Having your children taken away on false allegations of family violence is complete destruction, said Riti Chikkerur.
It has been three years since Austin-based Judge Michael Denton signed a protective order labeling Chikkerur as a potential threat to her three boys. Even after the Travis County district attorney dropped charges of harassment and stalking against her — allegations the mother maintains are baseless — the 17-year protective order remained in place and was used in Travis County family court to terminate Chikkerur’s access to her children. Now, the mother is allowed three five-minute phone calls a year with her kids: their birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Christmas.
“When I speak to my boys, it is all monitored,” she said. “I cry every day. I heal every day. I think the best way for me to transmute this pain is having a purpose bigger than myself. That has allowed me to recover from physical pain.”
That newfound purpose is a nonprofit. Our Children Matter Most (OCMM) is partnering with the NAACP to raise public awareness about illegal or overly punitive protective orders. Chikkerur and a growing number of attorneys believe most orders are unconstitutional and a violation of a child’s right to a relationship with both parents.
In recent months, several parents have reached out to us with similar horror stories of judges in Tarrant County and Texas unjustly separating children from parents, often because one party has a personal connection to the judge or preemptively made false allegations against the other parent.
Brooks McKenzie, former assistant director of the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU, has dedicated his life to lobbying state legislators, volunteering as a court watcher, and speaking publicly at meetings and conferences about a range of problems facing the state family court system.
In early 2019, and for reasons McKenzie cannot fathom to this day, Judge Kate Stone of Tarrant County’s 233rd District Court placed him on restricted visitations with his young son. McKenzie alleges Stone verbally mocked him in court by saying he would never have his way in her court. Associate judges like Stone are not required to have court reporters present, so the alleged comment went undocumented. At McKenzie’s urging, Stone later recused herself from his case, and District Judge Kenneth Newell of the same court presided over the custody trial between McKenzie and his former wife.
“My case has been nothing but a judge hating my guts for no reason than doing everything she can to hurt my child and to hurt me,” McKenzie said of Stone. “The State of Texas says [that as a child development specialist] I am safe to be around kids, but a corrupt judge in Tarrant County decided to violate the Constitution. I haven’t seen my kid in two and a half years.”
Chikkerur, McKenzie, and a small but devoted swell of parents around the state are working to reform Texas’ family court system and courts in general. If change comes, it may be due in large part to North Texas parents and one Fort Worth legal watchdog. Larry O’Neal has made parental rights and outting corrupt judges the focus of his Facebook Live shows and Facebook groups that together reach around 150,000 followers.
On O’Neal’s shows, talk of reform focuses on enforcing Section 25.03 of the state penal code that deals with interference in child custody. Too frequently, O’Neal’s followers say, one parent refuses to allow court-ordered visitations to the other parent, and Fort Worth police and the DA typically ignore this potentially criminal behavior.
Another topic of local discussion involves mandating 50-50 custody as the standard across the state and the abolishment of child support except in cases when one party earns significantly more than the other. Granting equal parenting rights would eliminate the current system of winners and losers — a source of contention in court and fuel for endless litigation. More narrowly defining the grounds for filing a temporary restraining, protective, and no-contact order would reduce the usage of a weapon too frequently wielded in court to psychologically and financially pummel one party that may not have the resources to fight sometimes bogus allegations.
Multiple attorneys, parents, and nonprofit leaders say the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is headed by judges, is too corrupt to be relied upon anymore. Revamping or abolishing the commission and replacing it with a well-funded agency incentivized to disbar, impeach, or criminally charge family court attorneys, judges, and other court officers is the only acceptable system for accountability, reformers say. Another idea is to place cameras in every courtroom in the state. The videos, which could lower incidents of perjury, would be monitored by volunteers or civil rights attorneys who could file formal complaints for judicial misconduct that would otherwise go unreported.
Austin-based attorney Mary Louise Serafine recently co-filed a civil lawsuit against several state leaders with the goal of overturning a Texas law that allows judges to ban so-called vexatious litigants from court. Judges often misuse the law to shut up and shut out defendants who allege judicial misconduct, Serafine said.
“There is now a critical mass of people, myself included, who have now given up the idea that most of the courts — trial, appellate, and supreme court — operate fairly most of the time,” she said. “They don’t. A critical mass of lawyers and citizens have had so much experience of unfair treatment by the courts that something has to change. It will not change without the state legislature or federal courts taking action.”
Five years ago, Chikkerur thought she had achieved everything she wanted, both personally and professionally.
“I was a successful entrepreneur,” she said, referring to her past career in the petroleum industry. “I didn’t have so much as a parking ticket, and my credit score topped 800. I was doing well.”
In 2015, the mother of three divorced her husband. Two years later, she said, her ex-husband requested an ex parte temporary restraining order against her.
