Indianapolis mother Tracie Nelson has faced several obstacles in her effort to regain custody of her daughter since August of 2007.
That year a custody struggle began between Nelson and her ex-boyfriend over guardianship of their daughter Kay (this is not her real name; the Recorder does not publish the names of minors involved in court cases).
The custody case was assigned to the paternity court of Judge Alicia Gooden.
Nelson said she lost custody of Kay in Gooden’s court due to conflict of interest. Kim Bacon, the father’s attorney is a pro tempore judge in Gooden’s court, and Nelson alleges Bacon is the girlfriend of the father’s best friend.
“We never stood a chance in getting the help we need,” Nelson said. She filed a complaint against Bacon with the Indianapolis Bar Association, and against Gooden and two other judges with the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which investigates complaints against state and local judges.
Adrienne Meiring, a staff attorney and spokeswoman for the commission, confirmed that a case like Nelson’s complaint is under review, but it cannot be discussed publicly.
“Admission and Discipline Rule 25 prevents us from discussing a case before formal charges are made against someone, unless there is a threat against an individual or the public,” said Meiring. “Until a complaint is verified or dismissed the details and course of investigation are confidential.”
At Recorder press time Gooden had not responded to an attempt to reach her for comment. Bacon has stated that neither she nor Kay’s father will comment on the case.
Nelson’s attorney, Dana Childress-Jones, successfully filed a request for change of venue (or change of judge) and the custody dispute was transferred to the civil court of Judge Gary Miller in the fall of 2007.
Nelson said Miller appeared to be fair, granting her request to appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (impartial child advocate) for Kay. After a March, 2008 meeting with Gooden, however, Miller changed course and made rulings throughout 2008 that upheld the custody rights of Kay’s father, dismissed a child in need of services (CHINS) investigation on the father, held Nelson in contempt of court and suspended her visits with Kay (although in August he did authorize paid supervised visits).
Miller’s rulings against Nelson occurred despite police and Child Protective Services’ (CPS) investigations against the father for abuse, as well as a document filed with the court that included the statements of a forensic investigator, and Jim Dalton, a local psychologist hired by CPS, who supported the validity of Kay’s detailed claim of being touched by her father.
“It’s like no one is looking out for the best interest of my baby,” said Nelson.
Miller’s term as a county judge expired at the end of December, and he was unavailable for comment.
Since Nelson went public with her case, several parents have expressed similar frustrations with select judges and attorneys.
One of them, Tamara Davis (not real name), has spent nearly $30,000 in legal fees to keep custody of her daughter from an ex-husband who has not yet received court ordered treatment for alcoholism.
“The Marion County Court system is a disaster and I also think it is biased against Black mothers,” Davis said. “I’m in the process of preparing for a custody fight with a man that the same court will only allow to have supervised visits with my daughter once a month. It doesn’t make sense.”
Davis said the court has allowed her ex-husband’s attorney to lie for clients and use contempt proceedings to extort money from mothers in custody cases.
“The court has the mentality that if a Black father is interested in his child, even if he has shown no interest previously, that it is such a unique situation that the mother must be wrongfully interfering,” said Davis. “I am a licensed attorney, and I have never seen the level of incompetence displayed in the family law cases of this county. These things don’t happen in other counties.”
Meiring said complaints about judges filed with the commission are definitely not uncommon.
“We generally receive in the neighborhood of at least 300 complaints each year,” Meiring said.
If a complaint is upheld, the offense will be reviewd by a court that will decide what kind of action should be taken, from a simple censure to the suspension of a law license.
“We get different complaints, but they are usually from people who are simply unhappy with the judge’s ruling,” said Meiring. “Most of these complaints are dismissed because there is lack of substantiation that the judge acted in a prejudicial manner.”
In part 3: Nelson, Kay and the child welfare system.