Gag orders: Further evidence of an out-of-control judiciary?

A stream of testimonials continues to flow into the Independent Gazette from all over Pennsylvania and beyond regarding the abuse of judicial power rampant in family courts. In addition to verbal threats and intimidation, multiple sources claim the courts are issuing gag orders to guarantee silence in custody cases involving the physical and sexual abuse of children. Judges are forbidding both litigants and non-litigants alike from speaking not only to media, but even to their own family members.

Law.com defines a gag order as

A judge’s order prohibiting the attorneys and the parties to a pending lawsuit or criminal prosecution from talking to the media or the public about the case. The supposed intent is to prevent prejudice due to pretrial publicity which would influence potential jurors. A gag order has the secondary purpose of preventing the lawyers from trying the case in the press and on television, and thus creating a public mood (which could get ugly) in favor of one party or the other.

Unfortunately, it seems as though the intent of the gag order has been grossly misinterpreted by family courts. Additionally, judges are issuing such silence-mandating orders against both litigants and non-litigants. Judges like Allegheny County Family Court judge Kathleen Mulligan hide behind the premise that the order is necessary to protect minors. Judges are able to prevent vital information from being presented or heard in the courtroom by using children as metaphorical human shields, thereby protecting their own misdeeds and the wrongdoings of physical and sexual abusers.

A 10-year-old gag order?
American_judge_maverick2003_flickrThe First Amendment violations imposed by issuing a gag order seem to far outweigh the justification that the action is taken in the best interest of the child, especially in cases typified by that of the Clark family of Allegheny County. A gag was issued to a litigant by the aforementioned Judge Kathleen Mulligan in this case in October 2004 that has yet to be vacated (i.e., removed) by her some ten years later, in spite of motions to do so made by the Clark children’s attorney, Elliot Schuchardt.

Now adults, the Clark siblings embroiled in this case hired Schuchardt to file a civil suit against their father, Kevin Clark, for the years of torture and abuse the children claim he inflicted. Medical reports substantiate the allegations that all four of the Clark children were horrifically abused, each suffering long term damage as a result. Kevin Clark did plead guilty to child endangerment, even though he was initially facing ten separate felony child abuse charges. While the custody case is obviously a moot issue, as the children are now grown, they would like to speak out regarding the abuse which prompted their civil action. It should be noted that this action is being brought solely by the Clark children; their mother is not a litigant in this case in any capacity.

Michael Clark, the oldest of the Clark children, now 27, recalls the years of abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father. “We told so many people so many times about the same abuse and it seemed like nothing was being done,” he said in a recent telephone interview. Clark stated that he first disclosed the abuse while a child to Dr. Mark R. King. He recalls sitting in King’s office, the large windows around him and the interview itself. He says he told Dr. King everything he could think of about the abuse. King then notified his mother of the disclosure, but he did not report it to authorities. When Michael Clark’s mother filed a complaint against Dr. King, a state investigation was incapacitated when King asserted that he, too was bound by the Mulligan gag order. The case records were then sealed by the court. A state investigator and member of law enforcement claimed he was unable to obtain the necessary court records to proceed with the investigation due to a Gag and Seal Order issued against the Clark children’s mother.

Instead of removing the children from a dangerous and harmful situation, Judge Mulligan ordered the children’s mother silenced from speaking about the actions of her husband, thereby disabling her ability to effectively protect her children. Michael stated that even now, nearly ten years later, his mother is still under Judge Mulligan’s order to refrain from even speaking with her children about the outright torture they suffered. Kevin Clark, however, was never ordered to remain silent.

For the children?
In response to the claim that this order was imposed to protect the minor children, Michael Clark said, “Clearly it didn’t. It never helped us. It’s been nothing but a hassle for us.” He went on to explain that Mulligan had amended the directive to prevent the Clark siblings even as adults from discussing any information gleaned from their mother concerning the abuse. He believes that this continued restriction implies their mother implanted false memories of abuse. “It is impossible for me to have secondhand knowledge [of the abuse],” he said. “Because I was the source [of the abuse reports].” He continued to state that although discussing his childhood experiences with his mother would be difficult, he and his siblings should be allowed that option. “The judge does not have a right to tell me how to get better, and if my mother could help, then Judge Mulligan is preventing me from getting better,” he said.

