vacate her own order, essentially revoking my custody (granted only two months prior)and restoring temporary custody to his grandmother.  I believe this caused irreparable damage to my son's state of mind and to his future, and to the relationship between him and I.   THE SAME DAY that ruling vacating the custody order came back, my son ran away back to his grandmother's home where she showed the police  the new order vacating the order revoking her temporary custody, and asserted that she was his guardian and he was home safe and no longer a runaway. 

At this point the police would no longer get involved.

With the ruling on custody, there had been acceptance.  Even if my son did not like it much, he and his grandmother were complying.  Once the order was vacated all pretenses at compliance stopped.  Even if we get a final ruling now, it will be hard to find that same acceptance because vacating her own order affects the finality of any future ruling, which is specifically why it is not allowed by FL statute.  Even if the 5th DCA gives me custody now, my son and his grandmother will always believe they can get it overturned again, and will always be looking for the loophole to get him out of "having" to come see me.

My son is not held accountable for his schoolwork in his grandmother's home.  I am on the receiving end of many concerned emails from teachers, and I can do nothing but reply that he works diligently on his homework when he is at my house, but that he is refusing to visit me at this time and I can only control what happens in my home, and to please contact his grandmother with any concerns. 

Judge Schoonover's transfer to the juvenile court puts her in control of the futures of many children, most of whom are already on a path to delinquency if they are in court. When my son ran away he got in an altercation a few weeks later with an adult. My son spit in this adult's face and the man lost his temper and slapped him. 

At the time we saw it on the news, my husband and I were unaware that perhaps my son was somehow involved.  Two months later I saw a post on social media that confirmed my son was not only involved, but was the child slapped in the incident.  My son was the child slapped. Did my mom notify me? No. Did she notify the GAL? Yes. Did the GAL notify me? No. My son went to the emergency room, and not one of the adults involved informed me, the child's mother.

Judge Schoonover was informed of the incident and the cover up, but still refused to hear my contempt motions and requests for immediate custody.  I went another two months without seeing my son. We had a hearing on 6/10/13 that seemed to have no purpose other than to schedule a "conference call" between the judge, lawyers, and GAL for that Friday.  Between that and all the "lawyers only" parts of our hearings, I just had an uncomfortable feeling about both the judge and her magistrate (Larry Carpenter)and their relationships with opposing counsel (Vicki Levy Eskin) and the GAL(Carsandra Buie). All of whom are going to need several dedicated chapters to explain their dysfunctional contributions (Ms.Eskin, especially, with her dramatic fits in middle of the courtroom that were, of course, allowed to serve their purpose and grant them yet ANOTHER continuance)

On 6/23/13 we had another hearing where my son accompanied his grandmother and requested to speak to the judge. The judge brought my son into the courtroom not to let him talk, but to tell him what the new visitation schedule would be Saturday from noon to 3pm and, despite my reservations, Judge S. insisted on our continuing to use her appointed councilor,  Dr.Andrew Pittington (the therapist previously mentioned in the Orlando Sentinel as the therapist that judge Schoonover has been ordering everyone to see, though I will say he seemed both very professional and observant to me) with a two hour visit following each session.

Five hours.  He was a 14 year old living with me full time, that ran away (with absolutely NO consequences, in fact his grandmother got him a shiny new tablet and soon after that, a smartphone), and then I had to wait several months to learn that I could see him for a whopping three hours a week, plus two hours after therapy.  At this point, no-one had claimed that I am unfit or potentially unfit on any level, and in fact have agreed that I am a fit parent, so I can't figure out what we're still waiting around for.  If you are a mom, and especially if you are a mom with a teenage boy, you will certainly understand how buying him expensive toys after he ran away from his mom's house is pretty much about the WORST thing an influential adult could do at that point.

With judge Schoonover's help, my mother has been able to successfully teach my son that I am not his mom, and I do not matter as an adult in his life, that he can do as he pleases with no consequences ever, and that there are ways around court orders that clearly state when visitation is to occur (down to the hour and mode of transportation). 

All of these things can have negative impacts on a child's self-esteem and how they perceive themselves and the world around them.  Some mental health professionals consider this kind of extreme parental alienation to be a form of child abuse, and I agree with them.