Her ex “alleged child abuse and neglect,” Chikkerur said.
The mother was able to successfully fight the allegations, but Judge Denton placed a protective order on her the next April.
“I went to court assuming [Judge Denton] would see the ridiculousness of the false allegations and dismiss the case,” Chikkerur said. “Instead, the judge refused to acknowledge my presence in court, let alone let me argue my innocence. My ex-husband’s girlfriend stated that I sent [them] a photo of an Indian goddess and threatened to cause physical harm” to the girlfriend and others.
Chikkerur was hit with the criminal charges of harassment and stalking, which were dismissed last year. She was also placed on GPS ankle monitoring and issued the 17-year protective order that banned communication and contact with members of her ex-husband’s family. The protective order and criminal charges, Chikkerur said, were leveraged in family court to portray her as a danger to her children. Family Court Judge Karin Crump issued the final orders that severely restrict the mother’s access to her children to the five-minute phone calls on select holidays. Judges Crump and Denton ignored requests for comment.
“In order to get a protective order, a prosecutor has to prove that I committed bodily injury and harm or threatened to,” the mother said. “I was not in communication with [any of my ex’s relatives]. It is a routine thing that family courts do. They weaponize these protective orders against the other side.”
In a 2020 YouTube video, a Williamson County assistant district attorney spoke to a group of family law attorneys about the advantages of obtaining a protective order during a divorce or child custody battle. The video is often shared as an example of how cavalier prosecutors can be when describing a weapon that can bring irreparable harm to children and parents.
“Protective orders are pretty easy” to obtain, Leslie Levy told the lawyers. “A protective order carries criminal consequences. Accordingly, that makes it a pretty heavy tool in negotiating divorce. I would encourage you to do the protective order as part of your case. It gives you more leverage in negotiating a settlement. We [at the DA’s office] are willing to walk you through the process.”
Gaining a protective order simply requires proving a reasonable likelihood that someone harassed or stalked a defendant, Levy continued.
“Again, [these orders are] real easy to prove up,” she said.
Chikkerur alleges that her ex’s attorney illegally backdated her protective order to have her arrested for discussing her case publicly.
“They said I violated the protective order,” Chikkerur recalled. “All of this was because I was ramping up my activism efforts. They showed the protective order [in family court] to falsely show that I committed family violence. They did not expect me to come back. They don’t expect me to fight.”
OCMM manages three campaigns that aim to reform protective orders. Through public marches, Chikkerur and her supporters plan to raise public awareness of the misuse of protective orders. The second effort seeks to reform protective orders through legislation or by overturning the law on constitutional grounds. While the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protects citizens from self-incrimination, common practice in Texas compels parents to appear in court, often with short notice and without legal representation, to answer for allegations before a protective order is given.
“The Constitution clearly states that no man should be put on the stand and forced to defend themselves of a crime without proper due process,” Chikkerur said.
Parents should be assigned legal counsel if they cannot afford it, she added, and the burden of proof for assigning the orders should be very high and not based only on hearsay.
The final pillar of OCMM’s work involves the formation of a public council that disciplines or pardons judges and other judicial officers for committing the most egregious offenses, based on whether the offenders publicly repent and acknowledge their wrongdoing. Chikkerur sees the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid in South Africa as one possible model for Texas.
In December, Chikkerur will be a guest speaker at the annual banquet of the Austin branch of the NAACP. Nelson Linder, Austin NAACP president, said his organization is giving her a platform for the issue of unlawful protective orders to gain statewide attention.
“I examined her case,” Linder said. “It appears to me that there’s a lot of abuse here. We are trying to have judges take a look at what was done in her case. … Our justice system has to be fair to everybody, regardless of class, race, and color. We are giving her a platform through the NAACP so she can speak to people who may not normally hear these issues.”
As painful as her ongoing ordeal is, the OCMM founder said her suffering has brought renewed purpose. She will spend the rest of her life fighting for the rights of children, she said.
“They are innocent — always,” she said. “It’s easy to see success when you work for children. I believe that children are a representative of God, a higher power. I don’t want to leave this world with damaged children.”
The irony of being a child development specialist with his parental rights terminated by a Tarrant County judge is not lost on McKenzie, who earned his doctorate in psychology from TCU.
“I train nonprofits and foster care groups on how to address the needs of children,” he said. “The State of Texas says I am safe to be around kids.”
McKenzie said his marriage began unraveling early on. In 2013, when his son was nearly 2, McKenzie’s wife allegedly accused him of domestic violence and threatened to divorce him. The couple made it five more years while attending counseling before she filed for divorce in November 2018. Three days after that filing, based on court records, Judge Lori DeAngelis signed a temporary restraining order against McKenzie that mandated that he appear in court one week later, give his wife sole access to their home, begin paying child support, and follow more than 40 lengthy stipulations.
