Beyond Contempt

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

Her camera has been a source of controversy in courthouses and capitol buildings. Two years ago, while covering a spanking case in Wisconsin, Shell ran afoul of a sheriff's deputy who didn't want her shooting in the Walworth County Courthouse. Shell insisted that she had permission to videotape in public areas; the dispute ended with the deputy arresting her for "obstructing an officer." The charge was later dismissed. Other unhappy encounters in court hallways over Shell's video work have prompted her to seek an escort by deputies in some jurisdictions, including El Paso County.

"I'm tired of getting kicked out of courtrooms and being accused of causing a disturbance," she says.

Her tapes are important, she adds, because she's not the only one making a record. She claims to have been followed by a tag team of police cars on drives into Colorado Springs. She's convinced that unknown forces were tapping her phones for a time, with or without a warrant. Since the courts began pursuing her over her alleged unauthorized practice of law, even cries in the night from parents desperate for guidance are not above suspicion.

"I presume that when people call me asking me for help, it's a trap," she says. "Every phone call that goes in or out of my house is recorded."


Colorado's Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel receives eighty to a hundred complaints a year concerning the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). That's about 4,900 fewer complaints than it receives about lawyers behaving badly.

Most UPL reports concern immigration consultants who bilk new arrivals of their wages with promises of a green card, "estate experts" who mess up elderly clients' wills and trusts, or document-preparation companies that have gone from selling legal forms to improperly offering legal advice.

Last year, with a budget of $3,500 devoted to such cases, the office completed seventy UPL investigations. Thirty complaints were dismissed. Fourteen were settled with a strong cautionary letter, another fourteen with informal agreements. In ten cases, the office sought an injunction. Only two were deemed serious enough to merit contempt proceedings; one was the case of Suzanne Shell.

Hearings in attorney disciplinary matters are held in a small courtroom in an office building in downtown Denver. The room is usually sparsely populated by errant attorneys and their attorneys, but for the Shell matter, it was packed with her supporters.

They included Lisa Byrne, the woman from Teller County who'd sought Shell's aid in a complicated abuse investigation; a young man named Robert who was planning a public rally of mad-as-hell fathers, which would involve dressing up in fright wigs to demonstrate "how the family court system has turned us into clowns"; Linda Sanders, a paralegal who'd authored her own attack on the courts, Exposed! Tyranny on the Bench in Colorado; and Christine Korn, a Penrose woman whose daughter and granddaughter are at the center of one of the D&N cases that triggered the contempt charge against Shell.

It's not often that subjects of the Supreme Court's wrath show up with their own entourage, but then, little about the Shell case is typical. Her defenders were outraged that she was on trial rather than the attorneys and social-service types she defies. After the hearing ended, they were eager to offer testimonials, to explain how Shell had provided aid and advocacy when the system was bearing down on them and their own attorneys were ignoring them -- and how she avoided crossing over the line into unlicensed lawyering herself.

"Suzanne did nothing in our case," says Korn, who testified on Shell's behalf. "All she did was say, ŒHere are the resources, here's where you can look for the answers in the law.'"

"I was a single parent with six kids, fighting social services, my ex-husband, his family and all their attorneys," says Byrne. "And I won. I went through two treatment plans, two psychological evaluations -- whatever I had to do to get my kids back. I tap-danced faster than you can imagine. I'm a bright woman; I can write my own stuff. But Suzanne was there to offer support."

Parents who are in fear of losing their children, Byrne explains, will often agree to almost anything. "It's terribly emotional, and that's why people like Suzanne are important," she says. "She has the ability to be detached from the emotional aspect of it and focus on what matters. You need someone who can give you information and hope."

Yet the kind of information Shell peddles has its own emotional wallop. Profane Justiceis less a sober guide to dealing with the courts than it is a declaration of war, a take-no-prisoners guide to guerrilla tactics for God's righteous families. Although it starts with a disclaimer that the author in no way endorses child abuse, the book quickly asserts that most D&N actions are unwarranted or overblown; they are, in Shell's view, gestapo-like intrusions into family life that mistake poverty for neglect and disrupt the parents' ability to discipline their children as they see fit.

"Parental rights should only be terminated if there is credible evidence that the parents have measurably harmed the child, physically or mentally," Shell says. "I'm talking a serious injury. The bond should not be casually severed. This is a death penalty for the family."

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