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MAHONING VALLEY Group criticizes, tries to change divorce court system



Published: Sun, February 17, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Mediation is helpful and is being used more in divorce cases, a local attorney says.

By AMANDA C. DAVIS

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- Law goes out the window when it comes to divorce proceedings in domestic courts, a local organization contends.

The Marital Rights Task Force of Trumbull County, made up mostly by women who feel they've been wronged, is working to change the legal system as it pertains to divorce.

The group originated in Columbus 11 years ago and was started locally by Margaret Stychno and Connie Cera, both of Warren, after a small newspaper ad prompted more than 300 replies.

It says domestic court proceedings are biased and sometimes illegal.

"We go by our own rules here in Trumbull County," Stychno said, explaining she knows of situations where women and men were not allowed to sit in on hearings and conferences that judges had with lawyers about their cases.

Response: Judge Pamela A. Rintala of Trumbull County Family Court said breaking up families, dividing assets and awarding support and custody are not the easiest things to do.

"No one walks out of this building a winner," Judge Rintala said. "But we don't have our own rules here; we follow the law."

Judges sometimes do meet with attorneys to discuss case policy, she said, "But there are no back door deals being made here."

Atty. Marc Dann, of the Dann and Falgiani law firm in Liberty, said divorce cases are complicated and highly emotional because of issues such as custody, infidelity, financial irresponsibility and allegations of child abuse.

Mediation: Mediation is becoming more common across the country and is slowly gaining popularity locally, he said. The idea is that couples seeking divorce meet with a neutral third party to hammer out issues outside the courtroom.

Mahoning County Judge Beth Smith requires mediation in cases involving custody disputes and says there's a 60 percent success rate.

She said she welcomes the public in her courtroom and holds all hearings out in the open.

The judge welcomes criticism which helps improve proceedings and says she takes her job seriously because of what's at stake.

She added the process is also complicated because the public views courts in Mahoning County with a suspicious eye due to past corruption.

Annual number: Dann said an average of 2,000 divorces are filed each year in both Trumbull and Mahoning counties.

Canfield Atty. Shirley Coniglio said she thinks domestic relations laws are both progressive and fair.

The court in Mahoning County does a great job, Coniglio said, adding that a few bad lawyers give the rest a bad name.

Some attorneys drag out proceedings to boost fees, she said, but "I'm not willing to fight for a love seat if my fees are going to cost more than it would for the client to buy a new one."

Judge Richard L. James of Trumbull County Family Court said the group's chief complaint is about being kept out of hearings. They have an absolute right to sit in on hearings, but judges tend to leave that up to lawyers, he said, explaining the policy is posted all over the building.

The court is not biased and does its best to treat everyone fairly, Judge James added.

Cera, a former legal secretary, was married to a lawyer for 20 years before filing for divorce.

Biggest complaint: Her biggest complaint is that the legal process seemed to move ahead without her.

"It's got much more to do with politics and who is the bread winner in the family," she said.

Dann agrees that the spouse with the most resources has a bigger advantage and says the court could probably do more to level the playing field.

Stychno said her ex-husband filed for divorce in 1987 but the court has not enforced a settlement because it has been held up in red tape.

"I don't blame my ex, I blame the court system here in Trumbull County," she said, explaining she filed 72 motions during that time for child support but that it took more than five years for the court to grant it.

Her four kids are grown and Stychno said she's not so much bitter as she is physically worn down. It took a recent hospitalization for stress to realize that, she added.

It also took Stychno 13 years to receive a financial settlement from her husband because he filed for bankruptcy, which took a long time to settle.

Rules, procedures and subpoenas aren't often honored in the domestic court, Stychno said, adding that it's especially difficult for those whose spouses are well known in the community.

Joyce Woods said she went through a bad divorce in West Virginia before returning to her native Warren.

She said the Trumbull County court needs to do better to encourage feedback from the public and address concerns of inept lawyers who just want to make money.

Stychno said some lawyers drag out proceedings so they're paid more, and that political favors play a big role in the way many cases are tried and decided.

Dann said he's sure there are attorneys who do prolong cases but that most of the ones he deals with try to do their best for clients.

Cera said her advice to those going into a divorce is to put aside money to pay for a lawyer, take notes and make sure lawyers explain everything, research domestic laws and bring a friend or advocate into the courtroom for support.

Larry Detwiler of Canfield went through four attorneys and thousands of dollars before his divorce was finalized about nine years ago in Mahoning County courts. He said it took 10 years for custody rights to be established.

He has taken part in the task force's meetings but wonders if it does any good, saying corruption and discrimination are prevalent in the courtroom.

In his experience, Detwiler said, attorneys dragged out proceedings and at least one failed to file the proper motions needed to advance his case.

"It's such a joke I don't even know where to start," he said. "After 10 years, I just abhor the legal system."

davis@vindy.com




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