During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a Minnesota judge ordered a victim to jail for not forcing her daughter to see her father.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how my daughter would take the news that her mom wasn’t coming home for a month,” said Dani.
Dani qualifies for food stamps and medical assistance in Iowa, where she is a long-time resident, and also qualified for in forma pauperis (IFP) status in Minnesota courts – but she was jailed because she can’t pay about $300,000 to her ex-boyfriend.
Tenth Judicial Court Judge Kristi Stanislawski found Dani in contempt of court for not paying her ex-boyfriend’s legal fees and a daily fine for every day her 11-year-old daughter has not gone on visits with the father, who works in Hennepin County and lives in Ramsey County. (The family court case remains in Sherburne County because that is where the father lived when he filed for custody prior to the daughter being born in Iowa.)
Dani was also held in contempt for not dropping an order for protection that was granted by an Iowa judge. The father is currently being investigated by Iowa child protection for sexual abuse. He testified in court that he has not spoken to investigators there, but has directed them to his attorney, Katie Jendro.
Domestic violence advocates point out that Dani was effectively ordered into “debtor’s prison,” an issue that the ACLU has written about. From “Ending Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons”: “Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons – the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.”
“It’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Let’s talk about how women leave, find themselves in family court, go broke and lose their children,” wrote advocates on the Instagram account my_family_court_story. The advocates have opted to remain annoymous fearing retaliation and punishment from Minnesota family courts – in addition to retribution from their exes.
BACK AND FORTH
After being booked and held in the Sherburne County jail, Dani was released after an emergency writ was issued later that day by the state appeals court. Judge Stanislawski was ordered to issue her written report on the contempt findings, which she did on Oct. 3. In it, she ordered Dani back to jail by Nov. 1.
Judge Stanislowski told the crowded courtroom on Oct. 2 that she didn’t find Dani’s testimony to be credible (family court judges are given wide berth to label a witness credible or not credible and don’t need to include their evidence in their orders). Judge Stanislowski had questioned Dani on the stand in addition to allowing the two attorneys present to question her, and did not provide the required legal notice prior to the two-hour hearing that Dani would be put on the stand.
Dani’s attorney pointed out that she would lose her job if incarcerated and wouldn’t be able to pay the fees levied against her.
“It makes no sense to me. I don’t understand,” said Leigh Olson-Block following the court hearing. Her daughter, Mikayla, was murdered by father John Tester during an unsupervised visitation despite Olson-Block’s statements to the court that he was dangerous.
”That was 20 years ago. Nothing has changed in family court. We’re overdue.”
Olson-Block asked, “What is in the child’s best interest about jailing mom? I don’t see how this courtroom is putting the child’s best interests first. They are adding an ACE score to her life by jailing a parent.”
At least 11 children have died in Minnesota during active family court cases, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, which has been keeping track since 2008 of the number of children murdered by a parent when divorce, separation, custody, visitation or child support was mentioned in news coverage. In the U.S. overall, that number is at 966 as of press time.
There is no specific age in Minnesota family courts where a child can state that they don’t want to see one parent. “Courts prioritize a child seeing their dad even if dad has engaged in domestic violence that affects mom and the children,” observed advocates. In some cases, children in the United States have been ordered to have no contact with their protective parent for years and placed in “reunification camps” with the parent they say has been abusive to them. There have been a few high-profile cases recently where the teens have barricaded themselves in bedrooms that have been reported on by ProPublica. California officially banned reunification camps in September (SB-331), stating that there was no research to back up their use except by those who profit financially from them.
Olson-Block said: “There is no oversight involving judges who handle family court cases. They are allowed to make decisions that are often detrimental to families. Children are being abused and/or murdered, and there is no accountability within the system.”
‘JUDGES DON’T FOLLOW THE LAWS’
Judge Stanislowski approved the IFP for Dani, but stated that it doesn’t apply to her transcript fees, which can reach $5,000 for court hearings and trials. Transcripts are necessary in order to file appeals. In Minnesota, an appeals court of three judges may make rulings, and then the case typically returns to the same courtroom, where that judge (who may now be angered by the new ruling against her) will follow the order to make changes to the initial ruling. The judge isn’t precluded from ordering additional items – which may include ordering the payment of legal fees to the other side or other retalitory items, pointed out Minnesota family court reform advocates. “Most people don’t realize this about appeals,” said advocate Bonnie Roy. “They take a long time, are expensive, and they typically put you back in front of the same judge whom you appealed in the first place.”
There is a procedure for filing a complaint against a judge in Minnesota, but the number of those censured is quite low.
Judge Stanislowski was approved by a nominating committee and appointed to her role in January 2023. After appointment, judges are then on the ballot but almost always run unopposed. There is little information available on a judge’s record for voters to easily access, and most leave that part of the ballot empty.
There is not currently a law requiring judges to be trained in domestic violence, coercive control, and child abuse dynamics, although federal funding is available through Kayden’s Law (section XV of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act) if Minnesota were to pass such legislation. The law is named after a girl who was murdered by her father.
“We stand with many protective parents across the United States just to be their voice. For anyone that really can’t understand the level of confusion that goes in cases like this is another one of the reason we’re here,” said Roy.
“Judges don’t follow the laws. They don’t follow the statutes. And women and children suffer at the hands of those judges that make those decisions.”
*Editor’s note: In writing these articles, I have reviewed dozens of court documents, and reports by professionals. In recognition of the sensitive nature of this article, we have opted to refer to people by their first names or aliases. We have named the professionals working on this case as their work affects other families, and the advocates who have said yes to being named.