No area of our local government draws as much ire and mistrust as family courts. Seemingly countless blogs, YouTube channels, and Facebook groups are dedicated to scrutinizing the decisions of Tarrant County family court judges (elected every four years) and their personally appointed associate judges.
Critics of Texas’ child support program point to federal incentives that ensure people pay their child support. For every dollar Texas spends on monitoring and enforcing child support, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contributes 66 cents to the state. Nationally, the federal government disburses around $6 billion to states as part of the initiative. Numerous parents see the federal involvement as floating a system that is possibly dated because women are making almost as much as men in the workplace — when measuring similar jobs — and because increasing numbers of fathers are taking on 50/50 custody agreements. These men still have a long way to go. Nationally, 80% of parents awarded primary custody are women, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.
To dig into the accusations against family court judges who have the unenviable job of determining which parent receives primary custody and whether parental rights are reduced or terminated, we spoke with one Colleyville father whose son recently died of cancer. Rulings by two family court judges in Tarrant County played a role in his son’s death, the father alleges.
A longtime family court attorney explains the unfair advantages wealthy parents wield in court while history buff Larry O’Neal summarizes feedback he’s fielding from angry parents who allege they were undeservedly targeted or abused by Tarrant County judges.
Remembering Corbin Henderson
David Henderson frequently relives memories of his son. The boy was a younger version of his father, the dad told me. The 14-year-old saw the similarities, too.
“If we were the same age,” Corbin Henderson once told his dad, “we’d be best friends.”
Through podcasts and livestream videos, David’s story has drawn condemnation from parents across North Texas at the rulings of Tarrant County’s 322nd District Court. Presiding judges James Munford and associate Jeffrey Kaitcer worked in concert, David alleges, to allow Corbin’s mother allegedly to remove their ill son from effective treatment at Cook Children’s Health Care System three years ago and place him in an experimental treatment trial in New York City. More recently, the judges denied David and his family access to Corbin while the boy was in hospice care at his mother’s home throughout June.
“I think that [Munford and Kaitcer] are largely responsible for his death,” Henderson alleges. “I also believe that [Munford and Kaitcer] imprisoned him in a house that he didn’t want to be imprisoned in and kept me out as if myself or my dying son had done something wrong.”
Corbin died on July 2.
David, who maintained near 50-50 custody, said he lost substantial access to his terminally ill son throughout the last two years of treatment as his ex-wife allegedly scheduled hospital visits during times David normally had access to Corbin. The father said he didn’t learn about the boy’s placement in hospice care from an attorney or his ex-wife but rather from a mutual friend.
Corbin’s health allegedly declined during a two-week period of possession — effectively a summer vacation — that the judges gave his mother, whose name we are concealing to protect her privacy. The unfavorable timing left David with no court-ordered access to his ailing son. Kaitcer initially restricted communication between the father and son, who was on a steady stream of morphine, to two 15-minute FaceTime sessions, arguing that the courts didn’t want to interfere with the boy’s vacation.
“Nobody is going on vacation,” David recalled at the time. “I was angered that anyone would rule that I have two 15-minute sessions of FaceTime with my dying son. To use the excuse that it was vacation time was incomprehensible. [Kaitcer] all but told me to sit down and shut up.”
Through subsequent hearings, David was able to visit Corbin three times a day for one-hour visits. Kaitcer expanded the duration to two two-hour visits during the day with no access every fifth day. David appealed the last decision to Judge Munford, but the court date ended up falling after Corbin’s death.
“They all ran the clock out on purpose,” David alleges.
No court should ever restrict a parent’s access to their dying child, David said, adding that Corbin’s paternal grandparents were allowed to see their grandchild for only 90 minutes on Father’s Day.
“Every time I visit court, I spend 10 to 15 grand,” David said. “I’ve spent over $200,000 in court. You always have the right to appeal because the associate judge is not elected. Someone will always be unsatisfied with the outcome. This means you will try the same case twice and spend twice the money. That’s the whole game.”
David said Texas’ family courts will always favor certain parties as long as there are financial incentives for parents, lawyers, and judges to litigate endlessly in court. David said there is still an unfair presumption that the father is somehow less deserving of primary custody than the mother.
“The entire system needs to be completely changed,” he said, “but that’s never going to happen because there is way too much money being made.”
Larry, the Wi-Fi Guy
With a Facebook reach of more than 169,000 followers, history buff Larry O’Neal is the go-to source for locals who want to hear candid conversations with politicians and political candidates.
Three months ago, O’Neal began fielding horror stories about the local family court system.
“There is no possible way this happens,” O’Neal recalled thinking at the time. “I understand that in family court, there are winners and losers. These allegations, [these distraught parents] are either all reading the same playbook, or these stories are really true. It’s something that needs to be looked into.”