Five months later, based on court documents, the child development specialist was again brought to court, this time with Stone presiding.
“My wife’s attorney, [Associate Judge] Stone, and my attorney go to the back chambers,” McKenzie said. “I now tell people, ‘Never let your attorneys go in the back room.’ Nothing good happens. My attorney says [Stone] hates your guts. Associate Judge Stone comes out and starts screaming at me. She was so red in the face, spit was flying out. She had decided right then and there that everything my wife accused me of was true. She ordered me not to pray with my son and not to talk about the Bible with my son.”
Judge Newell, Texas’ 233rd District Court’s elected judge, signed off on the agreement that stripped the father’s access to his son. To this day, McKenzie alleges that neither Stone nor Newell has heard one word of testimony from him.
“Every time we ask to call for a hearing to address these allegations, [Stone] would come out at the beginning and say how she was going to rule,” McKenzie alleges.
Stone ordered McKenzie to see his son only during supervised visits at the family court building allegedly. Judges Newell and Stone ignored requests for comment on this story.
“When we had 15 minutes left, [my son] would get upset and start crying,” McKenzie recalled. “I stopped the visitations because it was damaging my child every time it would happen. It was becoming more and more upsetting for him.”
Throughout the ordeal, McKenzie said he worked with and eventually fired three attorneys because they would not object to or call out Stone for her alleged misbehavior in court.
His attorneys “wouldn’t file complaints,” he said. “They would flat out say, ‘I am not going to ruin my career.’ They would usually lie to me. I would pull up the law and show it to them. If you are not going to do your job, you have no purpose to me. I forced my attorney to file a [motion for Stone’s] recusal. I had to write it myself. Stone laughed. She openly stated that she violated my civil and constitutional rights and asked, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ”
In mid-2020, McKenzie’s ex moved to Collin County. His son resided there for more than six months. McKenzie requested a transfer of venue to remove the custody case from Newell’s court to Collin County as family code mandates that jurisdiction transfer to the county where the child has resided for the previous six months. Newell refused the transfer. A year later, McKenzie suffered a workplace accident that left him bedridden for four months, and he had limited cellular service at his home.
“I requested that my [child custody case] be done [via] Zoom,” McKenzie said. “They refused my request. Basically, they were trying to get me on the phone so they could have some semblance of a trial. They went ahead and had a trial and gave my wife’s attorney everything they asked for — full custody and attorney’s fee. [Newell] signed off on it knowing that it is illegal.”
McKenzie said he went through a deep and protracted depression that lasted months. He remembered going days on end without eating or showering. On his worst days, he contemplated suicide.
McKenzie’s plan for overhauling the state family court system is multifaceted. The system has to be overhauled and reformed on several fronts, he said. The biggest barriers to reform, he said, are special interest groups like the Texas Family Law Foundation, which represents family law attorneys, and the judiciary itself.
“The existing laws that we have were created by family law attorneys and judges for family law attorneys and judges,” he said. “They literally built a working environment to allow themselves to do this corrupt stuff. It’s one of the only industries where we allow people to make their own rules.”
The state family court system is funded in part through federal monies disbursed through the Title IV D program. 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, and those annual funds run into the hundreds of millions.
In Texas’ budget-neutral environment, McKenzie sees an opportunity to reallocate those dollars for the purchase of video equipment for every courtroom in the state.
“Let’s use that to pay for the audio and video in the courtrooms,” McKenzie said. “The Texas Supreme Court has cameras in their courtrooms.”
Title IV D funds can also pay for a new Commission on Judicial Conduct removed from any connection to the state supreme court, a step that would neutralize influence from higher courts that McKenzie and others believe cover for unethical or illegal rulings by lower courts.
Multiple attorneys believe judges and the judicial institution itself generally protect the rulings and acts of other judges. It’s a system that permits judicial officers to be re-elected without having to answer for overturned rulings. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct rarely publicly disciplines judges even though that office routinely fields serious and documented instances of judicial misconduct.
“We need to overhaul [the commission], take it out from under the judiciary, where it operates in secret, and make it like an office of the attorney general, but their only job is to investigate and prosecute people in the courtrooms,” McKenzie said. “Make it the police for the courtroom and incentivize them. We incentivize police and prosecutors. The more corrupt judges and attorneys you strip of their ability to practice or place in prison, the more rewarded you will be.”
Texas creates too many financial incentives for former couples to fight over money and property through no-fault divorces, he continued.
“No fault means there is no fault,” he said. “The person who files by default should give up primary decision-making, and there should be default 50-50 custody. It is laid out on paper [so there is no need for court battles]. The person who is filing is already putting their needs above that of the child.”
For cases in which abuse or worse are alleged, the filings should be done in criminal court, he continued. The measure would bring better resources toward investigating allegations of abuse while holding both parties more accountable for false statements.
