Love lies bleeding in family court

The Baltimore Sun

Here's an idea: Before you get a marriage license, you have to spend a day in family court.

You have to take a day off from the goin'-to-the-chapel, band-or-deejay, you-n-me-4evah bliss of planning your walk down the aisle, and sit in the kind of courtroom where that aisle all too often can lead.

You would have to sit and listen to the ugly charges and countercharges. Watch the faces of a once-happy couple now barely able to look at one another. Hear a judge decide who gets to live with the children and who only gets to visit with them, and under what circumstances. Ponder not so much how a marriage can fall to pieces - that no doubt happens long before the trek to the courtroom - but how such intimate matters suddenly are out of your hands and in those of strangers.

I took a brief tour through shattered-marriage hell yesterday, prompted by the killings of the three Castillo children in a downtown Baltimore hotel room last weekend, allegedly at the hands of their father, who has been involved in a bitter fight with their mother over visitation rights.

The killings have put a spotlight on the family court system, because a Montgomery County judge had previously denied the request of the children's mother, Amy Castillo, for a protective order against her estranged husband. She claimed that Mark Castillo, who has a history of psychiatric problems, had threatened in the past to harm the children as a way of punishing her.

In hindsight, now that police say Mark Castillo has confessed to drowning the children in the hotel bathtub, it seems obvious: Of course, this man shouldn't have been allowed to take the children on unsupervised visits. But, just as obviously, everything looks clearer looking backward rather than forward.

The case has clearly struck a nerve. Since writing about it earlier this week, I've gotten a number of e-mails from people venting about their own experiences in family court - women who said they and their children similarly were denied protection from abusive exes, and men who said their exes manipulated the system to get maximum child support payments while giving up minimum visitation rights.

Who can sort any of this out? And these were just e-mails, not courtroom testimony.

Not much in the courthouses can be considered cheery, but there's something particularly excruciating about watching family court cases. Maybe it's the fact that, at least for law-abiding people, it's easier to imagine yourself in the middle of a divorce proceeding than, say, on trial for an armed robbery.

I dropped in on a master's hearing room on the ground floor of the Baltimore County Courts Building, just down the hall from where contested paternity issues get hashed out. There, a woman waiting for a hearing before a master was actually smiling. Time, it seems, largely healed things - she and her ex have long been separated, he's moved far out of state, and their child is about to turn 18 and thus won't be subject to the custody agreement.

Around the corner in another hearing room, a woman, divorced several years ago and now living out of state, was back to fight about alimony. Upstairs, a divorcing man and a woman, both looking unbearably sad, sat side by side in an otherwise empty courtroom, waiting to ask the judge for a postponement on their case because the man's lawyer hadn't shown up.

In another courtroom, a man was getting the bill. He and his ex were agreeing to a settlement: He'll pay $1,000 a month to support their two children, plus $75 a month toward a $9,000 arrearage, plus a lump payment of $1,500 for what his lawyer characterizes as "current extraordinary child care expenses."

Down a couple flights, and another case was going through its particular station of the cross - something about credit cards, a lady friend, dropped medical insurance and charges of contempt and, there's that word again, arrearage.

Over at Baltimore City Circuit Court, where four courtrooms are devoted to family issues, the litany continued. A man was trying to get regular visits with his 8-year-old son - he's tried in the past but gotten to see him only for half an hour here, 15 minutes there. The mother said he's too late to start taking an interest, that the boy considers his father a virtual stranger at this point. The judge ordered supervised visits.

A divorced couple was fighting over the sale of their house, which the woman still lives in. The man's take: She dragged her heels getting it on the market, he's stuck with the mortgage payment, plus child support. Her often tearful version: She had to fix up the place, she works two jobs and takes care of three children. The judge's take: It's a bad housing market, she's not in contempt of the order to get the house sold.

On and on it goes. From just this glancing view, no one seemed particularly dangerous (but then, I didn't see any cases in which someone was seeking a protective order).

I wonder how the Castillos came off when they had their day - or multiple days - in court. She is a doctor, he has held a number of jobs, and, if a court-ordered psychological evaluation of him is any indication, he can appear "pleasant and cooperative."

Somehow, a judge came to a judgment. And now the case moves from family court to criminal court, but with three fewer lives that will be affected.

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