Examining the Lack of Protection for Mothers and Children in OC Family Court

The article does not include the names of the fathers since we did not reach out to them for comments. Instead, we heavily relied on court, medical, and social services records for this report.

Several mothers from Orange County have spoken out about their experiences with the OC family court. They claim that despite presenting documented evidence of abuse, the court has disregarded their concerns and awarded custody to parents who have a history of sexual abuse, child abuse, or domestic violence.

In 2021, Tawny Grossman took the courageous step of filing for divorce from her husband. She made this decision because of his troubling track record of engaging in domestic violence. As a result, Tawny successfully obtained sole custody of their two children, prioritizing their safety and well-being.

Judge Luege appears to attribute the children’s behavioral decline to the mother who sought to protect them, rather than the reported perpetrator/father.

According to Luege, the petitioner’s current behavior, which involves attempting to disrupt the visitation orders, is putting the emotional stability and well-being of the children at risk. Luege further states that Tawny is no longer capable of making rational decisions in the best interest of the children.


According to California Code, specifically Family Code 3064, the court must avoid issuing or modifying a custody order unless there is evidence of immediate harm to the child or an immediate risk of the child being taken out of California.

Children may suffer immediate harm when they have a parent who has engaged in domestic violence or a continuous pattern of domestic violence. Additionally, if a child has been subjected to recent acts of sexual abuse or if there is evidence of an ongoing pattern of sexual abuse, it can also cause immediate harm.

Jack Xian, along with Protective Makua, has been actively advocating for Tawny and her children, as well as numerous other mothers throughout the country. Protective Makua is a nonprofit organization that is committed to advocating for the rights of protective parents to receive due process and equal protection. Their mission is to put an end to the legal promotion of “toxic fatherhood” and work towards policy reforms that truly prioritize the best interests of the child.

Xian criticized judges who have overstepped their boundaries by attempting to criminalize motherhood. According to Xian, these judges are engaging in legislating from the bench and have no authority to order psych exams.

A judge does not have the authority to determine whether an individual is psychologically capable of taking care of their children.

According to Xian, mothers who make the difficult decision to protect their children from an abusive father face a challenging dilemma. They are caught in a catch-22 situation where they must fulfill their legal obligation to shield their children from harm, or risk subjecting them to further abuse by complying with a flawed court system. In their pursuit of safety from their ex-partners and the questionable actions of judges, these mothers often find themselves financially drained and unjustly criminalized.

So far, the OC DA office has only issued temporary domestic violence restraining orders and has not pursued any criminal prosecutions based on the disclosures made by Tawny’s daughter.

Grossman contested Judge Luege’s December ruling in the OC Appellate Court. Just a week later, on January 4th, the appeals court issued a temporary emergency stay on Luege’s order. However, both parties were still subjected to joint custody during this time.

The Court of Appeals order stated that the custody arrangement in the Dec. 12, 2023 order is temporarily on hold. This means that the previous 50/50 custody order from November 2023 is reinstated until further notice.

Despite the higher court’s decision, the father has filed another improper “emergency” ex parte motion for sole custody. Judge Luege granted this motion, and it is the current status of Tawny’s case. She is now awaiting forthcoming appeals on the matter, which is a frustratingly slow process. This delay puts victims of domestic violence and child abuse at a high risk for retaliation, both within and outside of the family court system, as Xian points out.

Last September, a mother from Orange County lost complete custody of her daughter.

The child of this mother was born in 2016, and concerns about domestic violence and sexual abuse surfaced a few years after the child’s birth.

The Riverside CPS decided to restrict the father’s contact with his daughter after suspecting him of sexual abuse. The court also issued an order prohibiting any form of communication between the father and the child.

However, following a court-ordered custody evaluation, Judge Kreber-Varipapa made the decision to mandate reunification therapy with Jessica St. Clair in April. Subsequently, in September, the father was granted full custody.

In October 2023, Governor Gavin Newsom took action by signing a law that prohibits California Family Courts from ordering children to attend reunification camps or therapy.

California State Senator Susan Rubio, the author of the bill, expressed satisfaction with the collective efforts made to safeguard the well-being of children and families in the family court. However, it remains to be seen whether this new law has had an impact on the reported discriminatory practices against mothers by Orange County judges in family court. Over two dozen cases of mothers being treated unjustly in Orange County’s family courts have come to light.