“If we can address no-fault divorce, then a judge isn’t needed,” he added. “Now you need fewer judges. We can get rid of a lot of these judges. We can get rid of their court staff, the bailiffs, clerks, and reporters. We are looking at tens of millions saved just from the get-go because we don’t need these judges.”
Over time, the changes would reduce divorces, McKenzie believes, because leaving a spouse would no longer be financially incentivized.
“I think [my ex and I] spent around $200,000 or more,” he said. “What could I have done with that lost money? Bought a home and sent my kid to college. Instead, that money has been pissed away and given to multiple law firms so they can buy a home and send their kids to college. None of it makes any sense. The lobbyists and the family law attorney are invested in the system. They have been running that narrative for too long.”
The lawsuit recently filed by Serafine could strike down a statute that she said is misused to silence parents who have lost parental rights.
“I can’t tell you how many parents have called me about being labeled a vexatious litigant or general unfairness in the courts,” Serafine said.
One of six plaintiffs in the filing, based on court documents, was denied access to her daughter by a family court judge.
“She was declared a vexatious litigant” soon after, Serafine said. “She did not file any frivolous suits. She never filed any suit other than the one to see her daughter.”
Under the statute, any person labeled a vexatious litigant cannot represent him- or herself in court without an appointed attorney — parents who cannot afford legal counsel in Texas often represent themselves in court.
“Most people don’t have $20,000 or $30,000 lying around” to hire an attorney, Serafine continued.
Another of the six litigants placed on the state list of vexatious litigants is Travis County Judge Madeleine Connor, who said in a public statement that the statute is an abomination.
“The accused has to fight against the law’s built-in presumption of guilt — not a presumption of innocence — and somehow has to prove that he or she is innocent of a list of infractions,” Conner said. “That did not happen in my case. [The allegations were] just made up.”
Serafine and co-filer John Vinson listed a Smith County judge and clerk along with the director of the Office of Court Administration of Texas as defendants in the civil suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas last month. The defendants have until mid-October to respond, Serafine said.
“They will probably answer with a motion for the federal judge to dismiss the case,” she said. “They will say that we can’t sue because the state of Texas has some immunity. We will answer that we didn’t sue the state of Texas. We are suing state agents. They will probably say the administrative judge has judicial immunity. We will answer by saying they are not acting in their judicial capacity. They are acting as an administrative agent.”
Like a chess player planning several steps ahead, Serafine has mulled over the state’s likely legal responses, and she believes they will all be pitiful at best.
“They will be saying people do not have the right to sue the state agents who are violating the federal due process and civil rights we have,” she continued. “We have rights under the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Courts are using that statute to silence people who are expressing ideas and opinions that they don’t want to come out, at least when they don’t want them to come out in court.”
A critical number of attorneys, defendants, and reform-minded advocates have lost faith in the Texas judiciary, Serafine said. The Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals protect unethical rulings from appellate courts while the various courts of appeals protect the rulings of trial courts.
Over her career, Serafine said she has documented instances of county and district judges outright fabricating evidence and lying on opinions. Judges will even resort to ordering court reporters to alter or remove parts of transcripts as a means of serving powerful interests, she alleges, adding that both Democrat and Republican judges equally and frequently engage in corrupt acts.
“We used to think that there were only one or two bad eggs, mostly on the lower courts,” she said. “This malfeasance is so incredibly widespread, I’m stunned by it. The higher courts cover for lower judges’ malfeasance.”
As a waitress brought cups of water and coffee to the table, McKenzie recently welcomed more than 20 parents and child rights advocates at the back room of Ol’ South Pancake House.
“I don’t care if you are a Republican or Democrat,” he told the group. “We are trying to get this system changed. Tarrant County is about to be set on fire. It’s about to get interesting for judges and attorneys.”
After discussing the types of reforms he would like to see in courtrooms across the state, he and attendees took turns describing the need to organize and reach like-minded Texans. DeWayne Ward, who runs the YouTube channel @PissedOffParent, lamented the lack of media attention to the matter while Joseph Villarreal told the group that actions matter more than complaining.
“People need to show up,” Villarreal said. “Family courts are a failed system. They won’t go down easily.”
McKenzie said the time for concerned parents to become involved in reforming the state family court system is now. Contacting elected officials and political donors should be the first step that parental rights advocates take. A long-term goal is to encourage parents who have had their civil rights violated in family court to have their cases transferred to federal court.
“We have to make [the problems in family court] so embarrassingly obvious,” McKenzie said. “I’m not a fan of the federal government except when the state refuses to do what it is supposed to do. If the feds come in, we will have judges in prison, and that’s where a lot of them should be.”
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.
Our Children Matter Most can be reached at email@example.com.