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In June, a New Hampshire man named Thomas Ball sent a suicide letter to his local paper. After an incident in which he slapped his 4-year-old daughter, Ball was arrested and charged with domestic abuse. Subsequently divorced, unemployed and facing jail time for failure to pay child support, Ball went to the Cheshire County Court House, covered himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. He died.

Last month, a man from Rochester, N.Y., went camping with his daughters. Adam Parcells‘ children were by different mothers, one of whom he was no longer with. He was reportedly going through a separation from the other. Adam Parcells took his little girls to Lake George … and then shot them to death. He killed himself, too – an act that feels almost like an afterthought following the cold-blooded murder of two innocent children. Were the girls asleep? Did they know that Daddy was killing them? Did they have time to cry out?

Three years ago, an orthodontist named Daniel Malakov was executed as he stood with his daughter on a playground in New York. He was involved in a custody battle with his estranged wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova. She and an in-law were convicted in March 2009 of conspiracy in the killing. Malakov’s wife reportedly paid the in-law $20,000 to shoot her husband in front of their child.

Early in 2009, Rosa Hill and her mother tried to kidnap Hill’s toddler daughter from the home of Hill’s husband. The couple were separated at the time; Hill’s husband had primary custody of their child. Hill even claimed that her husband was “molesting” their daughter, an allegation he was forced to deny and which apparently held little weight. Hill and her mother wounded the husband and killed his 91-year-old grandmother in their attack. In June of this year, they were convicted of first-degree murder and premeditated attempted murder.

In Vermont, a man has lost his daughters. One is dead; he has been acquitted of no less than eight charges in the death of 4-month-old Ina. But Joseph Mcelheny’s wife has since had a second child, Murphy, who was taken by the state of Vermont and placed in foster care while Mcelheny awaited trial. Now Mcelheny must fight for Murphy in Vermont Family Court, where he will face “much of the same evidence used to build the failed criminal case” against him.

In late August, a judge ruled that a woman who shot and killed her own daughters two decades ago may continue to live in the same home with Trisha Conlon’s 13-year-old son, Sam. Conlon and her ex-husband are fighting over custody of Sam, whom Conlon says should not be exposed to her ex-husband’s first wife – a murderess named Kristene Cushing, with whom the ex-husband has reunited. Cushing, while supposedly on Prozac and under the care of a psychiatrist, turned a .38-caliber handgun on her 4-year-old and 8-year-old daughters in October 1991. She has since been determined by authorities in California to “pose no risk to others.” Clearly, this is true: She has already murdered her children. Young Sam is in no danger unless and until Cushing comes to see him as her child.

In September of this year, a woman named Shannon Wilfong was sentenced to a month in jail. Her crime? She and her mother were illegally imprisoning Wilfong’s son, Richard, stashing him in a crawl space when visitors entered the home. Richard was the subject of a custody battle with his father, whom Wilfong claims was abusive. Richard’s father had legal custody of him. Thankfully, this story ends in neither death nor suicide.

The same is not true of the recent high-profile shooting in California. Earlier this month, a man named Scott Dekraai entered a California beauty salon. He and his ex-wife were involved in what reports describe as a “bitter custody battle” over his 8-year-old son. Dekraai killed his ex-wife and seven other innocent people. Dekraai’s son is now effectively an orphan whose father is a notorious spree-killer. Whether Dekraai’s grievances had any validity in the realm of reasonable human beings, we will never know, nor should we care – because his final acts relegate him to the worlds of madness and murder.

Missing from every one of these accounts seems to be any acknowledgment of what is truly best for the children involved. Present in all of these tragedies are parents who have done what is best for them, or what they thought was best, even when they might possibly have believed they fought for their children’s welfare. Shared by each case, beyond the often murderously self-involved behavior of the parents, should be the realization that something is very, very wrong with our family court system.

Family court should act in accordance with the welfare of affected children. Functionaries of family court should conduct themselves as if they’ve heard of, and are trying at the very least to pay lip service to, the concept of in loco parentis. Drawing defining lines within families, reuniting through reasonable mediation families torn by strife and guiding families through the often turbulent waters of separations, divorces and custody cases ought to be a process dominated by compassion.

Where does compassion figure in a byzantine, impersonal and seemingly arbitrary system that places children with murderers, makes contract killing seem a viable alternative and drives distraught parents to self-immolate on courthouse steps? How can cases like these be evidence of a system that is anything but broken? Why aren’t we demanding legal reform and cultural reconciliation?

“Justice and power,” said Blaise Pascal, “must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.” Family courts today wield considerable power in society, as arguably they should and must. Until we combine that power with true justice, working earnestly in the best interests of the children and the adults involved, citizens will continue to seek – wrongly – private redress for their perceived grievances.

The longer we permit this, the more martyrs and villains we will produce.

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