 To say that these are not the morals that I want my child to be taught is a huge understatement, and the fuel behind my motion to revoke temporary custody in the first place.  I have many concerns as a parent about what my son is being taught about his mother and about how the world works.  Most parents try to teach their child that actions have consequences, but mine is being taught that with the right excuses you can evade punishment of any kind.  I feel I must mention at this point that my own upbringing by this woman resulted in me spending a year in jail as an adult, where I encountered therapy and made great changes to the lifestyle I learned as a child, to create instead the lifestyle that I choose as an adult. I was hoping to teach my son some of what I had learned so that he didn't suffer the same fate, but the court has enabled his grandmother to teach him that he can get away with whatever he wants.

I predict this will backfire when he is a legal adult, but nobody wants to listen to me.  After all, I'm just his mother.

We proceeded with "case management" hearings on 8/2/13, 8/30/13 (continued), 9/4/13, and 11/14/13, adding a few hours to each weekly visitation at each hearing. At the 11/14/13 case management hearing, holiday visitation was ordered, and for some reason the judge also chose that time to change the order from my mother bringing my son to my home to me having to pick him up from her house. Almost as if she had been told what came next….

 My son ran away again the visit before Thanksgiving (on 11/23, about 6 hours after I picked him up) and has refused to return. My younger sister (who refers to herself not as his aunt, but as his sister) picked him up in her car and drove him to her home, while simultaneously answering the phone for police and telling them that she had not heard from my son.   I have been unable to prosecute despite having plenty of evidence written by my sister herself as to her involvement, and my son's statement to police when he returned to his grandmother's, telling them that he had been at "his sister's" house.  During this time period, my mother and son made a few half hearted abuse allegations to the police as justifications for why he should not be forced to go to my house. The police called it in to the abuse hotline and it was found to be insufficient to be abuse, but again they would not help me to enforce the visitation order in any way.

We were still going to family therapy (with Dr.Pittington) for a while but after the new year our insurance deductible reset and instead of splitting $12 now the bill we are supposed to split 50/50 is $95, so now she is just flat out refusing to pay her half so we haven't been there in months either.  I have paid her portion up front before with another therapist, and I am still waiting for court ordered reimbursement to the tune of $2500. I wish I had funds to pay the entire bill just so that I can see my son for one measly hour, since he won't come to visit at all, but I am unable to do so at this time.

On 12/3/13, my mother filed a baseless Motion to Terminate Visitation, which thankfully Judge Schoonover also decided not to hear.   After three more continuances and two more hearings that accomplished nothing, I was given permission to file a motion to dismiss the GAL on 1/13/14. I had already proven that she was friendly with opposing counsel, and have to write an entirely separate piece about my experience with her, so that she gets all the attention she deserves.

But it wasn’t until the GAL and opposing counsel told the court they were now sharing an office space that my concerns were finally able to be addressed. 

Soon after that, Judge Schoonover made headlines as the "Facebook Judge" who friend requested a litigant before proceedings were over, bringing her under scrutiny by the Orlando Sentinel who unearthed more cases where her judgment was questionable.

 It seems to me that Judge Schoonover's actions, orders, and refusal to see our case in a timely and productive manner and has been a key factor in ruining my parent-child relationship with my son.  Because of her continued delayed actions and not making decisions (and overturning decisions) on this case has allowed my son’s grandmother to shove me right out of my son’s life. I’ve missed many milestone moments in my son’s life because this case has not been resolved with a permanent decision in the last 4 years.  There is no ruling at this point that can give me back the four years I have spent as a fit parent (as stipulated by all parties) fighting for a relationship with my son. There is no ruling that can be made now that will ensure that things will go smoothly moving forward. There is nothing to give me back the teachable moments that were stolen from me by tying my parental hands with paperwork and giving my mother court orders to hide my son from me behind.  Judge Schoonover's refusal to give the sheriff's office permission to enforce those specific visitation orders  further impedes and restricts my rights as my son's parent to report him as a runaway and have him returned by authorities to my home.   It allows my mother to harbor a minor who has run away from his parents, with no repercussions.

My son's grandmother receives disability for herself and a second check for dependents in her household (my son). She receives child support from both myself AND my son's father.  In addition to any food stamps or other public assistance she can get by adding him on to her application.  

Judge Schoonover is supporting the 'side' of a custodian who is fighting to keep a child as an income source and with no interest or outward attempt(s) towards reunification with either of his parents. She is rewarding the party that lies, deceives and ignores the court order - and punishing the person doing the work, trying to make a better, healthier future for this child.

 Aren't judges meant to be held to a higher standard - an 'oath' where justice is timely, fair and without prejudice ?

