Beyond Contempt

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

Neither woman was represented by an attorney in the federal case, which was dismissed early last year and is now being appealed.

Paul Grant, Shell's attorney in the contempt case, believes that Marshall's order was out of bounds. "That's called making it up as we go," he says. "The judge has no authority to ban all contact. If the mother had been declared mentally incompetent and a guardian had been appointed, the court could act to protect her. But Suzanne certainly had legitimate claims that her rights were violated, and so were the mother's."

Yet the federal case soon became one more exhibit in the mounting investigation of Shell for unauthorized practice of law. Anyone can file a lawsuit on her own behalf, but Shell had signed the initial complaint on April's behalf, too, as her "agent." Even though April later signed for herself, the Supreme Court's regulation counsel regarded this as another instance of Shell attempting to represent someone in a legal matter and included it in the contempt citation, along with an account of Shell's alleged interference in Kender's two D&N cases.

Ruffled feathers: When Suzanne Shell isn't tending to 
the poultry on her farm in eastern El Paso County, she 
conducts seminars in parental rights around the 
Mark Manger
Ruffled feathers: When Suzanne Shell isn't tending to the poultry on her farm in eastern El Paso County, she conducts seminars in parental rights around the country..

Shell's defense to the charges was simple: There was no evidence that she knowingly violated the Supreme Court's order. Grant summoned family members of the two mothers, who swore that they had drafted the inflammatory court motions -- without Shell's help. Christine Korn, April's mother, testified that she'd visited several websites, including Shell's, but modified the forms she found to suit April's case and explained them to her daughter before filing them. She and April never even met Shell face-to-face until late in the case, she said, although April had granted Shell power of attorney months earlier.

"I helped to draft them with my kids," Korn said. "We were frustrated at being low-income and not being able to afford help and being stuck with whatever [attorney] they gave you."

An Oklahoma man named Steve LaBrue testified that he'd helped the mother in the other case, his girlfriend's daughter, draft her own pleadings because they, too, were frustrated with Kender's representation. "There couldn't have been a more grassy, moss-on-the-log lawyer," LaBrue said. "Basically, he didn't do much."

As for the federal case, Grant argued that Shell and April had a right to file their own lawsuit, however inexpertly prepared. All his client had done to get the grand poobahs of the law in such a tizzy was write the imperious letters to Kender -- which Kender blew off.

"To give strong legal directives to a lawyer is not the unauthorized practice of law," Grant said. "Has Suzanne Shell acted as an advocate? Absolutely. She advocated that a lawyer represent a family's interests."

Deputy regulation counsel James Coyle, who served as the prosecutor in the case, countered that the letters to Kender were clearly offering legal advice, in defiance of the state's highest court. "She knew of her obligations," Coyle told Judge Lucero. "It couldn't have been any clearer to her. By various means and ways, she's attempted to get around the order."

Early in the hearing, Coyle indicated that he was seeking punitive sanctions against Shell, including up to thirty days in jail. As it ended, he said he'd settle for a $2,000 fine for each instance of contempt of court -- plus attorneys' fees and costs, of course.

Whether Shell is punished for her ferocious advocacy or not, there's no denying that she's tapped into something dark and volatile in one of the most furtive areas of the legal system. The currents of parental rage, panic and frustration coursing through many D&N cases are what power her crusade; without them, there would be no family-advocacy movement.

It's tempting to dismiss that movement as a collection of misfits who'd rather blame the government than confront their own faulty parenting. But Shell's clients all have stories of how they've been marginalized and humiliated by the system that was supposed to help their family. They talk about caseworkers who write devastating reports about them based on hasty and infrequent visits, court-appointed lawyers who never return phone calls or e-mails, and a bewildering labyrinth of court hearings and treatment plans that make endless demands on their patience and meager incomes.

April's mother says she went online to try to figure out what to do because no one would explain the court process to her. "It's like being a deer in the headlights," Korn adds. "April is so completely helpless to fight back. She's the person everybody in this community brings their baby to for babysitting. Kids love her. To take her own child away from her is just cruel beyond belief."

Korn has set up a website of her own that documents April's battles. She claims that social workers have pressured April to give up her nine-year-old daughter for adoption practically since she was born and have urged her to move out of the house she shares with Korn and two brothers. Korn admits that the family is struggling financially and that the house is often messy, but she's posted photos purporting to show that it's not the "filthy and unhealthy environment" that caseworkers claim it is. She blames the head-lice problem that triggered the D&N case on her granddaughter's school and says that social services overreacted.

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