Beyond Contempt

The child-protection system wants to shut down family-rights activist Suzanne Shell. And vice versa.

Shell's lawyer, Paul Grant, views her case as a critical test of the constitutional rights -- and limits -- of web-based court activists. "The idea that outside advocates want to help consumers deal with lawyers and judges is a threat to the system as it stands," he says. "There's going to be more and more of this self-help, people going outside the system to find resources, because the Internet is such a powerful source of information. And that's going to break down the walls somewhat of a closed profession. A lot of lawyers won't like it, but the world changes.

"This is the carriage-maker trying to protect his profession against the automobile industry. It's a fruitless exercise. But Suzanne Shell is caught in the middle. She's kind of a pioneer."

A seminar session last week in Denver.
Mark Manger
A seminar session last week in Denver.
Information, please: Attorney Paul Grant views Shell 
as an Internet pioneer.
John Johnston
Information, please: Attorney Paul Grant views Shell as an Internet pioneer.

In 1974, when Suzanne Shell was seventeen years old, her father punched her in the face.

It was an isolated event, but it had a profound effect on her life. Her family was investigated; despite being a straight-A student, a cheerleader and a member of the marching band at her Minnesota high school, she was labeled an "out-of-control teenager" and placed in a foster home for her entire senior year.

Compared to the horror stories of abuse and neglect in foster care that she's collected over the past decade, Shell's brush with the child-protection system was relatively benign. "I was in a very good foster home," she says. "Still, I was nothing more than a live-in babysitter and housekeeper. And it disturbed me how the social worker and my foster parents would speak so badly about my father. That incident didn't define who he was as a father, but they felt the need to constantly undermine my relationship with him."

Shell went on to marry, have two sons, divorce and remarry. (At seventeen, she also gave birth to a daughter that she gave up for adoption.) In 1991, after moving to Colorado, she had an even more traumatic encounter with social services when her oldest son, Jacob, accused her second husband of child abuse. Dennis Shell had spanked his thirteen-year-old stepson with a martinet, a kind of cat-o'-nine-tails with leather straps, after an argument during which the boy yelled at him. The couple was living in Elizabeth at the time, and Elbert County officials temporarily placed Jacob in foster care.

Shell says she witnessed the spanking, which was Jacob's first in nearly a year. "I didn't feel eight swats were excessive, given his age, his size, and his offense," she writes in her self-published book, Profane Justice: A Comprehensive Guide to Asserting Your Parental Rights. "It was part of our clearly defined plan for discipline.... Frankly, if Dennis hadn't spanked him, I would have. He deserved it."

Dennis Shell took his case to trial and was acquitted. Jacob eventually went to live with his father. Three years later, Shell's youngest son also made what she calls "false accusations" of abuse and moved in with his father. Neither child ended up in the custody of the state, but Shell blames "the corrupt child-protection system" for the loss of her children.

"Rather than breaking me, these trials have made me strong," she writes in her book. "I have been called to use this strength to break the profane system that destroys God's righteous families and subverts parental authority over their children."

Although her husband was acquitted, the abuse case cost the couple thousands in legal fees. Shell put an ad in the local newspaper, seeking other parents who'd had similar experiences. She compiled interviews, went online and visited libraries to research the law and find out what options parents had when they felt they were unjustly accused. "After five years, I had a lot of the answers for what people could do to defend themselves," she says. "I didn't know what to do with it, so I wrote a book."

Shell wrote a slim version of Profane Justice in two weeks in 1997. (The second edition, published in 2001, weighs in at just under 600 pages.) She set up a website loaded with legal information and sample pleadings and began exchanging information with family-rights groups around the country. She started her own group, the American Family Advocacy Center, which she describes as "a network of people around the country who want to take advantage of the training I have to offer." Soon she began conducting seminars and accepting invitations to speak at conferences.

She also began to offer her services, free of charge, as a consultant to parents enmeshed in the court system, videotaping many of their stories for what she hopes will be a documentary series exposing the excesses of the child savers. So far, this has not proven to be a lucrative career move.

"I don't make enough money to pay the costs of printing my books and mailing them out," she says. "When I go to seminars, I tell people to pay for my hotel and travel up front -- and they often don't, and I end up in the hole from that, too."

Many journalists would consider Shell's dual roles as family advocate and documentary producer as a conflict of interest, but she regards them as complementary activities in her crusade. She believes that child-protection workers often exaggerate abuse claims and that official transcripts are sometimes edited to suit the officials involved, so she's developed almost a mania for documenting and recording as much as possible; she even persuaded Judge Lucero to allow her husband to videotape her contempt-of-court hearing. Most courts don't allow recording devices, but in Profane Justice, Shell urges parents to tape every D&N hearing, even if they have to do so secretly.

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