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Suzanne Shell raises chickens in rural El Paso County. It's not the world's most exciting job, but Shell's other pursuits -- which include working as an author, journalist and documentary producer, running a contentious website called ProfaneJustice.org, offering her services as an expert consultant to parents accused of abusing and neglecting their children, and generally raising hell as a prime mover in the family-advocacy movement -- manage to keep things interesting.
She's been ejected from courtrooms by judges and attacked in a hallway by a convicted child molester she was trying to capture on film. She's been arrested in Wisconsin for refusing to turn over her video equipment to a police officer and detained at the Colorado Springs Airport because she forgot to remove a .380-caliber pistol from her carry-on items. The mere presence of Shell and her camera put a halt to a Colorado legislative hearing on a family-rights bill a couple of years ago. And she still receives treatment for back pain resulting from being run over by a neighbor's car in her own driveway; at the time, she was dialing 911 on her cell phone, reporting the driver for making threats to her husband in a dispute involving chickens and dogs.
Shell's efforts to serve as an advocate for parents in what are known as D&N cases -- dependency-and-neglect investigations, in which allegations of child abuse can lead to a child's placement in foster care and even termination of parental rights -- have ruffled feathers in social-service agencies across the state. Some desperate parents see her as their only hope for justice in an epic battle against a cruel and indifferent system. But many attorneys and child-protection professionals regard her as a divisive meddler who does more harm than good.
"I am this amazing, powerful woman who can walk into a courtroom and hurt a case just by being there," Shell says sarcastically. "They're obstructing me every step of the way. The first time I walked into the courthouse in Lincoln County a year and a half ago -- I had never been there before in my life -- they knew who I was. And I was shut down immediately."
"I've seen her thrown out of a courtroom where she was sitting quietly in the gallery doing nothing," says Lisa Byrne, a Teller County woman whom Shell assisted in an abuse investigation. "You know what she did for me? She went with me to the courthouse. The county attorney peed down his leg when she walked around the corner. I felt like a million bucks."
Lawyers who've gone up against Shell say she can hurt, rather than help, her own clients. "Suzanne's involvement helps me," notes Rocco Meconi, a Cañon City attorney who represents the Fremont County Department of Human Services in D&N cases. "I get paid on an hourly basis. When she's involved, we always have contested hearings, and I make a ton of money. But it doesn't help the families or the kids."
Shell's fights in Fremont County have led to a more prolonged tour of the state's justice system than she bargained for. Four years ago, after complaints from Meconi and other county officials, the Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel launched an investigation of Shell for allegedly practicing law without a license. The case was settled with Shell signing a stipulation, in which she admitted providing legal advice to parents and drafting legal documents for them and agreed not to do so in the future. But her subsequent tussles with what she calls the "child savers" in the county -- in particular, her involvement in two D&N cases in which questions have been raised about the mental capacity of the mothers who enlisted Shell's help -- landed her in deeper trouble.
In March 2004, the Supreme Court cited Shell for contempt of court, alleging that she'd ignored the court's 2001 order to stop unauthorized lawyering. Last month she presented her defense before presiding disciplinary judge William Lucero, who's expected to make a recommendation on the case to the state's highest judges in a few weeks. If she's found guilty, Shell could face thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time.
"We don't care what people like Ms. Shell believe about anything, as long as they don't press that belief and representation onto someone," says John Gleason, who heads the Colorado Supreme Court's attorney regulators. "The insidious nature of the harm is what we're worried about. She's attracted to people who are the most vulnerable, people who are in some horrible life situation."
Shell argues that the contempt action is part of an ongoing campaign by judges, attorneys and the child-protection system to violate her rights, thwart her journalistic efforts to expose the system's excesses, and smash the growing family-advocacy movement, in which she's emerged as a national figure. It's a clash of values, she says, one that pits those who believe fiercely in parental rights against a powerful and arrogant bureaucracy that destroys struggling families.
"My goal is to influence the way society thinks about these issues and to bring us back to a semblance of sanity," she says. "The only way we're going to see change is if pressure is put on the system by the public in a large way."