O’Neal said he has spoken with more than 200 parents over the past three months. The stories share common themes of arrogant judges, burdensome litigation costs, and unwarranted child separations. One mother told O’Neal that her Tarrant County family judge allows excessive litigation that has cost her $200,000 in attorney fees. Another mother said she was sent to Tarrant County Jail for several days because a local judge couldn’t coerce her to lie in court. Critics of Tarrant County’s family courts tell O’Neal that donations to judges from major law firms may allow vexatious litigation to flourish.
O’Neal said he visited the downtown family courts building and was told to “sit down and shut up” by one family court judge soon after stepping into her room. O’Neal doesn’t recall the judge’s name, but her behavior shocked him.
Even with the systemic problems O’Neal hears on a daily basis, he sees several paths forward that may one day fix the county family court system. By looking into certain allegations and questioning elected officials on his Facebook Live interviews, O’Neal has brought a heated topic to the public’s attention in a way Tarrant County has never seen before.
“Any government or big business greases the wheel that squeaks,” he said. “At some point, somebody is going to have to say, ‘Hey, family courts, there is a big problem.’ ”
O’Neal said he has asked several family court judges to come on his show, but they have all declined.
“I don’t think the judges will sit down with anybody,” he said. “They seem pretty close-knit.”
By making family courts a recurring theme of his interviews and posts, O’Neal said he has attracted 16 whistleblowers so far. He has openly requested whistleblowers from the court and attorney systems contact him to provide confidential information. While that effort has just started, O’Neal said the insiders are already providing tantalizing details about high-power family law attorneys and judges. Once he verifies the leads, he plans to share them with the public and media.
Vetting down-ballot family court judges often isn’t a top priority for voters, especially if they are no longer raising children, O’Neal said.
“That needs to change,” he said.
Justin Sisemore said emotions are at an all-time high in Tarrant County’s family courts. The owner of The Sisemore Law Firm, who has represented thousands of clients since 2007, believes stresses from COVID and the general combative state of the country have spilled into family law litigation in recent years.
“I regularly gauge the temperature of new clients,” he said. “If they say they want ‘the bulldog,’ I explain that we are focused on being pragmatic with our approach.”
Sometimes, he continued, public anger over the family court system is misplaced by court watchers who are well-intentioned but may not know the complexities of individual cases.
“I’m not against groups that expose the judicial system,” he said. “If you do that, have a solution. Don’t just go and say this judge is the worst in the world. People have bad experiences in family law. If you get a bad ruling, you’re going to point to the judge or attorney.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t systemic issues in Texas’ family courts. Sisemore is a vocal critic of the advantages affluent parents wield before judges. He offered several examples.
“One party that has the resources can keep taking the other party back to court,” he said. “It becomes very unequal.”
Tarrant County and the state, he said, offer no remedy for balancing family court litigation costs between the haves and the have-nots.
“Texas does not require a monied individual with the available resources to pay the legal fees of the other party,” Sisemore continued. “In divorce cases, a lot of people may have substantial resources that are tied up in assets and resources. If one party is planning to divorce, they utilize their resources for one attorney. The other is left wondering what they are supposed to do. If you are the first to file, it can hit the other party financially.”
In civil cases, attorneys can wait to be paid until after a settlement, but family law forbids those types of agreements, Sisemore said. Appealing a decision by an associate judge to an elected district judge allows one party to financially bleed the other. Since associate family judges are not staffed with a court reporter, the appeal effectively means starting over. Sisemore said he’d like to see a system where associate rulings were more binding.
Texas’ child support laws are frequently overly punitive to the non-rich, Sisemore said, while wealthy individuals enjoy caps on their child support.
“The statute on child support caps earning stands at $9,300 a month,” meaning any income above that threshold is not subject to 20% child support deductions, Sisemore said.
The attorney gave the example of two men, one who makes $120,000 a year and another who makes $38 million annually. In Texas, he said, both men would pay the same amount — roughly $2,000 per month — in child support.
“In an ideal world, our country’s legislators would create a national system that is consistent from state to state,” he said. “The State of Texas needs to update its antiquated child support formula and ensure non-monied parents receive equal access to the same level of legal representation as their affluent opponents. I don’t think the vehicle for legislative change is ever easy. If we are going to fight about something, let’s fight about the best quality of life for the child. Other states are ahead in delivering fair child support and visitation schedules.”
This story is part of City in Crisis, an ongoing series of reports on unethical behavior and worse by local public leaders, featuring original reporting. The next one, on Tarrant County juvenile courts, will appear in the Aug. 3 issue.
Up next in our series will be Tarrant County’s juvenile courts, followed by the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD) and the district attorney’s office.