Jessica St. Clair, who proudly calls herself the first reunification therapist in Orange County, has been assigned to numerous cases like these.

St. Clair’s website has recently undergone a change from being called the “Reunification Specialty Team” to the “Reintegration Specialty Team” in an apparent effort to avoid legal consequences.

In 2022, St. Clair was also tasked with handling Holburn’s case.

Julie had sole custody of her two children after divorcing their father in 2012 until November 2022 when Orange County Judge James Waltz, who was assigned to the case for just a month, overturned the custody order.

Julie, who has been divorced, has been dealing with the challenges of a protective restraining order against her ex-husband. Unfortunately, court records reveal that her ex-husband has violated this order multiple times from 2014 to 2021. On top of that, he has also withheld their two children from her on several occasions, leaving Julie without any means of recourse.

In 2015, Julie was granted a domestic violence restraining order (DVRO) by the court. The court found that her ex had committed acts of domestic violence against her. As part of the order, Julie’s ex was required to address his “obsessive behavior with his mother” and attend therapy with a licensed psychiatrist to address his anxiety and obsessive behavior. Julie’s DVRO was renewed in 2019.

The children consistently informed Tracy Willis, their minor’s counsel, about the abuse they experienced from their father. However, she neglected to report any of these incidents to the court. You can watch a video of the children speaking to Willis here.

Judge Waltz later overturned Julie’s restraining orders and granted full custody to the perpetrator of domestic violence and child abuse. Julie has filed an appeal to contest this ruling.

According to the California family code 3044, it is considered detrimental to the best interest of the child to grant sole or joint physical or legal custody to an individual who has committed domestic violence within the past five years.

In the case of Fajota vs. Marriage (2014), the Court of Appeal found that the trial court had made two errors (twice “abused its discretion”) when it awarded joint legal custody without considering Family Code section 3044. This section states that courts should rarely grant joint legal custody to a parent who has committed domestic abuse against the other parent within the past five years, as it would not be in the child’s best interest.

The OC District Attorney’s office has recently faced problems concerning sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment for women.

Former OC prosecutor Tracy Miller has filed a lawsuit against the Orange County District Attorney’s office and the elected DA Todd Spitzer in 2022.

John Barnett, Miller’s attorney, emphasized the dangerous consequences of tolerating such an environment. In his view, when misconduct goes unchecked, victims are subjected to retaliation, predators are shielded, and the overall safety of the public is compromised.

According to Barnett, female prosecutors are unwilling to acknowledge that they have been victims of sexual assault or harassment when they know that their claims will not be taken seriously.

Barnett argued that if the District Attorney fails to support female prosecutors who face disbelief when reporting incidents of sexual harassment, it raises concerns about their ability to protect women beyond the confines of the office.

The mothers of Orange County are expressing their outrage, despite recent legislative attempts to address the ongoing issue of murders and suicides resulting from custody decisions made by the OC family court. These heartbreaking incidents have become all too familiar to the community.

Investigative journalist Michael Volpe has extensively covered the Orange County family court. In 2022, Volpe reported on the tragic death of Ethan Cook, who took his own life after the OC family court granted full custody to his abusive father. According to Volpe’s report, there were multiple instances where a juvenile court judge had ordered Ethan’s removal from his father’s home, but the family court disregarded these orders. Tragically, approximately eight months after Ethan turned 18, he tragically hanged himself.

In 2011, the OC Register highlighted additional instances of Orange County’s failure to safeguard children. One such case involved a Seal Beach woman who was awarded a $4.9 million judgment. This was due to two county social workers who lied to a juvenile court commissioner in order to unjustly remove the woman’s two daughters from her care.

Last year, it was reported by the OC Register that Orange County paid a staggering $4.5 million to settle a claim. The claim stated that the OC Social Services Agency had failed to report a child abuse complaint to the police back in 2011. This failure resulted in the alleged abuse being able to continue for a shocking six years.

In late November 2022, Terra Schilnger, a 37-year-old victim of domestic violence, was discovered deceased in her San Juan Capistrano residence, as reported by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Terra, who was going through a divorce with her husband, Greg Schlinger, from a well-off family, had a court hearing scheduled for December 6, 2022.

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