 Sometime in January 2014,  Judge Schoonover issued a ruling that she would rehear the entire case.  This order was the exact opposite of the ruling she made 11 months prior on 2/13/13 that she then vacated on 4/9/13.  Essentially this started us over at square one where I began four years prior.  And so I filed my appeal.

I filed an appeal for closure, not because I have much hope that it will accomplish anything effective for my son at this time. The damage has been allowed to be done. A fit parent should never have to wait four years to have custody restored.  I know of at least one recent case on the news of a woman with twins and one was killed so the other was removed. Just under 2 years later the 2nd child was returned to her and was also killed within a month.

So if we're giving kids back to people that killed their children in just under two years, why am I waiting around for custody  for twice that long when everyone agreed from the beginning that I was a fit parent?

Especially when the other guardian involved 1.Claims to "not be opposed" to visitation, 2. is a non-parent fighting a parent for custody,  3.Encourages and rewards noncompliance with court orders and interferes with visitation, and 3. Has allowed and encouraged the child for many years to call her Mom, and his mom by her first name, so that now he is even more resistant to a relationship with his actual mom.

 Judge Schoonover's ruling was clearly not in alignment with FL state law  and I believe that the appeal I have filed will come back to reflect the same. I hope for the harshest possible sanctions against Judge Schoonover for failure to operate within the boundaries of law, and for knowingly helping opposing counsel stall this case out far beyond any "reasonable length of time" for any situation involving a child in a custody dispute. Allowing her continue in a position of power making decisions in regards to other people's lives, does not send a message that what she did was wrong.  My life and the life of my son will never be as they would be if she had left her original ruling intact.  The damage has been done and will never be erased.  Please do not allow her to continue to affect other lives in such a manner. 

I also ask for a thorough evaluation of the Seminole County Courthouse, and it's processes that can allow any case to go on this long and have this many hearings/continuances without ANY resolution.  There is nothing and noone monitoring these people. The schedule is a joke. I haven't had a hearing scheduled in almost 6 months.  I have had over 20 continuances and over 40 hearings!!!!  There must be a realistic way to prevent this extreme of corruption and manipulation of the system so that more lives are not ruined. 

I asked for help 4 years ago...still, Seminole County?


  1. It's ridiculous. My heart breaks for you.

  2. Seminole County is so totally corrupt, it sickens me. That a mother of YOUR caliber should have even had to jump through ONE hoop, let alone four years worth of hoops, is ludicrous... What they have done to your relationship with your son???? Unthinkable. SOMEONE needs to be punished... They should not be allowed to mess with peoples lives like they did, yours. I can only hope and pray that somehow, someway, your relationship with your son can be salvaged... that would be my prayer for you. You've been the most patient mother, trying not to do anything that would cause issue for your son... and this is how you've been paid back by Seminole County... tsk, tsk, Seminole County... you should be ASHAMED of yourselves for what has been done to this family... I am sending out lots of love and holding you in the light and in my heart, "Momvict"... that some how, some way a miracle ensues... One never knows...

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  4. I am dealing with a similar situation in Solano County Ca where father has recently taken my son from me to get out of paying child support. Judge Cynda Unger continually violates the rights of Mothers,
    I am not the first to complain. The 6 days a month I was given are being violated by father only 3 weeks after our hearing. In addition, the judge gave dad the task of preparing the order after hearing, his wife prepared the order omitting agreements made in court and adding language of her own. How is it a bias party, an alienator in pro per allowed to prepare an order after hearing. In addition, the judge went completely against the recommendation of the court appointed LCSW mediators report. The report clearly recommending shared parenting, but the judge took most of my time away, robbing me and my son of the next 3 years of my son's life. I am truly heartbroken. I get my son 84 days of 365. My son has over 40 missing assignments while in father's care. I've spent all the money I had $7000 in attorneys fees for two 20 minute court appearances, neither attorney fought for my rights, only churned me out of money. Father walked right in and the judge gives him primary custody with no explanation whatsoever. I was primary parent from 2002- 2005 because father moved away with his girlfriend. In 2005 he moves back ahd immediately gets 50/50. Ive had 50/50 up until March 28th 2016 where I've been given 20% dad "stating" it's our son's preference. Now father is pulling him out of school a week to take a vacation with over 40 missing assignments and poor grades. Judge Unger has over 200 complaints by other women litigants in Solano County. A petition to remove her from the bench circulated in 2014 & 2015 but apparently did not receive the signatures needed to remove her. I cannot afford an appellate attorney. I do not know what to do. I reached out to the FCLU but they have offered no help. Can anyone help me?