In February 2013, nine years after the initial order, Schuchardt filed a motion to vacate the gag order against the Clark siblings’ mother. Schuchardt asked the court, “If the children are all legal adults at this point, who is this order protecting?” According, once again, to son Michael Clark, “The judge stuttered, ‘An order is an order.’ ” This was the only answer the Clark family received regarding Mulligan’s refusal to lift her original order. As far as the Clark children’s civil lawsuit against their father is concerned, it is unclear how or why their mother, a non-litigant in this case, should still be bound by a ten-year-old gag issued originally in family court.

Standing orders to subpoena phone records
Another victim of seemingly senseless gag orders recently shared her story with the Gazette. Under the protection of anonymity she told a twisted story of childhood sexual abuse buried, swept under the rug, and blatantly ignored. She says her attorney actually warned her per the judge’s suggestion, “If you ever speak about these things they will make it so you never see your child again.”

This woman, who has been involved in a case for about 14 years, currently is the object of a standing order to subpoena her phone records, to monitor her internet usage, and even to restrict where she seeks mental health treatment for her child. No longer a resident of Pennsylvania, she said, “I have to drive eight hours to get care,” because the order states she can only seek care in Berks County, Pennsylvania. She continued to explain that these orders were issued gradually over the course of about two years, extending in scope to even include her current husband, a non-litigant in the custody case. The couple may not speak to the children about any of the abuse they suffered previously. They may not contact any police or Child Protective Service individual for assistance. Our informant further explained that these directives from on high drastically limit her ability to make medical decisions for her child in her own state. “All of their orders are at their discretion,” she said. “[The courts] change them so sometimes things apply and sometimes they don’t. Nobody explains what applies and what doesn’t, so I could be violating orders I didn’t even know about.” The judge never authored these orders either. Rather, the opposing litigant’s attorney wrote and prepared the orders to be rubber-stamped by the judge. “It’s a control and manipulation tactic,” she said. “And all I did was try to get help for my children.”

Speaking out despite the legal risks
Maralee Mclean, author of the 2013 book Prosecuted but Not Silenced, relays a similar story. Mclean, like many others, had reached the point of no return. She explained, “I had all the evidence,” referring to the abuse Mclean’s husband inflicted upon their daughter. “But the more I fought to help her, the more time she got with her dad.” She felt she had nothing left to lose by violating the gag order issued against her. “I did everything right,” Mclean said during a telephone interview. “There was no point in doing right anymore.” Mclean spoke out on the television program CNN Presents concerning the abuse her daughter suffered, as well as the pain she herself experienced at the hands of the courts. Although she was facing five contempt citations for her television outreach, Mclean believes the sentence was reduced as a result of the media involvement. “I believe they would have put me away for as long as they could have,” she continued. “Moms that don’t have that kind of media coverage would be jailed.” Mclean has been actively fighting for reform since her own battle began. She testified before Congress this past March, stating, “Here we are, 25 years later, and nothing has changed.”

The Gazette has spoken with current congressional candidate and former constitutional rights attorney Andy Ostrowski regarding the potential First Amendment violations ensuing from these types of gag orders. “It’s bizarre and repugnant,” he said, and added that the Clark situation in which Dr. King believed he was prohibited by the gag order “shows the real harm that can be done to children and families as a result of these abusive orders.” Ostrowski stated, “Integrity of family is a core concept of constitutional rights, and the court invading this goes against everything that our country stands for.” Calling these gag orders an “abuse of discretion” on the part of the judges, Ostrowski continued, “These are extensive, far-reaching abuses of litigants’ civil rights, unless there is some compelling justification made during a due process hearing. These blanket orders are violations of civil rights.”