Many people started following the Tsimhoni child custody case with outrage after Judge Gorcyca ordered three young children to jail in a juvenile facility. The judge sought to punish the children for refusing to have lunch with a father who they said abused them and their mother. Judge Gorcyca disbelieved the children based on factors that were not probative and her blind faith in a bogus theory that was rejected by the American Psychiatric Association because there is no scientific research to support it. After inflicting enormous harm on the children, the judge finally recused herself after the Judicial Tenure Commission brought ethics charges against her. The Special Master appointed to hear the case has now ruled that Judge Gorcyca engaged in judicial misconduct for her actions in the case and lying to investigators.
While the decision is supported by overwhelming evidence, we at the Stop Abuse Campaign cannot help but focus on the fact that the court mistreated the children horribly and their needs were lost in the focus on adult issues. The children were only 13, 10 and 9 when Judge Gorcyca added to her failure to protect the children from an abusive father by inflicting illegal and outrageous punishment in response to their normal reaction to the trauma they had experienced.
While the Special Master focused on technical legal issues, what I noticed was the children’s reaction to the abuse from Judge Gorcyca. The oldest child was described as holding his head with his hands between his knees and sobbing uncontrollably when the judge came in. She assumed he was faking it because she could not imagine she had completely misunderstood the case. Later the youngest child who had seen her brother not only jailed but cruelly attacked verbally by the judge was also sobbing uncontrollably.
Why Would a Court Entertain Punishing the Children?
According to the bogus theory relied on by the judge, it was assumed that the mother had brainwashed and manipulated the children to believe false claims about the father’s abuse. If that were true, how can the children be punished for something that is beyond their control? Significantly, the children were not parties to the case. They had no way to control what evidence would be presented so they should not be bound by the court’s findings. Although there was a Guardian ad litem (GAL) who was supposed to represent the children’s interests, he had long since become an advocate for the father and certainly did not advocate for the children’s position.
Furthermore, the judge had a moral and legal obligation to help protect the children. Even allowing for the fact that judges like anyone else can misunderstand a case and make bad decisions, but since the mother was a safe parent and is their primary attachment figure, it is never beneficial to separate the children from her. They had clearly already been terribly traumatized both from the events in their family and the actions by the court. The judge was well aware that they were severely traumatized even if she didn’t understand the causes. How can it possibly help the children heal by sending them to jail? The judge was so confident of her own lack of understanding of the case that she felt no need to consult with a mental health expert, preferably someone who specializes in trauma before taking such an extreme action.
Judge Gorcyca Lost All Sense of Objectivity
One of the points the Special Master emphasized was that the judge claimed she was holding the children in civil contempt. This claim is probably based on the need for more stringent protections for criminal contempt that were not provided. Civil contempt is not meant to be punitive so in effect the defendant goes to jail with the key in their pocket since they can be released if they do what the judge ordered. Judge Gorcyca told the children they would be in jail until they were 18. She also gave their abusive father the authority to have them released even though he would be out of the country for an extended period. It is not just that the court had no right to give authority to someone else about how long the children would stay in jail, but that she was so supportive of the father in every way that she had lost all sense of objectivity.
The judge testified that she made the threat of jail expecting the children would back down and was shocked when they picked jail rather than visiting with their father. That might have caused an objective professional to reconsider whether her belief that the abuse complaints were false was mistaken.
Only in a Hopelessly Broken System
The Special Master was right to find Judge Gorcyca guilty. I hope the decision will be confirmed and she will never again be in a position to destroy children’s lives. It will be beneficial for other judges to learn that their discretion is not unlimited, but as we know from too many other tragic cases, an awful lot of horrific behavior on the part of judges is too often tolerated. The court-inflicted trauma against the Tsimhoni children could have been avoided with a better judge, but it should have been avoided by a system that has better safeguards to prevent the mistreatment of children.
Judge Gorcyca disbelieved true reports of abuse based on factors that were not probative. She refused to admit evidence that would have undermined her belief that the father was safe. She appointed court professionals who do not have the knowledge and expertise to respond to domestic violence and child abuse. She does not understand domestic violence dynamics. She followed a bogus theory that is based not on any research but based on the belief that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. She long ago lost all sense of objectivity and as the Special Master properly emphasized, Judge Gorcyca created an appearance of bias and denial of fundamental fairness which violates fundamental judicial ethics.
The problem is that all of these mistakes and bad judgments are sadly common in our Family Courts. I constantly hear very sincere beliefs that the courts are corrupt. This is not generally based on proof that a judge took a bribe, but rather decisions and behavior that have no other logical explanation. The court system defensively rejects this claim without understanding that the routinely outdated and mistaken practices used in the court create the appearance of impropriety and corruption that is a violation of judicial ethics. In this case, it took sending three young children to jail; comparing a child to Charles Manson, violating the laws and procedures and lying to the Judicial Tenure Commission before it appears there will be meaningful consequences. This tells me that the court system is not going to create meaningful reforms on their own.
Making Family Courts Safe for Children
The research now demonstrates that the harm of exposing children to domestic violence and child abuse is far greater than previously understood. Other important research explains that courts routinely fail to protect children because, judges, lawyers and evaluators do not have the specific knowledge they need to respond to abuse cases. The courts have been slow to integrate current scientific research like ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and Saunders which would help courts make better decisions. The Safe Child Act is a comprehensive plan that is evidence based, multi-disciplinary and trauma-informed. It would require courts to make the health and safety of children the first priority in all custody and visitation decisions. It will help good judges make better decisions and prevent bad judges from making subjective decisions that place children in jeopardy. I didn’t see this discussed in the decision, but the court system owes an enormous debt to the Tsimhoni children they so badly brutalized. Payment of the debt starts with making sure this can never happen to another child.
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate.
Barry has written some of the leading books about domestic violence and custody.